Thursday, September 19, 2019

Being There

My idea of camping out is checking into a motel with the windows open. And then there are people like Barry Lopez.

He sets up a tent in Cape Foulweather on the rugged Oregon coast, a violent storm on the way. From there he walks into an old-growth rain forest to experience the sense of being lost and the spatial closeness. He contrasts this with the wide open expanse of arctic regions where he lived with wolves or the fifty-foot waves he weathered between the Falkland Islands and Antarctica.

Lopez is an intrepid Nature writer. He is one of a kind. An essayist, winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction and also author of ten books of fiction. In fact his books erase categories. His latest, Horizon, published this year by Knopf might be called a memoir recalling six of his past adventures. Adventure is the wrong word. His life is devoted to encountering harsh ecosystems, their history, which is our history and the struggle for survival.

Above all else he is a humanitarian who somehow delivers a message of peril for our planet and, at the same time, offers hope.  His voice is both urgent and lyrical. He doesn’t just despair over clear-cut forests or land despoiled by fossil-fuel and mining interests. He subscribes to the notion that undisturbed land not only heals but can bring a distracted mind to a state of transcendence and release us to an awareness of the wondrous and salutary nature of the Other. Wondrous indeed was his witnessing a hundred kangaroos leaping in the Australian Outback. He mourns for the damage done by Europeans to the Asian sub-continent as well as to Africa and the Americas owing to their arrogance and rapacity.

Lopez reminds us that constancy is an illusion. In fact we may flux ourselves off the map. The Yupik and Inuit now live with this existential threat. It has been written about from every news source and shouted from every lecture hall but it can only be experienced by being there as Lopez does. What is regarded as a dreaded phenomenon to scientists is a numinous moment in time to Lopez. How these people strategize their survival and the thousands of indigenous folks who fought extinction before them, warrant our first-hand attention. We have much to learn from them.

Centuries ago the Polynesians navigated over ten million square miles of the Pacific Ocean which astonishes modern seafarers. They not only built sea-worthy vessels but followed the patterns of migratory birds, knew the language of ocean currents and read the stars with the precision of our G.P.S. The people of Easter Island share the same tongue as those in New Zealand three thousand miles away.

Lopez’s reverence for life and his prodigious quest for historical sources are rendered with his felt language. One afternoon I pondered the sense of compassion I felt for Captain Cook and his first landing In Australia. I was prompted to do this by the bright riot of afternoon sunbeams ricocheting from the calm surface of the bay, by the distant clatter of dry eucalypt leaves roiled by the wind and the towering fair-weather cumulus clouds above, with their convoluted cauliflower heads. Together, these framed for me a Prelapsarian scene…I experienced a generosity of spirit in myself I cannot always find. An uncomplicated love of the world.

Though acutely aware of the broad sweep of philosophy, geography, botany and history, his response to the natural world is awe rather than analysis. He writes palpably about his sense of time in the wild. In his words, there is some other way to understand the ethical erosion that engenders ...a social entropy which suggests these problems are intractable. He finds that undifferentiated space offers an altered sense of time passing allowing more room to maneuver. What halts us is simply a failure of imagination.

Through his contact with indigenous people from pole to pole
he is able to re-dream the world for us. Against our virulent xenophobia, he pleads for diversity, for hard listening to the aborigines and trampled people everywhere, the wisdom revealed in their story-telling. Art aspires to converse and such a conversation is imperative. 

I’ve been able to renew this 500 page book twice. Apparently there is no queue waiting. How can this be? Barry Lopez needs to be heard. His voice sings with a fierce defense of our planet along with a music aligned with the pulse of the earth.


  1. Wow, Norm, I cant believe I’ve never heard of Barry Lopez. He sounds amazing. I’ll check our library, and Abe Books, etc if the library doesn’t have him on their shelves.
    Thank you 😊

  2. I think he keeps a low profile but certainly worth reading. This book, Horizon, may be his last. I'm sure every library has his work.