What I’m Reading: Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, Barry Lopez

Author: Mark Phillips

If I were to join one of the posses now galloping about in search of books and words to find guilty, it would be in hope of arresting the phrase “nature writer.” I have never known of a writer to be characterized as a “people writer” — well, maybe if he was employed by People magazineand I doubt that the Mayans abandoning their cities during prolonged periods of drought supposed a demarcation between themselves and the landscape. A “nature writer,” given the nexus between humans and the rest of nature, is first and last an unadorned writer.

Lopez Burning

In Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, a posthumously published collection of essays, author Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A., embraces the natural world of which humanity is part, as does most of his other work: Arctic Dreams, which received the 1986 National Book Award; the seminal Of Wolves and Men, published in 1978; and the other widely read stories, essays and books that comprise his contribution to our vision.

The essays in Embrace are expressions of expansive yet intimate sight. The well-traveled Lopez writes of ice, seas, rivers, deserts, cities. He treats borders of time and place as social and political constructs. To Lopez, environmental destruction anywhere is environmental destruction everywhere; what we discover about “primitive” people instructs us about “civilized” people; the 19th-century massacres of Native Americans and the 20th-century Shoah are a historical two-way mirror; what we learn about free and confined animals, we learn about free and confined people. A reader must give close attention to the place-and-time transitions within Lopez’s mingled world — perhaps too much attention. It’s not that he fails to differentiate or focus, but it seems that he aims for intimacy with all of life. Whether such expansive closeness is possible, I’m doubtful — but Lopez suggests we begin by asking ourselves, “How does a person love?” By which I assume he means: How unselfishly, how widely?

In her introduction to Embrace, the critic and essayist Rebecca Solnit writes, “The love of a place can sustain a life, and we usually talk as if it’s an unreciprocated love, a one-way street. These essays show why that is wrong.” Of his relationship with Oregon’s McKenzie River, which runs close to his former home — burned by a forest fire prior to his death — Lopez recalls, “Much of what I know about integrity, constancy, power, and nobility I’ve learned from this river, just as I’ve learned the opposite of these things — impotency, fecklessness, imprisonment — by walking across the dam on Blue River, a tributary of the McKenzie, and by standing on Cougar Dam on the river’s South Fork, another tributary.”

Lopez is sometimes characterized as a spiritual writer. He was raised as a Catholic and attended Notre Dame, although he tells us that while there he began to drift away from Catholicism except for its crossfired intellectual and mystical aspects. He felt a connection to the Holy Mother throughout his life, but at Notre Dame he became somewhat alienated from Catholicism in part because the University of his time, like some other institutional manifestations of Catholicism, excluded women and had few Protestants and even fewer Jews and agnostics in its student body. When he says of the student body, “We were middle-class white youths, being taught to perpetuate our religious and economic values throughout the world,” he is echoing gently the philosopher Kierkegaard’s emphatically ungentle criticism of his fellow Christians as an unreflective herd. Which raises a question: If Lopez is a spiritual writer, what sort?

If I had to attach a label to him, it would be, despite the oxymoron, that of Christian animist: Love both thy neighbor and all remnants of the unsubdued earth. Many Christians are environmentalists, Pope Francis among them, but in Embrace, Lopez is more than a pragmatic environmentalist or a Catholic who feels a duty to preserve God’s creation; his Holy Mother verges on being the earth. After college, he began to travel to remote regions where, he writes, “Much of what I could see, to employ a noun popular in some Catholic circles when I was young, was the culture of heathens, though these foreign epistemologies and metaphysics always appeared to me, on reflection, to be recondite and profound.” When he happens upon a knapped projectile point, he fingers it with awe but returns it with devotion to where it was found. When he sees “the afternoon sun light up the surface” of a river “like a sheet of gyrating metal,” he thinks, “One day I will enter right here and not return.”

Yet Lopez wasn’t a Transcendentalist, a transfigured Romantic. In Embrace, he never looks away when confronted with natural suffering and death to instead seek immanence in a sunrise or waterfall. “The tusks of angeyehaq are distinctive. They bear the claw marks of seals the walrus has caught, gripped tightly, and eaten alive.” There, too, the image of God might be found. Or God in some actuality.

Lopez’s love of the natural world was profound, but like almost all of us, he contributed to environmental degradation. In his essays, he frequently mentions his travel in an airplane, helicopter, boat or car; over the years, he traveled to and within 80 countries. He reports without irony that before making a largely gasoline-fueled journey across sections of the American West, he had “written down some notes about coal-fired power plants.” He adds, “The Grand Canyon is particularly shrouded in Los Angeles’ pallid air; the Four Corners country is blighted by exhaust from a coal-fired energy complex nearby.”

Here it strikes me that a little myopia can be a good thing. Thoreau — one of our few American seers — undertook journeys to Cape Cod, Maine and Minnesota, yet otherwise was seldom far from home: “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.” But maybe I’m being unfair. Wouldn’t more of us think of wolves as threats, as demons of the wild, if Lopez had not written Of Wolves and Men? How much less would we know and care about the largely pristine and yet ecologically threatened Arctic if he had not written Arctic Dreams? Neither book could have been written without travel, without some harm to the natural world. Perhaps none of us can avoid being both the angeyehaq walrus and its gripped seal.

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World evokes the increasingly threatened beauty of our plundered and overheated planet. Each essay is also a confession of Barry Lopez’s burning love for human beings and the world we inhabit. Together the essays comprise a travelogue, reflection and polemic in a collection of generally seamless art. “Is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and say to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?” Lopez asks. In this posthumous collection of his later writings, he answers his own question.

Mark Phillips, a regular contributor to this magazine, lives in southwestern New York. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Commonweal, The American Scholar, The Sun, Salon, New York Times Magazine and other journals.