What I’m Reading: Horizon, Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

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I decided to go back through Horizon, the vast, autobiographical voyage taken by Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A., to some of the most remote places on Earth over a lifetime of exploration and authorship. My intent was to pull from the 500-page opus some of the most poignant, incisive, eloquent excerpts.   

So I went about marking some: “At virtually every moment the entirety of the valley is visible to me, a man standing there like a sparrow on the floor of a cathedral with its roof missing.”

And: “This, at any rate, is the belief that guides me here, a belief that the physical land — a broadly encompassing term — is sentient and responsive, as informed by its own memory as it is by the weather, and offering within the obvious, the tenuous.”

And: “Setting off again, I sometimes threw my arms up involuntarily, an expression of incomprehension that the world here in the middle of a polar desert could be so intensely alive, so elegant. The emotions born of what I was taking in, all the filaments of creation, peaked in feelings of tenderness toward everything here, a vulnerability to this life.”

As I revisited his expeditions to Skraeling Island and eastern equatorial Africa and Tasmania, I bookmarked pages with strips of paper and highlighted passages with pencil notes. Before long, however, I had quickly identified 16 such specimens — already too many to share here. But here’s another — about the time in Tierra del Fuego when he crossed paths with an old man on the road to Puerto del Hambre, whose spectral presence led Lopez to write: “We go on professing confidently what we know, armed with a secular faith in all that is reasonable, even though we sense that mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty.”

This is a considerable conclusion for Lopez to have attained. He has journeyed through a lifetime of discovery — joining scientists on their explorations, living with those native to the most elemental of landscapes, heeding those writers, philosophers, artists and naturalists whose truths carry the wisdom of the human race.

In doing so, he has been resolutely attentive to the scientific mentality of disciplined and objective verification. He has — without romance or rhapsody — conveyed the reality and integrity of native peoples. His writing — in Horizon as well as his other landmark books, Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams — is flush with factual detail, keen observations and reverential respect for authenticity, precision and accuracy. It is grounded in the hard edges of the real world, yet poetic in the use of language.

These passages are also fetching in their humanness. Lopez rarely and measuredly shares himself personally in his work — although his lifetime achievement speaks articulately of the man. His principles, values, beliefs and genius reside in his prose, his storytelling, the truths he finds through others, then chooses to share.

It is tempting to call him a “nature writer” (and he assuredly belongs in the pantheon of America’s great nature writers). But Lopez spans categories, his work is encompassing. His subject matter is no less than the place of the human species, not only on this planet but also within the context of the universe. His literary achievements and the profundity of his assessment of human civilization and the natural landscape argue for a place among our wisest thinkers.

There is also in Horizon a telltale sadness. Lopez knows very well what is facing the Earth and its inhabitants in the decades ahead. It shows itself in passages such as this — characteristic Lopez, catching that singular moment, this time while accompanying scientists in Antarctica, where they observe penguins.

“From my vantage point I can see tints of green and turquoise in the barrier face of the ice shelf, phantom colors, some of them. The changing angle of the sun lifts these pastels out of the ice and then releases them.”

He adds: “The hour we spend with them is intimacy without narration, an experience without increments of measured time. The unvoiced emotions we felt, which we mention to one another later, include inexplicable tenderness, moments of soaring elation. In Antarctica, where death seems to lurk more than it does in other places, each of us is drawn strongly to anything as clearly alive as these birds. Feelings of affinity with these free animals, a sense of shared fate with them, seemed to go deeper and to come on more quickly than elsewhere.”

There is, finally, also that moment in Hawaii, after visiting Pearl Harbor with his grandson, seeing a woman whose leap of beauty brings a kind of redemption to human sinfulness and the ominous tragedies facing the planet and its people. He writes: “Just then a handsome Japanese woman striding along the pool’s edge makes a graceful, arcing dive into the water. An impulsive act. A scrim of water rises around her like the flair of a flamenco dancer’s skirt. The pool water shatters into translucent gems.

“In the beauty of this moment, I suddenly feel the question: What will happen to us?”

A paragraph later, having spotted his grandson in the ocean surf, he repeats the question:  “What is going to happen to all of us now, in a time of militant factions, of daily violence?

“I want to thank the woman for her exquisite dive. The abandon and grace of her movement.

“I want to wish each stranger I see in the chairs and lounges around me, every one of them, an untroubled life. I want everyone here to survive what is coming.”

Horizon is a major work, a fitting consummation of a lifetime’s expedition. The intensive reporting, engaging narratives and breadth of perspective are impressive. But it’s those numinous distillations of Lopez’s thinking that I marked for future contemplation — and prayer.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.