I was one of those whose life was influenced and indeed changed by Lopez’ Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men...
14 March 2019 | Robert Macfarlane | The Guardian
I first encountered Barry Lopez’s work in 1997, buying a copy of Arctic Dreams from a Vancouver bookshop because I was attracted by the picture of an iceberg on the cover, and intrigued by its subtitle: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.
I subsequently read it while walking the west coast of Vancouver Island over several days. Arctic Dreamswas to me – as it has been to so many others – a revelation. It was a life-changing book. Its braiding of cultural and natural history, archaeology, ethnography, philosophy and something very like prose-poetry was both audacious and graceful.
Lopez broke open for me the possibilities of what we still weirdly call “non-fiction” (thereby defining it only in negative and restricting relation to fiction). I was only, of course, catching up with what millions of readers had known for a decade: Arctic Dreams was recognised as a landmark work immediately on publication in 1986, winning a National Book award and staying in the US bestseller lists for months. It has never been out of print and now, in our fast-warming world, reads as a premonitory elegy for a vanishing Arctic.
Like many who came to Lopez first through Arctic Dreams, I sought out much of his other work, compelled by its stylistic adventure, its ethical address and the secular spirituality of land that it advanced – evident especially in its deference to traditional ecological knowledge, and to animals as tutelary presences.
I read Of Wolves and Men(1978), as well as Crossing Open Ground (1988) and About This Life (1998) – two slender essay collections that are, to my mind, stone-cold classics – and I explored Lopez’s fiction, from Desert Notes(1976) to The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren(1994).
All the while I waited impatiently for his next full-length work of non-fiction – the follow-up to Arctic Dreams. For almost two decades I waited. Still it did not come. Would it ever? Then I began to hear whispers; there was a title, Horizon. There was a huge typescript, 30 or more years in the travelling and writing, undergoing meticulous revisions.
Now, at last, that book has sailed into view. Anticipation often leads to overdetermination, and overdetermination to disappointment. Not so in this case. Horizon is magnificent; a contemporary epic, at once pained and urgent, personal and oracular. It is being described as Lopez’s “crowning achievement”, but I prefer to see it less teleologically as a partner to Arctic Dreams, and the late enrichment of an already remarkable body of work.
In his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Walter Benjamin reflected on the possibility of representing one’s life cartographically. Horizon comes as close as any book I know to realising this ambition.
It tells the story of Lopez’s life through six main landscapes – from Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast to the Queen Maud Mountains of Antarctica, by way of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, the Turkana Uplands of East Africa and Port Arthur in Tasmania.
Place becomes the means of fathoming time; the book also moves over its course from Lopez as an “unsuspecting boy, a child beside himself with his desire to know the world, to swim out farther than he can see”, to Lopez now – an “elder” who carries a huge cargo of wisdom but is unsure how best to land it or what good it might do. The life journey told here is one from “longing to go” to “having gone”; it may also theologically be characterised as one from hope to doubt.
It has always been among Lopez’s great powers as a writer to bring the natural world to resonate metaphysically, without treating it as just another form of resource.
Throughout Horizon, matter is present both as itself and as metaphor – from the great storm that threatens Cape Foulweather in the first chapter, to the tiny, ancient flakes of “debitage” (knapped and discarded flint) over which he stoops in the Thule region of the Canadian Arctic. Again and again, phenomenal presences – birds, elk, rocks, ice – ring like struck bells in the mind. Of these, the most recurrent is that of the horizon itself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson described the horizon as the “point of astonishment”, mischievously converting it to a thing that it is not. For a horizon is always a line and never a point. The word comes from the Greek hóros, meaning “boundary”; whether that boundary seals the eye in or summons it on depends on circumstance.
Early on, Lopez describes setting up a telescope on Cape Foulweather and “working the ocean’s horizon from right to left … the beckoning line where the dark edge of the ocean trembled against the sky”.
The sweep he makes is a probing of space, but we understand it also to be a prospecting of the future. To look to the horizon has long been – for mariners, explorers and fieldworkers of all kinds – the simplest form of augury. What weather is coming?
The Anthropocene answer to that is, of course: “the worst imaginable – and fast”. The event horizon of climate change is swiftly narrowing its noose. Lopez’s writing throughout this book is pulled taut between his need to register the extreme urgency of the environmental crisis, and his long-held belief in time, patience and the careful observation of other cultures as the basis for a fix: “As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative.”
“One of the penalties of an ecological education,” the US conservationist Aldo Leopold famously noted, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” The wounding has intensified drastically since Leopold’s remark, but the loneliness has decreased. Environmental anxiety – “psychoterratica” in Glenn Albrecht’s jagged term – is now widespread; at least one has company for one’s fears. Lopez quotes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski on “the mutilated world”, and speaks himself of “the throttled Earth” that “is now our home”.
Horizon is a deeply wounded book. It grieves for harm done and harm ahead. “I want everyone here to survive what is coming,” Lopez says. A lifetime’s training in listening to others has left him vastly empathic – blessed and burdened with a love for all.
A poetry of pity is present here that is recognisable from Arctic Dreams. What is new is the fury. In a startling passage, he excoriates “the hedge fund manager who amasses material wealth with no thought for the fate of the pensioner he cheats”, calling him “a kind of suicide bomber”.
Lopez sets forth a running argument with free-market capitalism and fiduciary duty, for causing us to “characterise other people as vermin in the struggle for market share”, to “navigate without an ethical compass”. He reports on the “cultural detonation” under way on the Burrup Peninsula in western Australia, where “25,000 years’ worth of Aboriginal rock art” have been bulldozed to allow industrial development; petroglyphs turned to “construction debris”, “the flayed walls of the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, dumped in a barrow ditch”.
Lopez is happiest at high and low latitudes. The chapters on the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica are superb sustained pieces of writing set in “siren landscapes”; short books in themselves, really.
The “dark threads” of both places are traced and acknowledged, but – more distant from the frontlines of atrocity – Lopez is freer to focus and to roam. He accompanies specialists – archaeologists, native hunters, polar scientists – and learns to read place as they do. Here, as in previous books, his respectful fascination for indigenous communities is apparent; especially their powers of resilience, skilful adaptation and community-based decision making under pressure.
Lopez himself is also a veteran fieldworker, of course; his skills are those of attention and interpretation. In one of the few even faintly comic moments in the book, he recounts how the Inuit hunters refer to him as naajavaarsuk, the ivory gull, a species distinguished by its habit of “standing on the perimeter of the action, darting in to snatch something when there’s an opening”.
One might add – though Lopez does not – that he is also an isumataq, a storyteller who “creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself”. The achievement of Lopez’s work has always been ontological before it is political; a “redreaming”, to use his verb, of the possibilities of human life.
Horizon’s brilliant last chapter describes the weeks he spent searching for meteorites in the Antarctic. At 7,500ft in the Queen Maud Mountains, the flow patterns of ice have created a “concentrating mechanism” that causes meteorites fallen on to the ice cap over thousands of years to gather on a “stranding surface”.
Here, “fragments from the asteroid belt, from Mars and from Earth’s moon, find their way eventually into the planet’s upper mantle”. Holding a meteorite in his palm, Lopez considers “the history of each one in the gigantic sweep of time … they suddenly seemed wilder than any form of life I’d ever known. Like the wind, they opened up the landscape.”
This sense of the vibrancy of more-than-human matter shivers throughout the book; his glittering prose becomes a concentrating mechanism and stranding surface for such moments.
Horizon is long, challenging and symphonic. Its patterns only disclose themselves over the course of a full, slow reading. Rhythms rise and surge across 500 pages; recursions and echoes start to weave.
This is a book to which one must learn to listen. If one does, then – to borrow phrases from Lopez – “it arrives as a cantus, tying the faraway place to the thing living deep inside us”. He has given us a grave, sorrowful, beautiful book, 35 years in the writing but still speaking to the present moment: “No one can now miss the alarm in the air.”
• Horizon by Barry Lopez is published The Bodley Head (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.