A Barry Lopez book is never a quick read: “Each place on Earth goes deep.”
Of course, deftly sketched landscapes are one of his chief delights — and Horizon, suspended halfway between travelogue and memoir, offers plenty of them. But Lopez — who often chronicles himself wandering from one landscape to another, or away from the group he’s journeying with, or away from the initial reason for coming to a place — wants us, above all else, to consider. To find context and connections. To think about where to go from here. To take our time.
Whatever time is left.
Lopez is one of America’s foremost naturalist writers. His 1978 Of Wolves and Men was a finalist for the National Book Award; the seminal Arctic Dreams won it in 1986. After nearly 40 years of writing and scholarship, there’s plenty of ground to cover in Horizon, physical and otherwise: the Galapagos; Australia; Kenya; Antarctica. And, inevitably, one of the things he must consider is the way global climate change is altering these landscapes forever. (In a haunting moment, Lopez stands on a ship with two other travelers, struck wordless by the Arctic sea before them — “not a scrap of ice.”)
The book is ordered vaguely by locations, but things come in and out like the tide; at any moment, we loop back in time, we shift place, we meet him at a different age, we go entirely elsewhere. It makes for dreamlike reading, and these are clearly locations and memories meant to be savored. With his signature style, he filters the landscapes through cultural contexts, political history, and sharp physical observation. And he asks questions — explicitly, but also implicitly. What do we do when those in power consider the natural world a resource and not a protectorate? Can those who are knowledgeable be heard? Can we get back some of what we’ve lost? How do we learn to rely on each other? Who can lead with compassion in such hard times? Is it already too late? Will we survive?
Occasionally, it’s difficult going — not just because of the import of these questions, but because Lopez doesn’t shy away from himself in his telling, the sort of flawed humanity that makes one think about one’s own filters for geographies of all kinds. He engages often with the aftermath of colonialism in ecological and cultural landscapes (for the Inuit, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans); none of it cools his admiration for the ingenuity of Captain James Cook. His respect for Indigenous ways of conceiving nature is the result of years of listening; still, the book is peppered with outdated terminology. Though some things in a landscape are objective (ice that is gone is gone), these are pointed reminders that wherever you go, you have brought all of yourself with you.
The book is awash in sublime and brutal details, both in natural terms and cultural ones. (The mummified bodies of seals on Antarctica are melancholy; geologists omitting locations of findings to hide them from souvenir hunters is tragic.) Occasionally there’s an awkward personal anecdote that suggests people are harder for Lopez to navigate than landscapes — recollecting stilted interactions with colleagues and locals, operating on cultural assumptions, or struggling with moments of his own guilt. And it’s noteworthy that Lopez’s place in elevated and academic circles sometimes align him with power in ways that are discomfiting. (In an archaeological camp in Kenya, watching his team leader speak with an upset Turkana elder, he realizes the expedition only has the government’s permission, not that of the people whose ancestral lands they’re standing on — yet only one of those officially mattered.)
But Lopez is a welcoming host as he brings you across the world. He’s especially at home in the cold, and the chapters in the Arctic and Antarctica are full of passages that, in their painstaking physicality, lead inevitably to deeper psychological places. The painful clarity of Antarctic water and the euphoria of polar bumblebees in an otherwise-quiet Arctic landscape; the contrasts and unparallels of the long-abandoned stone dwellings of the Arctic Thule people and the much-more-recently-abandoned hut outside Cape Crozier where British soldiers hunted penguin eggs.
The Lopez we see in Horizon is someone making his farewells, but this is also the writer who had Arctic Dreams and made an elegy of roadkill in Apologia: still as interested in the cruelties of the world as in its beauties, as forgiving of human frailty as of the necessity of one animal hunting another, and eager to wonder about the unknowable in-betweens.
To him, it is all connected. Horizon is a biography and a portrait of some of the world’s most delicate places, but at heart it’s a contemplation of Lopez’s belief that the only way forward is compassionately, and together. Whether that’s possible he doesn’t examine; then again, he describes so many things that don’t seem possible — what’s one more horizon to aim for?
Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel is Icon.