In his first nonfiction book, Of Wolves and Men (1978), Barry Lopez described the appalling American slaughter of wolves—a long and ongoing vendetta driven by economic and political motives and by a quality of hatred that humans usually reserve for one another. “It seems to me,” he says, “that somewhere in our history we should have attempted to answer to ourselves for all this.” Between 1850 and 1990, according to Lopez, one to two million wolves were killed on the Great Plains alone. Why were so many killed, and with such a vengeance? Lopez: “I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it.” In the careful, formal way that Lopez—always a careful, formal writer—phrases these sentences you can hear his attention to the problem of personal and cultural parallax, the way the knowable shifts with the angle you know it from.
Throughout his career Lopez has insisted on the possibilities of our better nature while personally examining the evidence of our worse. In the 1970s he spoke with some of the surviving wolf-killers—who in the 1930s and 1940s littered the American West with strychnine baits—and he refuses to blame them as roundly as I, for one, might have done. But Lopez has never made a habit of rising up in judgment or condemnation, answering to ourselves for us. Instead he wonders, what would it mean to understand our place in the universe? What sort of courage would it take to admit that we don’t? He wants to find out whether the answers to these questions might make a difference in where we’re headed. For as he writes at the end of Horizon, his meditative new book, “What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air.”
Horizon begins with alarm as well, even though it isn’t really an alarmist’s book. In the prologue, Lopez is watching his grandson by a hotel pool in Hawaii. A Japanese tourist makes a graceful dive, shattering the water’s surface. “In the beauty of this moment,” he writes, “I suddenly feel the question: What will happen to us?” It isn’t the question that stings but the desire that follows: “I want everyone here to survive what is coming.” In another writer, this might be mistaken as a moment of self-dramatization or a tightening of suspense. But especially in Arctic Dreams (1986), his book about his travels in the extreme north—Alaska, Canada, and Greenland—Lopez has taught the reader to trust him, not as an elder or authority (roles he would disclaim) but as a privileged witness of his own being and all the different worlds he has urged it to inhabit. There aren’t many people to whom I listen happily while they…
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