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 describe the state of their awareness. Lopez is usually one of them.
The early chapters of Horizon are dense with intention, with something more than a writer’s ordinary desire to explain where he’s going and how he plans to get there. In this book, Lopez is gathering incidents and reflections from twenty and thirty years ago instead of reporting on recent experience, as he did in Arctic Dreams. “As the years went on,” he writes, “I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.” Horizon is a kind of personal anthology arranged as nonsequential autobiography, an interrogative autobiography. The writer’s recurring statements of purpose serve almost as a guide to the book’s fragmentary, sometimes oblique structure.
You can hear Lopez’s insistence on questions of intent even in passages of historical narrative. For example, he’s interested in a nearly forgotten man named Ranald MacDonald, a sailor of Chinook origin who shipped aboard a whaler out of Sag Harbor in 1845 and made his way to Japan, which was a closed society at the time. MacDonald “believed someone had to warn the Japanese about what was coming”—about American sea power, that is. He taught several members of the imperial court to speak English, to the surprise of Commodore Matthew Perry when he entered Edo Bay to force open Japanese ports in 1853. In later life, MacDonald prospected in the Australian goldfields, then made his way to British Columbia and eventually settled on the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. But to Lopez, MacDonald isn’t only a cultural prophet, a survivor of a conquered Indian nation warning the Japanese about the fate that would soon overtake them. His “erratic” wanderings have something else to tell us: “He was never able to determine what he meant by his life.”
In Horizon, Lopez is trying to determine, for the reader and perhaps for himself, what he has meant by his own life. He portrays himself in many ways, but nearly always with characteristic modesty. He has spent his years, he says, pursuing “the kind of sensation that feels like insight.” He talks about his “flâneur’s search for nothing in particular” and his work “as a low-level field technician” on the scientific expeditions he often accompanies. He feels bound to share the things he has witnessed. “I wanted to respect and absorb the experience,” he says of his time in Antarctica—a “siren landscape” for him in his forties and fifties—“and I wanted to give it away to whoever might need it.” He remembers himself as a boy “always searching, even though he doesn’t really know what to look for.”
As for the immediate purpose of Horizon, Lopez hopes
to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives.
Perhaps, like me, you’ll need some time to sift through all the layers of purpose raveled in that sentence. Modesty, after all, isn’t necessarily simple or self-evident.
How do you determine what you mean by your life? Can we understand our place in the universe? In Horizon, as in Arctic Dreams, Lopez brings these enormous questions down to earth by rooting them in a series of landscapes. In a sense, Lopez is remapping the world, revisiting places of surprising starkness and beauty. He camps near archaeological sites where members of the Thule culture lived eight hundred years ago, in “the barren reaches of a polar desert” off the west coast of Greenland. He searches for hominid fossils in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, the least-experienced member of a team of Kamba men, from Kenya, who are highly skilled at finding tiny fossils, work Lopez describes as “a combination of abstract awareness and empirical efficiency.” He visits a former prison at Port Arthur, in Tasmania, where, because its horrors are historical, tourists comfort themselves with the belief that “extreme public violence toward people is no longer tolerated.” He travels to Antarctica and the Galapagos, and in Australia he makes his way to Botany Bay, near Sydney, where in 1770 Captain James Cook first made landfall—an instance of Lopez’s “habit of trying to see the places where Cook had disembarked.”
“Landscape” is a special word for Lopez; it evokes his core beliefs. The land is the entity he’s always investigating, whether he’s traveling with scientists or indigenous peoples or on his own. To him, the land is a creature, “an animal that contains all other animals…vigorous and alive.” It’s “sentient and responsive.” It’s also the source of language, which, Lopez writes, isn’t “something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land.” Even the oceans—so often regarded “as waiting grounds, empty places waiting to be defined by an event”—are “a type of consciousness” for Lopez, who adduces “a unique Polynesian epistemology” rediscovered only in the twentieth century: “The primary frame of reference was not land surrounded by water but a mass of water containing widely scattered bits of land.” The Polynesians inhabited the oceans the way other cultures, with equal percipience, have inhabited the land.
You can’t learn these ways of looking at land and water from within what Lopez handily calls “civilization.”* Nor will you find there his conception of animals, which, he wrote forty years ago, “are no more literally like us than are trees.” These are indigenous ways of knowing. The special value of Lopez’s work has always depended on his belief that scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge are parallel, not contradictory. This isn’t a philosophical conclusion. It’s an experiential one, drawn from years of travel and acquaintance with people whose way of inhabiting the landscape has nearly been lost.
In Arctic Dreams, Lopez describes being
on an arctic journey with Eskimos. Their resourcefulness, as well as their economy of action, bespeak an intense familiarity with the environment. Of course, they are the people there.
I’m struck by the implications of that last sentence—“they are the people there.” It evokes the way the land produces, over centuries, a kind of fittedness in its inhabitants, a fittedness that we, in “civilization,” have sacrificed. “Any latent wisdom there might be in the Eskimo position,” Lopez writes, “is overwhelmed for us by our ability to alter the land.” The tragedy—for indigenous peoples and for us—is that their wisdom is merely latent, where it survives at all. “What will we do,” Lopez asks in Arctic Dreams, “as the wisdom of our past bears down on our future?” By the writing of Horizon, this has become a different question, something like, how can we keep the future from crushing the wisdom of the past altogether?
There’s an extraordinary delicacy in what Lopez does—the way he relates to traditional, indigenous wisdom and the people who sustain it within their own lives. It comes from an awareness, in their presence, of his unfittedness. On the most basic level, Lopez, like the rest of us, is unable to inhabit the land the way Eskimos or Aboriginal peoples do because he doesn’t belong to it. Among the Pitjantjatjara, for instance, near Uluru (perhaps more familiar as Ayers Rock, in Australia’s Northern Territory), he realizes that “they were never outside a place looking in, they were incorporated within whatever we were seeing.” But Lopez finds it impossible to be incorporated in that way. They saw the same three dimensions he saw, but in a different manner, as if the memory of what they’d seen and what they were seeing at the moment, as well as the stories they’d heard that included Uluru, were all completely continuous.
On Skraeling Island (in the Canadian High Arctic, just off the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island), where the Thule once lived, “I tried to get out of myself, to enter the country.” But getting out of yourself isn’t that easy, especially for someone with a “hurricane mind,” where “the churning of esoteric information” never stops. “I would become so wedded to my thoughts, to some cascade of ideas,” he writes, “that I actually lost touch with the details that my body was still gathering from a place.” By contrast, his indigenous companions, when he was a young man in Alaska, “had situated themselves within a dynamic event.” Seeing a grizzly feeding on a caribou carcass, they would focus “on the part of the world of which, at that moment, the bear was only a fragment” and on the patterns in which that moment was embedded. The problem of dislocation—is it epistemological or ontological?—keeps recurring, and every time it does there’s a lesson to be drawn: “As much as I believed I was fully present in the physical worlds through which I was traveling over the years, I understood over time that I was not.”
From these repeated moments of unwanted self-awareness, Lopez garners a series of reminders, like the ones he issues himself before a morning hike in the Galapagos Islands. “Pay attention to small things I tell myself. Look closely at what are clearly not the answers to some of your questions. Do not presume that later you’ll be able to read about something you’ve witnessed today.” These notes to self can’t be paraphrased as, say, “remain open to experience.” Lopez is reminding himself of something he learned from his early “association with wolves”: what’s knowable is balanced by what’s hidden. They taught him that
we do not know very much at all about animals. We cannot understand them except in terms of our own needs and experiences. And to approach them solely in terms of the Western imagination is, really, to deny the animal.
This is a spiritual realization, but it’s also a practical one, based on common sense. “It is a simple truth of field biology,” Lopez writes, “that it is easy to miss and hard to figure out what, exactly, an animal is doing.”
The Western mistake, he explains, is to go looking for an “ultimate wolf reality,” an essentialist version of the animal that doesn’t exist for Alaskan natives like the Nunamiut. What you observe depends on how you observe, which in turn depends on how you’re placed in the landscape. For the Nunamiut, “the animal is observed as a part of the universe. Some things are known, other things are hidden.” To be “intricately fitted” into your world—like the wolf or the Eskimo—is to experience what Lopez calls the “impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself.” And to understand the animal, or the human, “apart from its background”—to destroy the reciprocal bond between habitat and inhabitant—“is to risk the collapse of both.” Throughout the pattern of Lopez’s knowing, the pattern of all the things he believes we can know, there runs a parallel awareness: that “mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty.”
So what’s to be done, now that we see “the horsemen gathering on our horizon” and feel the alarm they raise? That seems like the natural question while reading Horizon, but it isn’t the one that Lopez is asking. For Horizon is a book of conduct. Its question isn’t what should we do but how should we behave? Even that is unanswerable without asking something more fundamental: On what should we base our behavior?
Rather than reduce Horizon to a list of prescriptions or imperatives, let me suggest a few of what might be called its givens if they weren’t, in fact, so hard-won by everyone who understands them, including Lopez. They tend to come disguised as questions. Here’s one: “What if the perspective you could imagine for yourself, the foundation for your ethics and your politics, was not the condescending now of right now?” Here’s another: What if you were able “to see the world from someone else’s point of view without fearing the loss of [your] own position”? And this, perhaps most telling of all: “What would happen to our plans for survival if we were no longer stymied by a belief in the virtue of permanence or no longer distracted by the hope of returning to a world that has already come and gone?”
On their own, these questions are almost too speculative, too removed from the spatial, temporal, and biological realities that together form a landscape. Lopez reminds us that we need to start farther back, in our organism itself, with Darwin. He taught, says Lopez, that
Homo sapiens is an animal without a destination, and like all other animals is known only in its present form, a transitional form, even if that form…is stable for a long period of time.
Every day, in other words, “we advance figuratively into evolutionary darkness. And, because we are inescapably biological, we have no protection against extinction.” No protection, that is, except diversity. “Diversity is not a mere characteristic of life,” Lopez writes. It’s “a condition necessary for life.” He means more than biological diversity. He means diversity of languages and cultures, of behaviors and wisdoms that have vanished with the loss of native peoples, like the ones, “collectively referred to as Fuegians,” who had lived at the southern tip of South America. “What perished with their cultures,” he writes,
were their unique ideas of what it meant to be courteous, reverent, courageous, and just. What disappeared with them were their thoughts about what could be expected to be going on in the places into which we cannot see.
At the end of Horizon, describing a chapel at Port Famine, or Puerto del Hambre, in southern Chile—its walls covered with flowers, “religious medals, holy cards, ribbons, and handwritten notes imploring” the intercession of the saints—Lopez sums up, in a sentence, what it means to be human: it “is to live in fear in a world in which one’s destiny is never entirely of one’s choosing.” A similar phrase occurs earlier in the book, when he’s talking about the Navajo Beautyway ceremony, which lasts several days and in which one is “sung over” by a medicine person. “Beauty,” as he puts it, “refers to a high level of coherence existing everlastingly in the world.”
The purpose of the ceremony is to renew the presence of beauty within an individual by “reintegrating ourselves with a world over which we have no control.” To Western ears, “coherence” and “no control” don’t sound like they belong to the same realm: coherence seems to imply control. But this is the contradiction embedded in existence itself, the problem faced by every culture, which Lopez also describes in more familiar, but no less forbidding terms: the problem is “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.”
The way I would phrase Horizon’s central question, borrowing Lopez’s description of Eskimos, is this: How do we become the people in this world? It won’t surprise you to learn that the behavior—the wisdom—that Barry Lopez most admires belongs to the “formal elders” of traditional cultures, such as the Warlpiri, in Australia, or the Ainu, in Japan. What distinguishes them? Patience, the ability to listen, a great capacity for empathy. They’re able to work “outside the constructs of their own metaphors and myths, while at the same time attending to the ways in which their history is compelling them to act.” Like their people, they’re able to live “resolutely in the heart of every moment they found themselves in, disastrous and sublime,” and “they know the difference between a world that is being imposed on them and the freedom to choose the life they want.” But their wisdom isn’t personal, unique to themselves. It’s “part of the fabric of a community,” shared by all its members. “I enjoy their company,” says Lopez of Kamba men, like his friend Kamoya, “because they know in any given moment, as I do not, precisely where they are.”
“And why is civilization so hard on the people who turn it down?” Lopez asks. Given his experience and his themes, you’d think he might use the word ironically from time to time. But irony isn’t one of his tools. It’s as though to him language has a fixed ethical boundary, and irony transgresses it. This, along with his characteristic formality of syntax, helps explain the particular sobriety of his often beautiful prose. ↩