From pole to pole, reimagining the future
It’s rare to come across a book that takes one far afield from the original focus presented by the artist at hand. Most books aim to keep the reader “at home,” so to speak, not venturing out and about into uncharted or unrelated territory.
In best-selling author Barry Lopez’s 550-page swan song, “Horizon” (Vintage Books, 2019), a non-fiction book of travel tales taking the reader around the globe to six fascinating regions of the world, this book is not about “location, location, location” alone, but about the current state of cultural and ecologial affairs that, at times, is like listening to the storyline on the nightly news.
Lopez’s voyage begins on the coast of his home state of Oregon on the eastern shore of the North Pacific Ocean and then Skraeling Island in the Canadian High Arctic; to Puerto Ayora in the eastern equatorial Pacific off the northern coast of South America; to the Turkwel River Basin in eastern equatorial Africa; to southeastern Australia in the state of Tasmania and New South Wales; and finally to Antarctica — a journey from pole to pole. For those who like to travel, each of these less-than-famous destinations is exciting and interesting enough in their own right and especially with Lopez’s writing genius and his additional notes and musings that make “Horizon” an almost apocryphal tome. Visiting some of the most desolate places on the globe, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in what he perceives as a broken world. A review by the Tampa Bay Times captures the essence of this engagingly powerful book and why it should be read by everyone: “Lopez is one of our great writers on the environment and the human relationship to it. His prose is beautiful, but what makes his nonfiction books so memorable is the sweeping reach of his mind.”
Early on, we get a sense of the scale and scope of Lopez’s vision:
“My desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader’s 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. At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future. Wherever I have traveled, I’ve wondered: what is going to happen to us? What is our fate if we do not learn to speak with each other over our cultural divides, with an indifferent natural world bearing down on us?”
Part ecologist, part archeologist, part botanist, part topographer, part historian and part sage, Lopez explores in detail the places he takes us in “Horizon.” In his sage’s voice he writes: “The question is how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in nature, in the world. As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative. My experiences in all the places I have visited and spent time in, point me toward an overriding and fundamental issue — the importance of preserving the human capacity to love.”
As the topographer and scribe, Lopez writes descriptively of his homeland along the Pacific coast of Oregon: “Each place on Earth goes deep. Some vestige of the old, now seemingly eclipsed place is always there to be had. The immensity of the mutable sea before me at Cape Foulweather, the faint barking of sea lions in the air, the nearly impenetrable groves of stout Sitka spruce behind me, the moss-bound creeks, the flocks of mew gulls circling schools of anchovies just offshore, the pummeling winds and crashing surf of late-winter storms — it’s all still there.”
While Lopez can write beautifully and even beatifically about the natural world, and does so in spades in “Horizon,” he can be equally poignant in his observations and descriptions. “However it might be viewed, the throttled Earth — the scalped, the mined, the industrially farmed, the drilled, polluted, and suctioned land, endlessly manipulated for further development and profit — is now our home.” Meanwhile, the curious anthropologist in Lopez is ever-searching for clues and evidence of the Earth’s history and our longtime habitation here. “Scientists have since found more pieces of the moon (and Mars) sitting on the ice in Antarctica,” he writes. Interesting stuff!
But, while we accompany Lopez to these unique spots on the planet and see them through his eyes, he keeps reminding us of the big questions that we must be addressing while lingering in nature’s gardens. “We will need the entire sum of human knowledge as it is encoded in all the world’s languages to truly understand and care for the planet we live on. Humans need to estabish a more relevant politics than the competitive politics of nation-states. And to found economics built not on profit but on conservation.” Along these lines, he goes on to say, “It’s diversity that ensures perpetuity. The loss of diversity threatens all life with extinction. Diversity has long been the central responsibility of wisdom keepers in every human society.” And it is in Lopez’s interest and respect for ancient peoples who lived in relative harmony and sustainability with the planet that he draws some of his own most prescient conclusions. “With the Indigenous people’s acute awareness of the depth and intricacy of the local, the myriad relationships that, attended to, create the sustaining wholeness of his immediate world, and with a visionary’s awareness of a fabric comprised of all these local universes, more options for humanity become apparent.”
Or as he cites from the ancient tradition of the Navaho: “... the infinite repetition of the cycles of life according to which there is beauty, harmony and health everywhere.” May it continue...
(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)