"Horizon" by Barry Lopez. TNS
For more than 40 years, Barry Lopez has been one of our great writers on the environment and the human relationship to it.
His prose is beautiful, but what makes his nonfiction books, starting with “Of Wolves and Men” and his National Book Award-winning “Arctic Dreams,” so memorable is the sweeping reach of his mind.
He makes connections you might never have thought of before, yet they seem inevitable the instant you read them.
That quality permeates his new book, “Horizon.” Like much of his nonfiction, it’s a book about travel, one of his lifelong obsessions, but this time from an autobiographical angle. At 74, Lopez is looking back at his own life — and forward at the survival of his species, which is not at all a sure thing.
“However it might be viewed,” he writes, “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.
We know the wounds. We have come to accept them. And we ask, many of us, What will the next step be?”
In search of that next step, Lopez revisits his earlier travels, looking for changes in, and new perspectives on, some of the places he has been.
He writes about journeys that have taken him literally from one end of the globe to the other, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, with stops in Oregon, the Galapagos Islands, Kenya, Australia and elsewhere.
He does not travel to easy places. He joins a team looking for meteorites on the Antarctic ice shelf; he meditates on human evolution (and dodges mamba snakes) with archaeologists searching for hominid fossils in the Great Rift Valley.
Both trips take him on deep intellectual dives into the past.
Others engage him in more recent history, like his third trip to the Galapagos, the archipelago in the eastern Pacific that fired Charles Darwin’s understanding of evolution. Lopez writes of the beauty he sees there — flocks of flamingos feeding along the beaches, mountainsides dazzling with orchids in bloom — but also finds political controversy over ecotourism, the all-too-common conflict between conservation and profit.
Throughout the book, Lopez returns to the stories of two men of the 18th century, both extraordinary explorers, although one is far more famous: James Cook, the British navigator and cartographer who sailed thousands of miles through largely uncharted waters and mapped many lands previously unknown to Westerners, and Ranald MacDonald, born in what is now Oregon to a Scottish father and a Chinook mother, who in 1848 became the first American permitted to stay in isolationist Japan and teach English to its people.
“Horizon” is an epic journey for readers, 512 pages of text dense with natural and human history, adventure tales and miniature biographies, science of all kinds — biology, geology, anthropology and more — as well as personal memoir. It’s a book to read slowly and contemplatively despite the urgency of its mission.
Such knowledge is what we try to protect ourselves from as well. Even when we talk about climate change and environmental degradation, we seldom voice their most personal effects. If the planet becomes unsurvivable, it is not only polar bears and rain forests that will perish. It’s our grandchildren.
“What cataclysm, I often wonder, or better, what act of imagination will it finally require, for us to be able to speak meaningfully with one another about our cultural fate and about our shared biological fate?”
Tribune News service
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