Travel and natural history combine in ‘Horizon’ by Barry Lopez

National Book Award winner Barry Lopez mines his travel diaries of exotic trips to celebrate the continents he's visited and also to muse on the state of the environment.  

'Horizon' by Barry Lopez, Alfred A. Knopf, 572 pp.

“Hurricane mind” is how Barry Lopez describes the churning inside his head: He sets down thoughts and observations, sometimes apparently willy-nilly, that come off the page at the reader like a gale-force wind. The results can be dizzying, but they're never less than entertaining.

Lopez won a National Book Award in 1986 for “Arctic Dreams,” which is considered a classic of natural history and travel writing. In Horizon, he takes us on a journey through his recollections, revisiting some of his past wanderings through his mind’s eye. To describe these travels – to the Galapagos Islands, northern Canada, eastern Africa, Tasmania and Australia, and Antarctica – he’s culled through his journals to see if any fresh truths are revealed. What will the horizon surrender this time around? “Memory and imagination come into play. The unknown future calls out to the present and to the remembered past, and in that moment of expansion, the imagined future seems attainable,” he writes. 

Traveling “helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another. Traveling encourages the revision of received wisdoms and the shedding of prejudices,” Lopez writes. It brings context to the fore and pushes absolute truths to the back aisles. “It helps one understand that all people do not want to be on the same road. They prefer to be on their own road.” To travel is to encounter both places and people, and Lopez traverses the psycho-geography as an artful participant/observer.

Lopez also confronts the urgent need to address our depredations as a species: environmental degradation, war, global warming, economic and political exploitation, desertification, collapsing fisheries, species extinction. And what about the “ethical erosion that engenders our disaffections with modern life,” considering, for example, racism, entrenched corruption, extrajudicial murders, the entitlement of power, barbarism, poverty, “the compulsion of religious fanatics to urge other humans to embrace the fanatics’ heaven”? Then there are the ethical qualities he tries to cultivate: empathy, compassion, listening carefully, respecting other viewpoints, courage, and justice.

These thoughts of ethical malaise sit side by side with some pretty crisp place descriptions: “the broad turquoise lagoon, the deep blue of a high-pressure sky, the long pink line of distant flamingos in front of a wall of green mangrove trees,” for example, or “some days I watched as pearly opalescence bathed an entire cloud. The interior of an abalone shell, mounted in the sky.” These descriptions likewise are informed by such observations as “how certain geographies can increase the intensity of certain pieces of music.” Lopez’s appreciation and sense of place is all about the big picture, the entirety, even if you can never entirely know a place, for “the deep nature of every place is not transparency. It’s obscurity.” 

Often enough, Lopez has a project in hand on these voyages other than, though never forsaking, just absorbing the atmosphere. In Africa, he is part of a search team looking for hominid bones. In Antarctica, he searches for meteorites. He writes with transporting precision about his days in the field and how he throws himself into the task. “I studied inorganic chemistry texts to better understand what my five companions were talking about.” That’s diligence. As history is vital to a sense of place, he has boned up on his reading for each of his destinations and dispenses it judiciously (as well as having minor preoccupations with Captain James Cook and colonial prisons).

For all his careful delineations, Lopez is master of the big question. “With the horsemen of a coming apocalypse so obliviously milling on the horizon, riding high-strung horses, why was there so little effort to bring other ways of knowing – fresh metaphors – to the table?”  Why, for the most part, was it only the white and well connected who had a seat? Why not indigenous elders, “people who valued wisdom as much or more than intelligence, whose traditional concerns lay with the fate of the group, not the self?” The answer is more complicated than dissecting a landscape, and Lopez handles both with aplomb.

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