A wisdom-keeper turns wisdom-sharer

By Barry Lopez
(Bodley Head, £25; paperback £10.99)

“TRAVEL/NATURAL HISTORY,” ventures the publisher’s classification on the back of this book. Well, those are certainly part of it. Horizon encompasses both the conquistadors’ lust for gold and the mining of Big Data; its author’s searches on the ice shelf for meteorites and in the desert for hominid fossils. It’s an angry book about the “throttled Earth” and what we have done to it and our fellow Earthlings while chasing “Western-style progress and its twin sister, profit”. It’s life-affirming, too, in its depictions of the wonders that remain. It runs to 512 pages plus another 60 of notes and index, which is a lot for our distractible times, but I’d urge you to read it. You’ll find it a lot smarter than your phone.

In North America, Lopez is a canonical writer, his books lauded by critics and set as texts for students of everything from environmental science to creative non-fiction. If he has until recently been less well known on this side of the pond, that’s no fault of Robert Macfarlane, who in his own brilliant lines on landscape has cited him often: Macfarlane says it was reading Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at 21 that made him want to be a writer.

Lopez began researching Horizon after he finished Arctic Dreams in 1986. The new book draws on a lifetime of travel and research; on a learning curve that takes him from his boyhood, wading into Long Island Sound off the coast of New York State and longing to see “what the skyline has cordoned off”, up to the present day, when at 74 what he’s eyeing on the horizon are “the horsemen of a coming [environmental] apocalypse”.

Key stops on his journey are western Oregon, the High Arctic, the Galapágos Islands, Kenya, Botany Bay in Australia and, finally, Antarctica. He keeps company not only with scientists, archaeologists, artists and local residents but also with three far-sighted figures from history: James Cook (“who sought to navigate where others had been satisfied merely to sail”), Charles Darwin and one Ranald MacDonald.

MacDonald (1824-1894), born in what’s now Oregon state to a Scottish clerk in the Hudson Bay company and the daughter of a Clatsop Chinook leader, was the first native speaker of English to teach the language in Japan — a country that had been closed to foreigners for two centuries before he arrived. He went there because he believed the Japanese were related to American Indians; he wanted to warn them that they would soon suffer as the Chinook had at the hands of aggressive European and American traders. In Lopez’s view, MacDonald, though his insights were ignored or dismissed during his lifetime because he was working-class and of mixed blood, “prefigured the utility of the bicultural mind in international affairs”.

Humanity, Lopez argues, may be falling prey to two misconceptions. One is that Homo sapiens has been evolving towards perfection (as opposed to simply adapting to environmental changes). The other is that approaches to life that have fallen or been swept away over the millennia are necessarily dispensable.

In a time when “permafrost” no longer means what it did, it’s arrogant, he says, to continue claiming that the West knows best; that our salvation lies in technological innovation. We must listen to what he calls the “wisdom-keepers” in other cultures — from the Sami in northern Europe to the Pitjantjatjara in Central Australia — because an openness to other ways of seeing and thinking might be “humanity’s only life raft”. In common with John Steinbeck (whose own excursions into travel/natural history included The Log from the Sea of Cortez), Lopez is a serious student of marine biology. Unlike Steinbeck, he doesn’t — on paper, anyway — see much in life to laugh at. (Perhaps understandably: he suffered traumatic sexual abuse as a child, an experience he alludes to in Horizon and has written about elsewhere). However, if this book is often sombre, it’s hopeful too. Lopez reminds himself that, “no matter how steep the spiral of despair might become, beauty without design, without restraint, [is] everywhere”. He celebrates it regularly: in a school of orange-eyed mullet, thousands moving above him “like a single thunderhead” as he snorkels; in a colony of emperor penguins in the Antarctic; in a pod of six dolphins, blooming with bioluminescence.

He says he is “forever measuring things”, but he doesn’t discount awe and mystery. Though he chides himself from time to time for his failures, for insensitivity, his antennae seem more highly tuned than those of the average representative of Homo sapiens.

In a remarkable passage about the transportation prison at Port Arthur, Tasmania, he tells how, in the midday heat, he went to lean against a yellow Volvo sedan in the car park — and then sprang back, as if he had been pushed away. That made him note details — the roof-rack surfboard, the stickers, even the registration plate: CG 2835. A few weeks later, back home in Oregon, he read a report of a massacre the day before at Port Arthur in which 35 people had been killed and 19 wounded. The gunman had “abandoned his yellow Volvo sedan”…

I don’t know whether Lopez is possessed of extra-sensory perception, but he’s not short of wisdom. And he’s not merely keeping it; he’s sharing it. MK

This review appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph on May 11, 2019 and is now online