Barry Lopez

Vintage Books


I read daily about the many threats to human life—chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world…It is here, with these attempts to separate the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world that we come face-to-face with a biological reality that halts us in our tracks: nature will be fine without us.

                from Horizon




To the horizon…and beyond

The writer Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020. Acclaimed author of Arctic dreams (National Book Award) and Of Wolves and Men, his final book is the culmination of and tribute to a life driven by curiosity and wonder. In the aptly titled Horizon, he revisits and reflects on that life as he sensed its end approaching.

He was much more than “a travel writer.” To read his books is to travel with a thoughtful and thought-filled man, to benefit from his sharp observations and his meditations on what he is observing. His was a secular, scientific mind, yet open to the great mystery that surrounds us and of which we are part. Whether at Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast, in the Great Rift Valley of Africa, on Australia’s vast deserts, or Skraeling Island in the Canadian High Arctic, he finds the world “mysterious at a fundamental level.”

Following in the footsteps and the ship’s wakes of explorers like James Cook, Charles Darwin, Ernest Shackleton, and others, Lopez contemplates what compelled each of them to aim for the horizon, and then go beyond it.

Wary of superstition, he was also aware of the limitations of the rational, empirical mind, realizing that we are all prisoners of our own perceptions. Such limited perception has been the primary cause of the ignorance and arrogance that has resulted in the exploitation of the natural world, the colonizing and eradication of cultures different from our own, and now the prospect of homo sapiens’ self-extinction.

Particularly insightful are the chapters where he encounters and tries to understand how different is his Western, modern, scientific mind from traditional peoples’ minds and ways of seeing, whether the Iñupiat people of Alaska, the Kurrama of Australia, or the Hadza in Tanzania, who possess different understandings of time, space, and their relationship to the natural world. He notes how the Western mind tends to objectify, to see isolated objects, whereas indigenous peoples tend to perceive patterns of interrelationship. Lopez sees a bear; the traditional people he’s with see “bearing,” how the animal and his actions fit into an interrelated whole. Time and again, Lopez finds himself “at the crossroads of my own and another world,” and realizes that we carry our world with us wherever we go.

The book is a fitting epitaph for such a mind as his: “this continuous search for meaning…for coherence, for a way to fit all the pieces of our life experience together into a meaningful whole, to find a direction in which to continue.”

I would like to believe that, for Lopez, death was only one more horizon to explore and to go beyond.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15, 2021.) Reprinted with permission.