A Retrospective Book Review of Barry Lopez, Horizon.
As the Christmas holidays continue their path forward into the New Year, I am prompted to revisit some of my book and music recommendations from 2020 for retrospective sharing. This one is about a book Barry Lopez published earlier in the year. It has grown on me ever since.
Some books startle you with their brilliance, as if you are gazing directly into the sun. You cannot believe the words that appear on the page. The way they are perfectly paired and linked and strung together to form thoughts, ideas, and scintillating insights; the mixture of ultra high definition details and incredibly abstract – yet lucid – concepts. How did a human created from the same DNA as you or I manage to pull off this tremendous feat? An act of genius? The luck of good timing, lots of practice, and the perfect place? A life of privilege, education, and opportunity? A really great editor? A publisher who believed in the idea even with the author herself didn’t?
Barry’s newest book, it ain’t like that. At all. It’s no Of Wolves and Men. It’s not even “Dances with Wolves.” Most of its hundreds upon hundreds of pages are Barry’s field notes from highly privileged scientific observer missions to the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Australia, the Pacific, and East Africa. Trips funded more often than not by U.S. taxpayers, courtesy of the NSF, the NEA, or other prestigious “writer in residence” programs. Barry, he’s hanging with scientists and getting up close and personal access to remote, windswept, curiosity-inducing places. And we get to read about him writing about all those personal journeys.
In the end, the parts do not add up to a narrative display of sustained creative brilliance, the way that Barry has managed to do many times before when he was a younger man and less self-ruminative writer. Think Arctic Dreams. This time, Barry writes about himself and his fellow humanity by resuscitating older journal entries lightly edited and refreshed with periodic rants, philippics, and jeremiads at the destructive behaviors of humanity writ large. Our shared histories of colonialism, abuse, and environmental catastrophe. The way we dig in the dirt, or drill into the snow, for bones, fossils, rocks, and meteorites from the far reaches of outer space. Why? Barry doesn’t really seem to know. He’s just pleased as punch to have been there to watch it all happen.
The thing is, a five star rating on Amazon isn’t reserved for the brilliant books alone. They also honor five star efforts. They honor the work, the blood, the tears, the anguish, and the reaching for the stars that generally results only in passing sparks and flashes of creative, emotive power. Barry does this dozens upon dozens of times in the pages of Horizon. He writes about Charles Darwin and James Cook and many other people you’ve never heard of. He takes you into his home office and tells you about the enigmatic objects that are like amulets to him. He talks about his childhood and the pains and pleasures it held. He acts like a grandfather; he rages like a liberal; he upbraids and defends the value of wildness even as he amasses a huge carbon footprint by flying to some of the world’s most audacious places.
It took me weeks – months, actually – to finish reading this book. And I skipped a few pages from time to time. I got that Barry had done amazing things with his life, and I got that he was working hard to share those experiences with all of us, his readers. Even as he realized the words would never capture the feelings and moments and ebbs and flows of his soul as he literally felt the planet’s pain – repeatedly – while trying to be a good observer of the people with whom he traveled. He wants us to get angry at the elites who wreck the planet to make profit, but in the end, he leaves us on the side of the road at the edge of a continent watching as a “madman” ignores his passing vehicle. He tells us not to trust in miracles or our own cultural assumptions. He wants us to love each other and seek out wisdom in unfamiliar places. He reminds us of ancient knowledge and traditional ways, while also aiding and abetting modern scientific inquiry. He’s so good at writing about animals and wild nature, but when he tries writing about himself or his fellow humans, he keeps circling back to known tropes and trickeries.
I love the rawness of Horizon. I love the loose ends and sharp edges. I like the fact that it’s been edited and fact checked but also left somewhat messy and ambiguous. After all: who is going to tell a writer as accoladed as Barry how to write? Not this Amazon reviewer, I can assure you. I’ve heard Barry speak once in Missoula, Montana. I’ve bought his books. I’ve probably assigned them or recommended them to my former students. But Horizon I checked out from my local public library. I read it in bits and pieces, sometimes over a glass or two of craft beer at the Fieldwork Brewing Company’s beer garden in San Mateo, California. I read some parts in bed using an LED reading light. I’ve read some parts outside at picnic tables under the shade of coastal redwoods. I’ve read some standing in my kitchen preparing garden grown vegetables for a shared family meal. Each time I did so, I felt the power of Barry’s desires to connect, to communicate, to create a shared body of neo-modern wisdom that his grandchildren and many others’ grandchildren might one day use to make a better, less destructive, less wanton world.
Barry, my friend, I salute the effort! And I award you five Amazon stars to do with as you see fit. Even if you never publish a book like this again, I get why you tried to make it all work. Cheers for that. A Fieldwork hazy IPA of your choice awaits you in San Mateo if you ever decide to take up the offer. Message me on Yelp, and I’ll meet you there at their Bay Meadow Biergarten, in less time than it takes for a single beat of the human heart.