Barry Lopez by Taylor Larsen

In Horizon, the globetrotting writer charts encounters with diverse cultures, climes, and the animal kingdom, suggesting how we might proceed more gently in the world.

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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The author of Arctic Dreams (1986), About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (1998), and many other books of essays, fiction, and travel writing, Barry Lopez possesses an exquisite sensitivity. I first noticed it some years ago as a student, when I heard him read at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His humility and sense of presence helped me understand my own sensitivity, which I’d been trying to suppress or ignore. Lopez’s legacy to the literary world is his ability to bring this awareness and empathy to his interpretations of the diverse cultures he encounters and the suffering he sees in numerous forms: from animals to humans to the maltreated planet earth. His latest book, Horizon (Knopf, 2019), is an epic dive into the encounters that have shaped Lopez’s perception, traveling from the Arctic Circle to the Galápagos (and many places in between). Never judgmental or heavy handed, in Horizon, the writer relays how his yearning for a father figure and his research and observations from remote locations have enabled him to overcome trauma and mature into a man of wisdom and perspective. We need insights such as these to face the chaos that exists on the horizon: climate change and the loss of knowledge from overlooked cultures, which he honors and brings to life in this thoughtful book.

Taylor LarsenAs a young woman traveling around Patagonia and Bolivia, I read your collection About This Life. In “Apologia,” you discuss your compulsion to remove roadkill out of respect for the animal. For me, this cemented the notion that extreme sensitivity could also be beautiful. Were you born this way? Or did early experiences as a boy—such as one you describe in Horizon, seeing a friend who has cerebral palsy get hit by a car—instill this tender desire to appreciate the world?

Barry LopezHow does one keep sensitivity and fragility alive? I don’t know. But it’s curious to me that you tied this to my early life and that poor girl.

“Sliver of Sky,” a piece of mine in Harper’s from 2013 is about a period of traumatic sexual abuse in my own childhood in California. I got to a point, after years with a therapist, where I just wanted to get it out of the center of my life. I decided to write the article because there wasn’t much out there on the subject that was both truthful and helpful. And I think the reason that young woman with cerebral palsy and I got along was I really identified with her isolation. She seemed to be feeling many of the things I was feeling with that horrible situation I couldn’t get out of.

TL I was also sexually abused, and that certainly played a part in my sensitivity and sense of alienation. But I eventually understood it didn’t have to be hell on earth.

BL You can take two approaches to that kind of experience: let it destroy you, or recognize you’ve been given a gift. I remember very clearly walking around a college campus at eighteen, angry because what had been done to me confused all my relations with other people. Out of nowhere I had this thought: Figure out how to use it. And the way to do that was to cultivate a sense of compassion for suffering in the world. I’m constantly reminded of this—like in Kabul with that broken woman, in a section of Horizon, whose mind had been ravaged by the war, or with the animals in the road. I don’t feel any barrier there, which is partly what “Apologia” is about.

TL Reading Horizon, I see your fascination with explorers. Captain James Cook, who charted territory in Hawaii and the greater Pacific, seems to have captured your imagination. You examine Cook from all angles: his strengths and weaknesses, how he was seen as a martyr, how he was perhaps awed by the cultures he encountered. The book keeps imagining fictitious conversations between Cook and other explorers, even Darwin. It seems you relate to him as someone interested in seeing new places.

BL In a world coming to accept responsibility for colonialism and all it entails, Cook is an easy guy to take a shot at. But I’m a bit defensive about him, as he was doing the best he could at a time when objecting to the tenets of colonialism would have been to become embattled. As a writer I’m not really interested in condemning people and invalidating what they did. Who hasn’t gone low among us? The important thing is how long did you stay down there, and did you resume efforts to live as a decent human being. For me, it’s a waste of time to condemn outright, though I do have strong feelings about men who stand for certain behaviors, those in the mold of bullies and tyrants.

TL And you probably wouldn’t write about such people because the figures that interest you have more layers to how they’re perceived.

BL There should be some subtlety. Ranald MacDonald, explorer and seaman, of mixed race and of working class descent, was marginalized and died in obscurity, and that shouldn’t have been the case. He came from two worlds, and he put them together for himself and nobody helped him. I was drawn to both these people over a period of time. 

TL In Horizon you go from your time in the Canadian High Arctic region, specifically Skraeling Island, to the next section, which takes place in steamy Puerto Ayora in Ecuador with its volcanic activity, then on to the Turkwel river basin in Kenya in the area known as Jackal Camp. The juxtaposition of different climates was thrilling. How did you figure out how to structure this epic book and which locations to make central? And where did the title Horizon come from? 

BL I wrote an outline for the book in 1989. I knew I wanted a graceful movement from the so-called top of the world to the so-called bottom, so it starts on Skraeling Island and then you’re at three different places—Puerto Ayora, Jackal Camp, and Australia—one swing around the equator. And then you end up at “the bottom of the world,” in Antarctica. Throughout the book I’m asking people to think about a world without a left, right, up, and down. If you don’t, you will be stuck asking your most difficult questions in the same box canyon. You’ll never get out because you don’t know how to appreciate someone else’s system of orientation.

What I’m trying to do in Horizon, in a remote place like Skraeling Island, is sit there in Alexandra Fjord lowland and think about music. And to indicate this as normal. The appreciation of what is beautiful feeds the hunger in us, and you can find it in places like Alexandra Fjord but also in music and painting and dance and sculpture. It’s that combination for me of reading Robinson Jeffers and radio-collaring wolves—those two activities are intertwined in my mind. I need to be outside. I live in the woods in Oregon. I’ve been in the same house for forty-nine years and I’m extremely comfortable here, but when I go to New York to a black-tie party I’m also perfectly comfortable there. 

TL It’s interesting that you wrote the outline in 1989.

BL I outlined and signed the contract for Horizon that year, but I said to my publisher, “Look, I’m not going to do this book for a long time. I need to travel more, meet more people. I need to grow up and immerse myself in worlds that have nothing to do with me.” I actually started writing it about five years ago. The outline never changed. I did add the prologue where I took my grandson to Honolulu and visited the site of Pearl Harbor.

I watch my grandson swim in the hotel pool among many Japanese and Chinese guests. We witness a woman make a beautiful dive into the water. What I’m trying to say in the prologue is: these people might be descended from those who bombed the USS Arizona, but they have nothing to do with the disaster on December 7, 1941. Now we live in a different time. And we should identify with what is present and try to forgive. I wanted to find a way to begin the book on a note of compassion and extreme worry about what is coming, not just in terms of global climate change and ocean acidification, but with the collapse of democracy. 

I didn’t know quite how I was going to structure the book, but I realized I needed to set up the themes before we go to Skraeling, and that’s how Cape Foulweather on the coast of Oregon came around—I was traveling there all the time and thinking about Cook and Ranald McDonald. The book ends on the road to Port Famine in Chile, seeing a man under a rainbow. When that happened, in April 1991, I knew that was how the book should end. I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing at every point. I just moved by instinct.

TL You bring many artists, scientists, and musicians into your book to coax meaning from humanity’s layered, complex relationship with the diversity of the animal world. 

BL The polar explorer Wally Herbert, who was also a painter, sent me a print of one of his paintings, which I hung in the room where I wrote this book. Wally left Barrow, Alaska, in 1968 and made it to the north pole. By many accounts he was the first person to do so. There were a bunch of people on snow machines that got there just before, but that didn’t seem legitimate. Wally and his guys did it on foot. They were self-contained and might have had an airdrop or two, I don’t recall. Anyway, he did this painting of the Svalbard archipelago, which was their first landfall, the first land they’d seen in a year and a half. You’re looking from his point of view on the sled, and the ten dogs in a fan hitch in front of him. And you can see in the snow the tracks of the three sleds ahead of him with their dogs. It was so inspiring it kept me going with Horizon. Yes, it’s cold and difficult and on and on, but he did it. 

TL Out of curiosity, what do you think of my favorite painting: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World?

BL It’s so eloquent about loneliness and marginalization. I think a lot of people who have gone through sexual trauma identify with that painting.

TL Interesting—the gnarled fingers maybe, or looking up at the scary house with the birds coming off of it?

BL I think it’s the house and all it represents—you’re somehow marked and feel you’ll be an outsider all of your life, that you won’t be able to work your way back in.

TL I was obsessed with that painting. I was also obsessed with your book About This Life. I don’t know why I get so fixated on certain works of art.

BLThey’re keys to a universe you want to get into. All of us have things like that, and part of the modern frustration is that the ordinary obligations of day-to-day life keep us from achieving some semblance of the world we want to see or live in. I was walking on a sidewalk in New York City one day and passed an exotic sports car, an Aston Martin DB5. I’d never seen one in the flesh. It was parked on Park Avenue, somewhere in the seventies or eighties. I went to school there on Eighty-Third Street. I stepped off the curb and began to examine the car and look in the windows, and my friend said “Hey! We don’t do that.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You just don’t step off the sidewalk and start looking.” I guess it would have been rude to say, “You don’t do it, but I do.” I have the desire to step into what excites me and not worry about decorum. I was so surprised at the moment—what I was doing was in no way outlandish, it wouldn’t cause people to be embarrassed or offended. If when your curiosity finds an object you don’t follow, you’ll be frustrated all your life. 

TL That’s been a big thing for me, how and when to channel exuberance. How to be a normal person in society when you have these urges, even benign ones. Experiences like the one you had looking in the car are deaths by a thousand paper cuts, and it’s hard to keep rebounding to remain curious.

BL You’ve got to be determined. That’s what I admired about Cook, his determination. If I want to do something, I will go after it really hard, and put up with a lot to get there. I’m at the point where I have to deal with some physical issues and they do slow me down, but I’d rather slow down than quit. Cook was determined to answer the questions that were posed for him on those three voyages. And he did it in a strange and dangerous environment—I think after the second voyage, he had pretty much had it with sailing on a ship with a hundred louts, and no women or children.

TL I appreciated your subtle comments on masculinity and femininity. At the beginning of “Cape Foulweather,” you mention there’s a “female rain” and a “male rain” as described by the Navajo. And a couple pages later, you describe finding a random bra that’s been fastened around a tree and punctured by bullet holes, and the devastation and confusion you felt as to what would possess someone to do that? Do you think patriarchal dominance has been a part of what has led us to this state of global warming, the ignoring and belittling of the more “gentle” or less brutal feminine? 

BL I’ve often thought about Western exploration as a ship with a sign: no girls allowed. What are you going to find when only half of humanity is allowed to explore? I remember working on Arctic Dreams, traveling with scientists and Eskimos and trying to understand polar bears, and realizing that virtually all of the scientists working with polar bears were men. They learned about their hunting but little about neonatal behavior. Women bring the same singular intelligence to the study of the nonhuman world that men do, plus they bring the cultural heritage that is really known only intimately to them. 

TL In high school I did a project on polar bears. I got a polar bear costume and I studied all their qualities, like their hairs being transparent and how they sort of dance with each other. It was not about hunting. Other aspects of their lives are just more interesting to me: how they mate, where they sleep, etcetera.

BL I’m conscious that what we know about an animal is the product of an inquiry made by people in a very specific category, not a diverse one. It’s disturbing that groups studying mammalian behavior in remote places often have very few women, and no native people. That was one thing I learned in the 1970s in Alaska—how native knowledge is ignored by white people. I look back on my life and see the importance of asking others, instead of people like yourself, when it comes to mysteries. 

What you find in our Western culture is this history of almost exclusively male self-appointed charismatic leaders, whose message is some version of “I know. Others don’t. And if you follow me you will flourish or gain money or become powerful yourself.” That’s the story of Trump: “I know how to fix it.” In a traditional society, you don’t find that kind of autocracy. Rather, it’s a naturally evolved form of governance where a group of elders are the receptacles for thousands of years of cultural wisdom. Instead of basing decisions on one person saying they know the right way, you base them on what the ancestors—without whom you wouldn’t even be there to pose the question—did that was successful. You’re talking about people who have for thousands of years made the right decisions about survival. And the elders are looking for a plan that leaves nobody behind. Meaning, if you’re not so bright or you’re in some way not fully prepared for life, others will cover for you. That leads to a stable society over long periods of time. If your solution to a social problem doesn’t include everybody, it will eventually fail.

TL Thinking about your determination mixed with your deep sensitivity, this quote from Horizon about a pale chanting goshawk in Africa pierced me with a dagger of truth:

The bird had its back to me as I approached. I imagined it gazing intensely at an expanse of savannah grass before it, searching for a creature upon which to swoop. As I drew closer, the bird rotated its head and stared down at me. Its right eye had been torn out of its socket. The hole was rimmed with blood-matted feathers. It turned back to its survey of the savannah, ignoring me. Often, when I want to give up, I think of that bird. How many other such severely wounded birds are out there in the world, still hunting?

Your essay “Sliver of Sky” seems to relate to this image: internal wounds to the psyche somehow externalized in this symbol of the bird.

BL I’d never seen a pale chanting goshawk. It riveted me in that moment, and urged me to consider that the desire to continue with your life and not be sidetracked by your wound is universal. In the years that followed the period of time in California I write about in “Sliver of Sky,” I steered clear of listening to people talk about what had happened to them. Because it always sounded, sooner or later, like, “Woe is me.” And there was no outward movement. I hoped that when people read what I wrote, they would think, I can get on the other side of this too. And that’s what readers’ responses indicated. When I would go speak somewhere and see a young man approaching me, I would know that it was someone who was so crippled by the experience of traumatic sexual abuse that they were burning up all the energy they had just to keep their heads above water. And they couldn’t believe that there would come a day when they wouldn’t be thinking about it and it wouldn’t determine the emotional or spiritual direction they took in their lives. The quintessence of my belief about the obligation of the writer in society is this: The writer is not the important person. The story is what we remember.

TL That bullet-ridden bra is the perfect symbol for many things, including the attempted decimation of the female in many cultures.

BL In an early draft, I asked my wife to read that Cape Foulweather chapter and said, “I’m not sure I should include this scene. It’s a man talking about this. I’m just puzzled by it.” And she said, “No, it’s just right.”

In that scene, I wanted to recognize this male rage, this incomprehensible anger that some men have toward women. What is that about? I don’t know. But I can tell you, being raped repeatedly as a child opened a door for me when I spoke to female friends and colleagues, knowing some of them had gone through that. And the world is not sympathetic or helpful to victims of that kind of behavior. That’s another subject though…

TL No, it’s completely relevant because it explains why you’re able to see beyond a limited perspective. I’m sure there are ways in which you are very “masculine” and yet able to identify with the “feminine,” which gives these books their impact. 

BL I don’t know where my sensitivity initially came from, but it was always there. I can remember incidents at five years old when I would make everybody stop and look at something, and how important it was to me that people quiet down and be slow enough to appreciate things different from themselves. Not to give myself a pat on the back. It’s what I feel I’m supposed to do. We all hope to be understood, and sometimes we get lucky and are. It’s always good to remind yourself that you know nothing. In between big projects it’s especially important to reduce yourself again to a vessel, then go fill yourself up. 

TL I think of the John Edgar Wideman quote, “All stories are true.” There’s a truth out there that you’re just helping to bring to life, almost as if it’s your child. 

BL It’s your responsibility as a writer to steep yourself in your mother tongue and discover syntaxes that will bring an otherwise flat image fully to life in the imagination of the reader. You are a conduit for the story. And it’s your improving professional skill that over time makes the story better.

TL You do address the climate change looming on the horizon, and I feel I’ve had my head in the sand a little bit with this issue. It concerns me, but I don’t actively do anything, besides the basic stuff like recycling. I feel I should be doing more for the planet.

BL We should all be doing more about climate change and the whole dark horizon of things standing before us. I’ve told my students: You are in university for two reasons: one, to understand what you mean by being alive; and two, to figure out how you’re going to say it—as a composer, a CEO? What is the way you will say what you mean? I’ve examined those questions and discovered my place is not at the barricades. I’m not out advocating for anything. I’m sitting in a house in a remote part of Oregon trying to write in a way that helps other people see what they mean by their lives and what they’re going to do. 

TL I have an easier time connecting with animals than with people. I think for some people, especially those that have gone through trauma, it’s harder to trust another human. 

BL During those years in California, I didn’t trust anybody. I sought out time with animals. I’d go to the Mojave Desert, watching for coyotes. I didn’t need to race over to them. But I saw them. And that was good. An animal is not trying to manipulate you or convert you to one point of view or another. Simple, deep companionship is enough. All animals are teachers. And the fact that I’m a human, seemingly the dominant mammal in the world, doesn’t make any difference. 

This past summer I was walking along this woodchip path from my house to my studio, and I looked up and there was this huge elk cow and three or four yearlings behind her at the edge of the woods. We all stood still, and more elk came up. There were fourteen finally. This lead cow, I could see the whites of her eyes because she had her head turned so she could watch me, and also watch all of them behind her. She wanted to make sure everybody understood that this was not an alarming situation, that she had it under control. And then she turned her head, looked square at me, and then stepped on, moving through the forest. I took her to be saying, “What are you going to do? Because we can’t do anything.” I felt in that moment that we’re all in it together. The difference is we humans can do something about what is coming, and animals can’t. They do not have the power to prevent their own death and we do. We should be watching out for them, in the same way, I believe, animals watch out for us. They give us the strength to get over things that in the moment seem impossible. 

As a kid I wanted to cross out the sign on the bars of the cage in the zoo that said, “Polar Bear, Ursus maritimus.” This was not in any way a polar bear. What it did with its life was nowhere present. There was no ice. No seals. 

TL I have a really hard time going to zoos. I just feel like I’m going to sob when I see the beautiful lion or cheetah sitting there, trying to look away and have some privacy, or looking at me like, “Yeah, what?” 

BL Well, zoos are the last embodiment of colonialism: bring the curious thing back to your home, put it in a box so it won’t hurt anybody, and then stand there and gawk at it. This makes me want to say something about sensitivity or innocence. You have a choice in your life to look at or experience almost anything. And it’s imperative for you to choose to say no sometimes. To not want images in your mind that are like acid on the other things that you know. When everybody wants to go see some movie and you’re reluctant because it’s violent and awful, but you’re kind of being buffaloed, it’s really important to say, “No. I don’t want that experience.” And to somebody who says, “Well, you can’t understand life unless you see the dark side,” you have to say, “You know what? I’ve seen some dark sides.”

TL Yeah, I’ve got plenty of dark side.

BL If you do that, you’re much less at risk of losing the part of you that’s sensitive to the world. I know, Taylor, that I’m innocent. There are certain situations and experiences that I would be lost in. I don’t care. It’s not my job to become adept in a sophisticated world of social climbing or certain harsh experiences that could shake the innocence out of me. I don’t do that. Because that’s not what readers need from me. What they need from me is the determination to go gently in the world.

Taylor Larsen is the author of Stranger, Father, Beloved (Gallery Books, 2016) and a fiction professor at Catapult, Pace University, and Southern New Hampshire University. She resides in the Hudson Valley.

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Originally published in

BOMB 147, Spring 2019

Featuring interviews with Young Joon Kwak, Kazuo Hara, Bill Jenkins, Ligia Lewis, William Basinski, Titus Kaphar, José Roberto Cea, and Barry Lopez.

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