Book Review: Horizon by Barry Lopez

Horizon is Barry Lopez’s final work, concluding a brilliant career as an essayist, nature writer, and fiction writer. His devoted attention to the connection between human culture and nature carried him to over 80 countries, from ice shelves in the Arctic to former penal colonies in Australia. Reading Horizon is as if author and reader are seated in a cozy room in front of a warm fire as he reminisces about his travels, revealing in vivid detail his most memorable moments and the lessons learned there as well as his unanswered questions, which he poses to his reader for consideration.

I had never read Lopez, but was interested in Horizon after reading a review in The Economist, a good source of worthwhile books. When I picked it up at my local library, I am quite sure I moaned, as Horizon is a tome….512 pages of text, followed by another 62 pages of notes, bibliography, scientific binomials, maps, acknowledgements, and finally, an index. Horizon has seven chapters, the first being an introduction of about 50 pages with is worth the price of the book if you never read another word of the text. Lopez tells you just enough about himself that you understand the direction his life took him, and leaves you wanting to know more.  When I finished reading the introduction, I reread the fifty pages to flush out the devices he used to accomplish this complex task in such an engaging manner. It is tucked away in the same filing cabinet as McPhee’s anthologized essay, The Silk Parachute.

The six remaining chapters each deal with a different part of the world: Cape Foulweather in Oregon, Skraeling Island in Nunavut, Canada, Puerto Ayora  (Galapagos) in the Eastern Pacific, the Turkwel River Basin in Eastern Africa,  Tasmania in Australia, and the Queen Maud Mountains in Antarctica. Every place he goes, Lopez connects with archeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, poets, writers, artists, musicians….all holding a high level of expertise on the area, expertise that he shares with the reader in his narrative.  However, to this expertise, Lopez also adds his own powerful obsevations and, again, his own unanswered questions.

For example, Lopez suggest that the human species, as we know ourselves today, may be destined to be speciated. (Yes, I had to look up a lot of words when reading Horizons, and this was one of them.) To be speciated is when one species divides into two distinct species. Humans, he suggests, will speciate into two forms, one evolving to a species of human that can work with technology, the other to evolve into one that cannot. When I ran this by my husband to hear his response, he told me we were already there.

On Skraeling Island, Lopez familiarizes the reader with the Thule people, ancestors of the modern Inuit, who inhabited the island dating from 4500 BC.  As Lopez describes the bone implements, stone tools, harpoon tips, and stone lamps on the sorting trays of the archeologists with whom he is camping, he theorizes for the reader on how these people prevailed facing the inhuman elements of their arctic surroundings. Walking barefoot alongside a stream one afternoon, Lopez is able to imagine a Thule woman doing the same, and allows the reader to accompany him in imagining what thoughts ran through her head.

However, Lopez is an essayist at heart. Here, he takes the liberty of leaving Skraeling  Island for a moment to connect with his image of this Thule woman walking the streambed with a memory from his own childhood. When he was eight years old, he lost his next-door-neighbor friend when an oncoming car slammed into her as she was walking to his house to play. Lopez makes note of the brutal, unregarding nature of everyday life, be it for an eight year old boy in 1953 or a Thule mother in 1000 BC. This I found to be the beauty of this memoir, as Lopez slips seamlessly between his travel journaling to intimate essays wherein he reveals the connections he has forged over his lifetime.

It was, however, in his numerous references to the  the role of elders in primitive societies that Lopez gave me the most food for thought. Lopez lists the qualities that elders bring to the primitive tribes he has studied over the years: elders take life more seriously, have a tenderness toward the life around them, have a great capacity for empathy, are accessible to their people, and are able to speak with a child without patronizing the child but rather confirming their sense of wonder. Elders, he tells the reader, can talk for a long time without using the word I. Lopez also notes that it is the elders who organize a ritual when the tribe is experiencing chaos, a ritual which is known to the tribe, follows prescribed steps in the ceremony, and includes thoughtful speech. I read Horizons in January of 2021, when the Capitol in Washington, D.C. was stormed and two weeks later the country witnessed the Inauguration of President Biden, an American elder, in a ceremony that included each of these elements and brought my country out of chaos and into order.

Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day in 2020. Horizons, his last book, will be many things to many readers; here, I have tried to explain what this book gave to me. We are all the beneficiaries of his having written it all down for us. May he rest in peace.

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