James T. KeaneNovember 16, 2021
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Christmas Day in 2020 was the last day of Barry Lopez’s remarkable life on earth, his death at age 75 marking the end to a well-traveled human existence in which Lopez found himself in more than 80 countries—and in which he published widely in various genres, including short stories, essays, travel writing and environmental advocacy. In an obituary, The New York Times likened him to Henry Thoreau and John Muir for his embrace of “landscapes and literature with humanitarian, environmental and spiritual sensibilities.” Future generations may well remember him as something else: a prophet of the dystopia brought on by human-caused ecological degradation.

Just a few months before his death, Lopez had lost his Oregon home and the vast bulk of his papers as a result of the Holiday Farm Fire in August 2020, itself a portent of the incredible fury of forest fires in the age of the Anthropocene. It was a cruelly ironic turn of events, given his lifelong appreciation for the wonders of nature and his critique of the way humans exist within it.

Vincent Miller on Barry Lopez: His writing possesses a “profound moral urgency with much to offer both contemporary society and the church.”

The disappointing conclusion to COP26 last week—in which world leaders essentially paid lip service to hoped-for mandates on environmental sustainability— only emphasized further how significant the divide is between environmental advocates and the drivers of modern wealth creation. It also showed how important it is to heed Lopez’s vehement warnings about the damage humanity continues to do to the earth with its disregard for natural ecosystems and obsession with material domination. In almost 20 books published over half a century, Lopez always maintained a tight focus on the interconnectedness—and spiritual value—of all life, from the smallest mushroom to the largest forest.

In 2019, professor Vincent Miller profiled Lopez for America’s Spring Literary Review, noting that his writing possesses a “profound moral urgency with much to offer both contemporary society and the church.” Though Lopez’s early works tended toward fiction, it was his nonfiction books Of Wolves and Men (1978) and Arctic Dreams (1986) that brought him to prominence as a nature writer; in the former, Miller noted, Lopez “changed nature writing by combining the perspectives of modern science, indigenous knowledge, history and mythology.” And in Arctic Dreams (which won the National Book Award), his lyrical nonfiction account of five years he spent living with the Inuit peoples of Alaska, “he again combined these perspectives to explore a region of the world united by climate, ecology and culture, while separated by political boundaries.” At the same time, “his fiction writing powerfully evokes the positive possibility of human conversion in community and coexistence with nature.”

Miller also notes the obvious parallels between Lopez’s writings over the years and Pope Francis’ environmentalist argument in “Laudato Si’.” In that encyclical, Pope Francis noted that caring for our common home requires solutions that do not “emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality.”

"As the Catholic Church seeks to put the teachings of ‘Laudato Si’’ into practice, Lopez’s life work provides guidance for the spiritual attitudes and virtues we need to cultivate.”

So too did Lopez show a deep respect in his writings for the religious and cultural traditions of the many societies in which he lived. “Lopez has always taken care to make native peoples partners,” Miller writes, in part because he always recognized the deep wisdom found in cultures that had learned to live sustainably in nature:

On the scientific front, he notes they have observed animals far longer than modern scientists. But their knowledge goes deeper than mere observation. The sustainability of their forms of life speaks to a deep participation in the ecologies they inhabit. Their cultures manifest the ‘moral geography’ of the landscapes in which they live, a connection at times audible in the very sounds of their languages.

Though Lopez was raised a Roman Catholic, he drifted from the church after college. Nevertheless, Miller writes, the lessons learned on the many paths he followed in his wanderings are beneficial to the church: “As an author, Lopez set off long ago in a direction that the tradition would one day follow. And now, as the Catholic Church seeks to put the teachings of ‘Laudato Si’’ into practice, Lopez’s life work provides guidance for the spiritual attitudes and virtues we need to cultivate.”

In a 2020 review for America of Lopez’s final book, Horizon, Jill Brennan O’Brien was impressed by Lopez’s ability to tether multiple meanings to individual objects or systems—including the notion of a horizon itself. “At times, the horizon is a temporal marker (looking backward to humanity’s origins and forward into the future of the planet); elsewhere it functions as a liminal space beyond which one cannot see, where anything is possible and imagination reigns,” she writes.

It is, of course, also the literal view of the farthest tilt of earth one can see, the line between land (or water) and sky. This last meaning, the physical horizon, is nearly as abstract as the first two—appearing differently to different people at different times and in different places, as it does for Lopez when he first travels to the places described in the book and then when he visits them again later in life.

Horizon—far more than simple travel writing—covers Lopez’s experiences at six different sites around the globe: the Oregon coast; the Canadian high Arctic; the Galápagos Islands; the site of ancient hominid fossil grounds in Kenya; a British penal colony in Australia; and an ice field in Antarctica improbably littered with meteorites. Ultimately, O’Brien notes, “Horizon provides the reader with a deeper appreciation for diversity—particularly cultural and racial—not merely for the sake of inclusion and equality but also because of the importance of different epistemologies for the survival of humanity and the planet.”

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If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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