GTEC Editor’s Introduction: In this winding road through his recently published memoirs Colin introduces the reader to Barry Lopez, an American author, essayist, and fiction writer whose work is known for its humanitarian and environmental concerns. Lopez won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for Arctic Dreams (1986) and his Of Wolves and Men (1978) was a National Book Award finalist. He lives near Finn Rock on the McKenzie River in western Oregon.
Cultivating the Horizon:
Considerations occasioned by Barry Lopez’s memoir, Horizon
By Colin Sanders, Ph.D
“As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative” Lopez, Horizon, (p. 45).
Barry Lopez’s (2019) recent memoir, Horizon, offers an account of travels over decades, in a wide range of ecological and environmental regions, including, the west coast of Oregon, the High Arctic, the Galapagos, the desert in Kenya, Australia, and Antarctica, and other countries. Lopez’s memoir is not merely a travelogue, rather it is a poetic, poignant, evocative, narrative concerning what it means to be human in these challenging times.
Mathematician Alfred Korzybski observed that, “A map is not the territory it represents…[Maps]… are not the real terrain, only representations of it.” Lopez is very much attached to maps. Lopez draws and creates maps, and includes several maps within this memoir. While the map can chart geography, connoting landscape, indicating seascape, mountain elevations and other territorial dimensions, the map can’t narrate the author’s interior journey, the conversations the traveler/author entertains, nor capture what inspires and informs the traveler.
Throughout his memoir, Lopez invites the reader into a dialogue, asking important questions regarding the human condition and the fundamental ethical question of which values are required to continue on as a human community and civil society situated in compassion, patience, and socially just practices.
Lopez ranges widely in his writing, offering his own insights, while referring to the thoughts of Shakespeare, Albert Camus, and poets William Blake, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robinson Jeffers and other authors, and the compositions of Brahms, Mozart, Jean Sibelius, and Beethoven and others.
My reading of his memoir occasioned important pedagogical questions: how is it a person learns patience, becomes capable of cooperation, collaboration, and empathy, accepting of difference, and of the other? In what contexts, developmental and educational, are the values required to sustain a participatory democracy modeled and learned. How is it that a person comes to think critically about local and global events, political developments, and the threat not only to ecology and environment, but to community, civility, compassion, and democracy.
In writing up his extensive travel experiences, Lopez pays attention to, and emphasizes, the detrimental impact of human induced climate change and global warming. Illustrating the many ways human induced climate change damages local ecologies, Lopez recalls, in the summer of 2012, “serving as a guide and lecturer aboard a Canadian ecotourism vessel in the High Arctic…”, when, heading towards Bellot Strait,
“For some reason it had not yet registered with me how really unusual the scene before me was – entering Peel Sound without an icebreaker escort. In the historical literature of the Arctic, explorers have repeatedly emphasized that Peel Sound is simply not navigable for an unescorted ship, even in summer. It’s always jammed with multiyear ice…” (p. 33)
Joining with others on the vessel’s deck, as they looked through their binoculars in silence, he writes, “…I realized what had made them silent. There was not a single ice floe in the waters ahead. Not a scrap of ice” (pp. 32-33).
Ramifications associated with the disappearance of the ice floes include rising ocean levels and, locally, the impact on polar bears: “…we saw numerous ringed seals and bearded seals swimming there, but the polar bears we’d been certain we’d find hunting those seals were nowhere to be seen. Their hunting platforms were gone” (p. 33).
Yet, there is much more to this book than Lopez adding his voice to the chorus of others’ intent on informing us of the threats inherent, imminent, and immediate, as the Anthropocene Age continues to evolve.
Of interest to me are Lopez’ reflections upon the delicate, and now precarious, interconnection between human activity and ecology and evolution; his thoughts on invasion and colonization, prisons and injustice, the demise of indigenous languages, and systemic, genocidal policies and practices. Lopez writes, “Initially I thought of myself on these journeys as a reporter, traveling outward from a more privileged world. I believed…that I had an ethical obligation as a writer, in addition to an aesthetic one” (p. 23). The ethical obligation is apparent and aesthetically woven throughout this memoir.
Lopez is a person who has chosen to spend much time alone throughout a lifetime of reading, hiking, traveling, and writing. This life practice has provided him with certain insights.
“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. Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.” (p. 45).
I will follow up below on this ethical consideration, concerning “…how we can cooperate with one another”, and how one learns such a value and a practice.
Participating in one particular fieldwork expedition, Lopez observes, “…isolation encourages you to think in a different way about what it means to be human, and to consider the long stretch of humanity’s epoch” , continuing on,
“Our camp at Graves is isolated geographically, but we’re also cut off electronically from the outer world… I enjoy the sort of mental space this kind of isolation affords. There are no intrusions here, no unexpected inquiries or announcements. One can unfurl a thought without fear of interruption, unfurl it until one decides he’s finished with it. No phone rings. No doorbell, pager, or intercom sounds. No one knocks.” (p. 436)
This extreme sense of isolation is rare in today’s too hectic, demanding, estranging world. Our incessantly busy and materialistic world creates an illusion of progress, while, at the same time resulting in relational estrangement and disconnection from one another and the natural world.
Questions about injustice and justice within civil society abound throughout the memoir. Thinking about the penal colony, Les Iles du Salut, constructed by the French in 1852 near the coast of French Guiana, and other places of incarceration he has visited, Lopez writes,
“…I’ve come to understand more clearly the somewhat facile metaphor of feeling imprisoned in a free society. I’ve also thought about how people living outside a prison environment, people who are denied certain of their basic freedoms, nevertheless believe they are living in a state of unfettered freedom.” (p. 177)
Lopez wonders about the thinking behind the creation of penal institutions, what is/was the point. Considering the ways in which human beings devise and structure sites for the punishment of human beings who do not fit in, or persons who transgress the laws of social communities, Lopez writes,
“One would like to think that in an enlightened time prisons would exist largely to rehabilitate those criminals who can be rehabilitated, to isolate the violent and the psychopathic from the rest of society… But that is not always the case. Among the incarcerated in many countries, including my own, are many who would be better off cared for in mental institutions, as well as first-time offenders, charged with only minor crimes, who are left to fend for themselves with professional criminals and predatory gangs.”…(p. 177)
Traveling through Australia, Lopez wonders, “Why do we harm one another so grievously? Or to phrase this differently, What is the root of our fundamental disagreement, now that the size of our population and the scarcity of essential supplies like uncontaminated freshwater have come into play?” (p. 373).
Often in his travels and research, Lopez returns to thinking of indigenous persons, indigenous communities and cultures, whose lands he traverses. He considers kinship, relational connection, and the role of the elders in keeping the embers of cultural tales alive, imparting cultural values; he observes that
“Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as they enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetites.” (p. 45).
Lopez notes, “When I’ve passed through different troubled parts of the world and sought local advice…I’ve seen the same pattern of coping with disaster: Deferential local cooperation” (p.311, emphasis added). And, regarding kinship based communities as opposed to individualistic inclined cultures,
“…I’ve so often been struck by the difference between a society that believes wisdom is part of the fabric of a community and that it is best represented in the words and actions of particular people (elders), and a society that believes wisdom is only to be found in certain people”… ( p. 307, emphasis in original)
Challenging discriminatory myths regarding the intelligence of indigenous cultures, Lopez notes, “Some anthropologists believe that the presence of elders is as important as any technological advancement or material advantage in ensuring that human life continues” (p. 311). The politics of kinship and the relational context within such communities’ remains what is privileged, not the technological, materialistic, possessions one holds, or one is restrained by.
Finally, Lopez writes,
“Confronted with the task of discovering a path to reconciliation
And cooperation in a time of unprecedented threat to human
existence, elders focus on the idea that the primary organizing
principle for human achievement is stability, not progress,
meaning that balance, symmetry, and regularity are more to be
valued than change, growth, deviation, and ambition” (p. 414).
Despite the recent surge in climate change protests, especially as evidenced by young persons, significantly more action is required from the principle offenders. In a recent report in The Guardian, climate scientist Michael Mann is quoted, saying, “The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven-and-a-half billion people must pay the price – in the form of a degraded planet- so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen” (The Guardian, October 18, 2019, “Special Investigation”, report by Matthew Taylor and Jonathon Watts, p. 12).
Lopez asks the question,
“If H. sapiens’s future is threatened by environmental factors, both natural and anthropogenic, and if the ability of many people to cope with the complexity of the man-made [sic] environment is compromised, and if the need for cooperation seems great, how are we to tone down the voices of nationalism, or of those in support of profiteering, or religious fanaticism, racial superiority, or cultural exceptionalism? If economic viability trumps human health in systems of governance, and if personal rights trump community obligations at almost every turn, what sort of future can we expect never to see?” (p.310)
Yet, ultimately, despite the descriptions of environmental destruction, this remains a hopeful book. Reading this memoir brought forth certain questions for me. Yes, certainly we ponder what sort of a world this is, these days, and what is the nature of our relations with one another with our environment, our relationship to the earth, our communities, and the webs of kinship that offer us meaning and significance. Where do we go from here?
The ability to consider the politics relating to climate change and the local and global strategies required for slowing the pace of global warming will require a generation of young persons who have a capacity for thinking critically. In turn, it remains the ethical obligation of grandparents, parents, educators and others to provide mentoring and contexts for critical thinking to develop and evolve. In the words of Henry A. Giroux, (2014):
“The role of a critical education is not to train students solely for jobs, but to educate them to question critically the institutions, policies, and values that shape their lives, relationships to others, and myriad connections to the larger world…Simply put, students need an education that prepares them to be creative and critical participants in community and democracy.” (p. 174).
Lopez himself represents an intriguing illustration of what is possible when a person reads widely, eschewing disciplinary boundaries, delving into poetry, prose, music, anthropology, archaeology, history and scientific research. Just such an education can be found within programs offering a strong orientation towards the social sciences and, especially, the humanities.
As a former academic administrator and professor, working in a graduate counseling psychology program, I was often struck by the vast majority of students entering graduate school who had not been prepared to think critically, to question, inquire, and be open hearted, open minded. All too many of these students were focused on individualistic and materialistic pursuits, and many struggled with understanding that psychological distress, more often than not, is situated within relational, sociopolitical and socioeconomic, contexts.
Martha Nussbaum (2010), in her provocative critique of neoliberal educational cutbacks, highlights the importance of the humanities in preparing persons to think critically, to ask questions, and not to take anything for granted. Education in the humanities is necessary for restraining affronts to democracy and the increasingly global movement towards xenophobia, fear of the other, and myopic nationalism. “More importantly, a mixed liberal arts education recognizes that higher education prepares students in two distinct ways: for a career, but also for citizenship and life” (p. 149), Nussbaum writes.
Regarding citizenship, participating in civil society and institutions in order to effect socially just change, in which relational contexts does a person learn to practice patience? To cooperate, collaborate, and share? To become empathetic, and understanding of the plight and the struggles associated with others? How is it that the young, and the not so young, become unafraid of coexisting with difference? “The human effort to listen to each other is, for me, one of the most remarkable of all human capacities” (p.307), writes Lopez, when considering ways in which elders within communal cultures listen and heed the words of others.
When reflecting upon the colonization and ultimate disintegration of the indigenous peoples of Chile’s Punta Arenas region, Lopez notes, “What perished with their cultures were their unique ideas of what it meant to be courteous, reverent, courageous, and just what disappeared with them were their thoughts about what could be expected to be going on in the places into which we cannot see” (p. 498, emphasis added). How is it we cultivate those values today, resurrecting those values, keeping them alive?
Remarking to a colleague with whom he is doing research, as they settle into their sleeping bags for the night ahead, Lopez remarks,
“I had a theology professor once,” I said to John, “who told us that religion was not about being certain but about living with uncertainty. It was about being comfortable with doubt, and maintaining the continuity of one’s reverence for a profound mystery” (p. 444).
Becoming capable of being with uncertainty, ambiguity, and coexisting with others within liminal states, not pursuing perfection, not being overly materialistic as an end in and of itself, and relating compassionately to others, is a fine art; as such, this art and these values and practices must be learned.
Recently, our eldest grandson, Declan, age thirteen, took the ferry from Langdale on the Sunshine Coast, along with other high school students, to participate in the climate change protest in Vancouver, B.C., at which Greta Thunberg spoke. In October, in Bath, England (visiting Stonehenge and other ancient sites) I purchased Thunberg’s collection of talks, including the talk she gave at the United Nations, and had given the book to Declan. Last week, at the bookstore in Sechelt, I was pleased to notice Thunberg’s book prominently displayed, and an ample supply of books available.
Our grandsons living on Cortez Island, B.C., Anu and Faelan, also participated this past autumn in a local protest of young persons and others on Cortez calling for action regarding climate change. Such initiatives and demonstrations are indicators of a healthy response to the environmental dilemmas we are facing.
What is especially hopeful is the number of young persons responding to the climate crisis, encouraged and inspired by their parents, grandparents, teachers and other elders. These peaceful protests and demonstrations instill hope, as “All people, every culture, every country, now face the same problematic future…” (Lopez, 2019, p. 310).
Yesterday morning I watched one of the resident eagles flying amid the trees, and counted five otters fishing in the ocean off the beach as my partner, Gail, and I walked our dog, Garcia. Trees alive with dozens of crows cawing, and along the ocean shoreline dozens of mallard ducks swimming and feeding, with seagulls preening in the streams of freshwater flowing into the ocean.
This rainy morning, as I sit by the hearth, wood fire beginning to warm up the chill, drinking coffee, looking through the clearing in the forest towards the ocean, out towards the mountain ranges of Vancouver Island, where, upon the horizon which is ours to shape and cultivate, backlit through clouds behind the mountains, light shines.
Giroux, Henry A. (2014). The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine. San Francisco: City Lights Books
Lopez, Barry (2019). Horizon. Toronto: Random House Canada.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2010). Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Colin Sanders’s Bio
Colin James Sanders PhD was involved with City University in Vancouver for twenty years, amongst other initiatives. Colin has contributed book chapters, articles, reviews and essays in academic, and poetry and poetics, book’s and journals. Over the decades, Colin has presented his work widely, including in Havana (Cuba), Taos (New Mexico), San Francisco, Toronto, Winnipeg, Nunavut, the Yukon, and Victoria and Vancouver (B.C.). Colin lives with his partner Gail on the Sunshine Coast, where he reads, writes, paints and chops wood!