Horizon

by Barry Lopez
reviewed by Molly Shrimpton

Four Cardita megastrophashells, two eucalypt buttons, a cartridge casing, a piece of white sandstone and an eight-real silver coin. These objects – ‘innocuous palm-sized bits of life’ – sit, amongst others, in author Barry Lopez’s Oregon home. Such talismans serve as reminders, recalling memories of people and place and quietly representing ‘the staggering diversity of life, the stony flesh of the ancient planet, the lethal violence of human behaviour, the growing inutility of war in the modern era’.

Thus, Horizon, a masterpiece thirty years in the making, begins, chronicling a lifetime spent exploring some of the most remote locations on the planet. Lopez, one of the greatest nature and travel writers of our time, sets out to write an autobiographical work that can ‘walk the distance’ between his child and adult selves. However, this book is not about the author himself; instead, it is a powerful meditation on people, landscape and the future of our place on this planet. It is a book about human history, deep time, understanding and above all – Lopez’s signature line of inquiry – the relationship between landscape and the human imagination. If the scope of Arctic Dreams,Lopez’s 1986 modern classic, was big, then that of Horizonis vast, encompassing enormous, varied and concentric scales of time and space, traversing geological borders, historical epochs and disciplinary boundaries with ease.

Rather than following linear time, Horizonis structured around six places that have shaped Lopez’s understanding of the world: Cape Foulweather in North America; Skraeling Island in the Canadian high Arctic; Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos Islands; Jackal Camp in Kenya; Port Arthur in Tasmania; and the otherworldly Transantarctic Mountains. Images of beauty and wonder sit alongside scenes of horror, violence and devastation, holding up a mirror to both humanity’s darkness and its light. Lopez’s elegant distillation of these places, their people and his experiences in them offers a lens through which to ask the most pressing questions of our time: Where have we come from? Where are we going? How will we face what is ahead?

Horizonjourneys through places both wild and exploited. Recollections of an idyllic desert canyon, ‘dotted with white-barked gum trees’ and ‘the crystalline air (…) shot through with birdcalls’, sit in stark contrast to an iron ore mining town: ‘an isolated terminus erected on a pounded landscape’. Lopez visits some of the most beautiful environments on the planet, but never denies the ‘throttled earth—the scalped, the mined, the industrially farmed, the drilled, polluted, and suctioned land, endlessly manipulated for further development and profit’; for both are our home. Indeed, a palpable sense of anger is shot through the narrative, at ‘colonial genocide and exploitation; frustration with imperial incursions (…) fury over licentious behavior’ and ‘the impoverishment and hopelessness of people’ in refugee camps and war zones. In one unsettling scene in San Salvador, Lopez impulsively strips and swims furiously towards an underwater monument to Columbus: ‘[I] swam until I was so winded I felt in danger of drowning’.

The polar landscapes of the Canadian high arctic and the Transantarctic Mountains are where Lopez truly comes into his own. His pure, austere prose mirrors the clean, balanced lines of the icescapes around him, in which there is space for one to ‘unfurl a thought’. In the Antarctic, ‘the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds’; meteorites travel through sheets of ice; rocks float in water; time and history stop; and lone seals wander inland and perish, ‘inconsolable in their error (…) with the clouded eyes of the blind’. Lopez compares diving into a tidal crack in the ice to ‘swimming through the interior of a drowned cathedral.’ He states: ‘In Antarctica there was no end to the wonder.’ Such scenes of otherworldly mystery are tempered by careful scientific and cultural explanations. Precise terminology – Western and indigenous alike – such as ‘katabatic’, iguptaq, ‘stranding surfaces’ and hózhóis sown throughout the narrative like fragments of poetry.

Landscapes may always be at the heart of Lopez’s work, but they are always peopled. A network of varied, carefully portraited communities and individuals accompany him throughout his journeys. If the eponymous horizon in Lopez’s narrative is the apocalyptic breakdown of human civilisation in the face of climate crisis, war, political corruption and greed, then his central concern is how best to approach it. The way forward Lopez offers involves collaboration and empathy; an expansion of imagination; and a different set of voices at the table, representatives from cultures with different stories, different ways of understanding the world and different ideas about how to live meaningful lives.

Horizon is a magnificent book, but it is also a vital and urgent work; it asks us not to consider the possibility of disaster ahead, but to prepare for its inevitability. Fittingly, it ends in the same way as Arctic Dreams, with Lopez looking out at the horizon, but this time with a different view. Whereas in 1986he bowed to the landscape, ‘full of appreciation’ for all he had seen, in 2019, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, he urges us to acknowledge ‘the alarm in the air’. Lopez entreats us to venture out of denial and complacency, and to lean into the unknown – because what we find beyond the horizon may change us, and change we must.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Barry Lopez

Award-winning author of Artic Dreams. Lopez has been described as "the nation's premier nature writer" by the San Francisco Chronicle. In his non-fiction, he frequently examines the relationship between human culture and physical landscape, while in his fiction he addresses issues of intimacy, ethics and identity.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Molly Shrimpton

Molly is a writer and proofreader. Originally from Essex, she is enjoying life in the Cumbrian fells. She holds an MA in ‘Wild Writing’ from the University of Essex, and is due to begin studying for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh this autumn, where she will be exploring contemporary nature writing in order to investigate future meanings and possibilities of wildness in the Anthropocene.