Horizon by Barry Lopez

by Edith Cody-Rice

I chose this book because many years ago, in the 1980’s I read Barry Lopez’ award winning Arctic Dreams, without question the finest book on the Arctic that I had ever encountered and I had made a number of trips to both the western and eastern Canadian arctic during my legal career. He has the ability to be at the same time accurate, detailed and lyrical, lending fact within a dreamlike context. He is a polymath, with a huge range of learning within philosophy, biology and environment and every page contains new information of which I had never heard. He brings you into his locale through detailed descriptions.

Barry Lopez was born in 1945 in Port Chester, New York but grew up in Southern California and New York City. He has lived in Oregon since 1968. He is, it seems, a compulsive traveler to remote areas and cultures of the world and he describes them in detail, lovingly in many cases, and with a deep concern for the damage humans are wreaking on the world. He has written 16 books, both fiction and non fiction. Mr. Lopez displays a solid knowledge of the history of western discoverers and is a great admirer of explorers such as James Cook and Charles Darwin, who were willing to adjust their attitudes to accommodate the evidence before them, rather than sticking to old ways of viewing.

To Mr. Lopez, the particular quality that has guaranteed the survival and the success of homo sapiens over other human expressions of life, is the ability to deal with complexity, to see systems of order. To this we owe the ability to develop languages, to make maps, to form societies.

Mr. Lopez sees the value in minority cultures and considers their eradication by the larger, more dominant ones as a loss of valuable world knowledge and approaches to life. He is of the view that we shall need that knowledge to solve the problems we shall face in the future.

Horizons, in six selected chapters, each of which could form a stand alone book, takes the reader from Western Oregon to the High Arctic; from the Galápagos to the Kenyan desert; from Botany Bay in Australia to the ice shelves of Antarctica. He writes from an ethical perspective and his book is infused with a secular spirituality. He is no fan of the hero narrative in the resolution of human problems, evolutionary or otherwise. It takes a community to solve a problem and there he lauds the wisdom of  elders in the many cultures he has visited. Elders,in his view, are carriers of wisdom without seeking glory.

A central theme of this book is that man evolved as an animal, much like other animals, not the god chosen master of other species, but just a mammal like the others and thus not immune to the threat of extinction. He writes:

Darwin taught that, like the panda or the thresher shark, Homo Sapiens is an animal without a destinationn, and like all other animals, is known only in its present form, a transitional form, even if that form like the coelacanth’s, is stable for a long period of time. …And what is true for us is true for every other animal; no matter our impressive history, every day we advance figuratively into evolutionary darkness. And, because we are inescapably biological, we have no protection against extinction.

At 544 pages this is a tome, and one might speculate, the culmination of a life’s travel, work and writing. Mr. Lopez seems to have put his all, his whole philosophy into this book. This is a fine writer who should be savoured. Many of his references are highly technical, archaeologically speaking, but the strength of the narrative and the breadth of his knowledge and travel carry the story.