With publication of the lyrical Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986) and his highly praised essay collection Crossing Open Ground (1988), Barry Lopez became a leading voice among writers who employ the art of the nature essay to express their concern for an endangered environment. His spare, clean, descriptive writing reveals an impressive understanding of natural history as he probes the often troublesome but necessary relationship between people and the real and mystical landscapes of nature. His topics reveal a scholar’s grasp of the terminology of ornithology, mythology, marine biology, and anthropology as well as a gifted storyteller’s knack for uncovering the wild longings of the human soul. In a review in the Washington Post (5 May 1988), T.H.Watkins writes that Lopez’s essays validate his position “as one of the most fully involved and supremely articulate chroniclers of the land.”
Lopez’s popularity has increased commensurate with heightened public attention to potential hazards posed to oceans, wildlife, and forested lands by technology, urban sprawl and population growth. His individual appeal as a writer is also secured by the accessibility of his narrative style and personally involved approach to writing. His essays are widely published in such consumer-oriented journals as Smithsonian, Harper’s, Outside, Aperture, and National Geographic, and in such scholarly publications as the Georgia Review, Chouteau Review, Science, and Orion Nature Quarterly. His essays have been included in anthologies, among them On Nature (1987), This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (1989), Wild Africa (1993), Major Modern Essayists (1994), and American Nature Writing (1994 and 1995).
Lopez is an activist who endeavors to appeal to a general audience, writing from his own experience as a traveler and adventurer in a form characteristic of Henry David Thoreau and contemporary nature essayist Edward Hoagland. A running theme in Lopez’s essays is the influence of the “exterior landscape” of nature, with its intricate relationship between what is discernible and what is ineffable, on the pattern of speculations, intuitions, and thoughts that take place in the “interior landscape” of the mind. In “Landscape and Narrative” (1984), Lopez explains that through narration, the storyteller “draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the interior landscape” to create a harmony “between the two landscapes” using all the storyteller’s craft of syntax, mood, and figures of speech.
Lopez seeks through his attention to descriptive detail and his own participation to evoke epiphanies that foster a feeling of intimacy with the land and reveal a sense of place. “I am up to my waist in a basin of cool, acid-clear water,” he writes in “Gone Back into the Earth” (1981). In “A Reflection on White Geese” (1982), there is the impression of a man of extreme patience writing about his own habitat, rather than as a visitor
merely passing through on his way to somewhere else. “I sat there for three hours, studying the birds’ landings and takeoffs, how they behaved toward each other on the water… I am always struck anew in these moments, in observing such detail, by the way in which an animal slowly reveals itself.” His use of metaphor and simile borrows from the attributes of the nature he writes about. In “Trying the Land” (1979), he writes, “We come downslope as graceless as boulders.” Rather than using straightforward argument,
he prefers to allow his truths to reveal themselves as if naturally encountered, as a child might wonder, in finding a piece of a raccoon’s jaw in an alder thicket, how the animal had lived and died. In “Children in the Woods” (1982), Lopez writes that “everything found at the edge of one’s senses” ultimately reveals how all things fit together to build an assurance of belonging.
Whether writing about ancient stone intaglios, explaining the reason behind the howling of wolves, or describing the snap and crack of an ice floe, Lopez expends considerable scholarly research and makes good use of his expert sources, which include botanists, biologists, naturalists, artists, and musicians. But he chooses to reveal the world of nature through the experience and eyes of his experts, rather than to rely solely on their academic expertise. In “A Presentation of Whales” (1980), a disturbing essay about the consternation that accompanies civilization’s inability to cope with the enormity of natural processes, in this case the death of beached whales, the reader views through the eyes of a young biologist the horror of 41 rotting whales stretched for 500 yards nose to fluke. The young man sits on a dune awestruck and saddened but with the “rush of exhilaration, because there was so much information to be gathered.” The seemingly incongruous blending of the mundane with the exotic sharpens the moments of illumination in Lopez’s essays and creates for his readers new points from which to view the landscape.
But while there is a gentle, almost spiritually rambling tone to many of Lopez’s essays, he can be confrontational and political, as he is in his extended essay The Rediscovery of North America (1990), which chides the incursion of Europeans into the New World to abuse the land, the people, and the diverse cultures. Still, he returns to the theme that nature, like art, offers the healing power of imagination: “We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language.” The thought reflects Lopez’s view of literature in America.
In an interview with Paul Pintarich of the Portland Oregonian (20 October 1994), Lopez, who lives in a cabin on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains near Eugene, Oregon, said he believes that many modern writers have been overly concerned with “interiors of the writer’s mind. There is an utter disregard for the reader’s imagination.
Wherever our society is going, it will require an expansion of imagination.”
Barry Holstun Lopez. Born 6 January 1945 in Port Chester, New York. Studied at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, A.B., 1966, M.A. in teaching, 1968; University of Oregon, 1968–69. Married Sandra Landers, 1967. Full-time writer, from 1970. Associate at the Gannett Foundation, Columbia University, New York, from 1985; visiting writer or professor at various American universities, from 1985. Contributor to many journals and
magazines; contributing editor, North American Review, from 1977, and Harper’s, 1981– 82. and from 1984.
Awards: many, including the John Burroughs Medal and Christopher Medal, both for Of Wolves and Men, 1979; National Book Award and Christopher Medal, both for Arctic Dreams, 1986; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, for Arctic Dreams, 1987, and for fiction, 1995; Francis Fuller Victor Award, for Arctic Dreams, 1987;
American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, 1987; Lannan Foundation Award, 1990; Governor’s Award for Arts, 1990; honorary degrees from two universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, 1976
Arctic Dreatns: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, 1986
Crossing Open Ground, 1988
The Rediscovery of North America, 1990
Other writings: fictional narratives, retellings of Native American tales, short stories, and a book about wolves (Of Wolves and Men, 1978).
Aton, Jim, “An Interview with Barry Lopez,” Western American Literature 21, no. 1 (May 1986):3–17
Bonetti, Kay, “An Interview with Barry Lopez,” Missouri Review 11, no. 3 (1988):59–77
Coles, Romand, “Ecotones and Environmental Ethics: Adorno and Lopez,” in The Nature of Things: Language, Politics, and the Environment, edited by Jane Bennett and William Chaloupka, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993:226–49
Lueders, Edward, editor, Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989
O’Connell, Nicholas, At the Field’s End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers, Seattle: Madrona, 1987
Paul, Sherman, Hewing to Experience: Essays and Reviews on Recent American Poetry and Poetics, lowa City: University of lowa Press, 1989
Ross, Daniel W., “Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams: Looking into a New Heart of Darkness,” CEA Critic 54, no.1 (Fall 1991):78–86
Wild, Peter, Barry Lopez, Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1984
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