Many of the 17 ‘essays’ in Barry Lopez’s About This Life are fragments of memoir: snapshots of the day of a mother’s death from cancer; early road trips up and down America; Jesuit prep school in Manhattan; childhood years in California; a tributary career in photography. The book begins with a series of travelogues. Lopez dives the coral reef off the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, finding the patterns and colours of reef life ‘displayed like Persian rugs in glycerin hues’. He describes a trip through Hokkaido, northernmost of the Japanese islands; an expedition to McMurdo Station in Antarctica and a voyage through the Galapagos Islands. His research into the human and physical geographies of these places, their flora and fauna, the stories of their colonisation, is assiduous. His observation is acute. Inspecting the frozen corpses of Antarctic seals, he notes that ‘the peculiar cheek teeth, ornate with tiny, interlocking cusps, stand out boldly in their highly evolved but useless efficiency.’ But these pieces remain examples of high reportage, lacking the concentration and burnish of essays.
The book takes off with a piece called ‘Flight’. Intrigued by the sight of ‘windowless air freighters lumbering by on taxiways’, Lopez resolves to fly around the world in the company of freight. He reads up on the history of flight. He watches the assembly of a 747 freighter. The finished plane gleams ‘like an ideal ... an exquisite reification of the desire for beauty’. He notices that it has ‘the curved flanks of a baleen whale, in an identical scale, exact to the extended flukes of its horizontal stabiliser’. He flies with freight from Amsterdam to Cape Town, north to Anchorage, and east on the Tashkent Route across Russia to Uzbekistan, Kabul, Karachi, Singapore and Jakarta. The freighters carry the coffins of returning nationals; a matching set of four blue Porsche 911s; a complete prefabricated California ranch-style house; a tropical hardwood bowling-alley from Bangkok. Lopez flies from Santiago to Japan with 175 penguins, and from Chicago to Japan with a cargo of thoroughbred horses – Appaloosas, quarter-horses, a Percheron stallion. The horses are left unshod to give them a better hold on the stall floor. The essay brings out the bizarre in the modern world – its speeds and collapsed distances, its ‘starkly different renderings of the valuable’.
Another essay, ‘Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire’, is the biography of a potter’s kiln in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon: a wood-burning Anagama kiln of Korean and Japanese design, in which firings can last as long as a month. Lopez’s research is characteristically thorough. He has investigated the history of the kiln and the physics of each firing. He has read Jack Troy’s Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, Gaston Bachelard’s writings about fire and the work of the ceramics historian Daniel Rhodes. He has learnt that ‘most clays derive from the disintegration of granitic and feldspathic rock and consist of silicates and aluminium oxides bound with water molecules.’ He knows that ‘the way the kiln is loaded sets up wind currents that affect the circulation of the flame and ash, sometimes creating strong back eddies that will accentuate the asymmetric glazing typical of anagama pottery.’ The essay’s latent analogy is that of the kiln as the imagination, the transforming fire.
Arctic Dreams, which was first published in 1986 and won the American National Book Award, was written after ‘four or five’ years of travelling in the Arctic; its cargo of observation and research is colossal. It describes the history of settlement in the Arctic: how the first colonists of North America crossed from Asia on the Bering land bridge 25,000 years ago and were succeeded by the early cultures of the far north – the Arctic Small Tool tradition, the Pre-Dorset, the Punuk, the Thule, the Polar, Central and Caribou Eskimo. Lopez retells the history of Arctic exploration by the ‘Western’ world: the sixth-century journeys of the Irish abbot Saint Brendan; the later expeditions of Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson (who became a bay), William Baffin (who became an island) and Vitus Bering (who became a strait). He describes Robert Peary claiming the North Pole for America, and how, to keep up the morale of his men, Richard Collinson erected a billiard table on the sea-ice of Cambridge Bay. The table was fashioned from snow blocks, the cushions from walrus skin stuffed with oakum. The table surface was a finely-shaved sheet of freshwater ice; the balls were hand-carved from lignum vitae.
Lopez draws on botany, field biology, ethnography, anthropology, geology, palaeontology and astronomy. He invokes the Arctic scenes of Friedrich and Landseer, and endorses the attempts of American painters like Frederick Edwin Church and the luminists ‘to locate an actual spiritual presence in the North American landscape’. He is fluent in the physics as well as the wonder of the tricks of Arctic light – solar arcs, rings, haloes and coronas; whiteouts, the aurora borealis, the sea-mirage known as fata Morgana. He invests ice with character: islands and floes, sea-ice in its several forms (frazil, grey, grease, first-year, paleocrystic) and the marvellous apparitions of icebergs, like ‘fallen pieces of the moon’, calved from the western glaciers of the Greenland ice-cap, so grand that watching them from a ship feels to Lopez ‘like standing in a dirigible off Annapurna and Everest’. He explains that while sea ice moves with the wind, the deep-keeled icebergs move with the current, and so may plough a course through the frozen surface. Ships may seek out the wake of an iceberg and take advantage of this passage through open water.
A polar bear’s understanding of ice has been honed and refined over thousands of years: ‘On a sheet of sea-ice so thin it would not support a human step, you would see traces where a bear had crossed with skating steps like a water strider, sprawled nearly on its chest’. Lopez describes the spiders and insects that lie frozen for the winter, hibernating in a bead of ice as if in amber. He observes the caribou, the lemming, the sandhill crane and the walrus – the full-grown males approaching the size of small cars. He watches the great tides of migrant birds and the herds of musk-oxen. Each musk-ox, he reports, has a ‘long, glossy skirt’ of guard hair: the Eskimo word for musk-ox translates as ‘the animal with skin like a beard’. He is enthralled by narwhals, with ‘ivory tusks spiralling out of their foreheads, the image of the unicorn with which history has confused them’. He looks down into a narwhal’s mouth, at ‘the accordion pleats of its tongue, at the soft white interior splashed with Tyrian purple’. That allusion to Carthage and its famous purple dye (derived from whelks) is typical of the classical marquetry which adorns his scientific observation. His evocation of a narwhal’s ‘sea-washed back’ echoes Homer, a reminder of the ‘sea-shouldering whales’ that Keats so admired.
The first-hand observations and densely packed detail ground Lopez’s polemical project. Arctic Dreams is in part a series of dispatches on despoliation, the consequences of ‘the sudden arrival of a foreign technology’ – the mines, drill rigs and outposts of industrial development, where Lopez discovers ‘some of the saddest human lives I have ever seen’. He describes the debris of recent camps – spent ammunition, tins of evaporated milk and Prince Albert crimpcut tobacco, used torch batteries ‘in clusters like animal droppings’. He writes of ‘a heedless imposition on the land and on the people, a rude invasion’. He raises the spectres of oil blowouts, pollution from mine tailings, the icebreakers’ disruption of sea-ice, and points to the British fleet’s slaughter in the 19th century of 38,000 bowhead whales in the Davis Strait fishery as a microcosm of the large-scale advance of Western culture into the Arctic. In 1986, the bowhead whale population was believed to stand at around two hundred.
For Lopez it is not just the environment but also an attitude, a way of being, that is under threat. Members of ‘civilised’ or ‘Western’ societies are greatly mistaken, he argues, in their neglect of the wisdom of aboriginal and hunting cultures. We are wrong to ‘mistake a rude life for a rude mind’. In so doing, we overlook ‘a nameless wisdom’, an idea of ‘how to live a decent life, how to behave properly toward other people and toward the land’. In the introduction to About This life, Lopez reaffirms his admiration for the hunting cultures he first learned about in the course of his anthropological research: ‘They did not separate humanity and nature. They recognised the immanence of the divine in both.’ In Arctic Dreams, he describes the way we have ‘irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy’.
Like Emerson and Thoreau, Lopez has a doctrine, a plan, an agenda for self-improvement. People, he writes, ‘must learn restraint’. In Arctic Dreams he refers to our ‘obligation’ to the land, our duty ‘to approach it with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try and sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather and colours and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned.’ His travels in the Arctic leave him with ‘a simple abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well. And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.’ That respect is theatrically symbolised at the beginning and end of Arctic Dreams, where he describes how, out walking alone, he gave in to the urge to bow to the landscape.
Lopez has a weak spot for this kind of portentous gesture – and for the vatic note, the ponderous, oracular voice. ‘Here, in an owl’s flight feather, is the illiterate voice of the heart,’ he declares in ‘A Short Passage in Northern Hokkaido’. Concrete detail often dissolves into such abstractions, as if he had suddenly been reminded of his Delphic responsibility. In Arctic Dreams he remarks: ‘in the stillness of a summer evening, the world sheds its categories, the insistence of its future, and is suspended solely in the lilt of its desire.’ As with Emerson and Thoreau, Lopez’s celebrations of nature invariably end in a prophet’s cadence. The illiterate voice of the heart; the lilt of the world’s desire: this is the register and rhetoric of the Buddhist koan.
The resemblance may not be entirely coincidental. In ‘Effleurage’, Lopez refers approvingly to ‘the beginner’s mind to which Buddhists aspire’. His keen attention suggests the ‘mindfulness’ of Zen practitioners, a connection made explicit in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which is ‘nature writing’ and Buddhist primer in roughly equal proportions. Thoreau described himself as ‘one who loved so well the philosophy of India’, and peppered Walden with quotations from the Vedas, the Harivansa and the Bhagavadgita. The inspiration of the New England Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau is pervasive. In ‘Effleurage’, Lopez describes the potter Jack as ‘a protégé of Thoreau’ (he should know); and ‘the great drift and pause of life’ to which he refers are precisely analogous to Emerson’s Motion and Rest: ‘the first and second secrets of nature’.
Emerson was careful to insist that human beings were part of the natural history of any given place. ‘If we consider how much we are nature’s,’ he wrote, ‘we need not be superstitious about towns, as if that terrific or benefic force did not find us there also, and fashion cities. Nature who made the mason, made the house.’ Here Lopez seems to disagree. To him, humankind is distinct from the natural world, fallen from its grace. In ‘Searching for Depth in Bonaire’, he ponders ‘the ordinary venality and inevitable shallowness of so much in human affairs – the coarseness and greed of life, the failure of ideals, the withering of our aspirations’. In Arctic Dreams he alludes to ‘the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance’. The Arctic’s unfamiliar ‘regimes of light and time’ draw attention to ‘the narrow impetuosity of Western schedules’. We have lapsed, he writes, into ‘a kind of provincialism that vitiates the imagination, that stifles the capacity to envision what is different’.
People are confined to the periphery of his imaginative world, as if roped off from some precious site. In ‘Flight’ he tells us that the vast Russian Antonov 124 has transported French fighter planes to Venezuela, 132 tons of stage equipment for a Michael Jackson concert, 36,000 cubic feet of cigarettes and a complete bottling plant for Pepsi-Cola. But the pilots, the handlers of the horses and penguins, the airport stevedores and the guards who watch over the depots all remain faceless, without colour, nuance, accent or caprice. We learn only that the pilots ‘have a remarkable ability to relax for hours in a state of alertness’. Yet these people are as much a part of the natural history of freight as the great planes. When, in ‘Effleurage’, Lopez describes the potter, Jack, and notes ‘the way his belt bypasses belt loops’, the detail is entirely unexpected: here at last is a glimpse of human idiosyncrasy, a character coming to life, the behavioural ecology of a man.
Lopez’s writing is resistant to the quirkiness of people, to laughter and irreverence. The shrewd Yankee wit with which Thoreau lights up Walden – imagining Atlas, bearing the firmament on his shoulders, his first impulse is to wonder if anyone’s paying him for the service – is nowhere evident in either Arctic Dreams or About This Life. Lopez’s sense of the seriousness of the task at hand keeps the prose furrowed and set firm. When, referring to the narwhal’s tusk, he writes that ‘Herman Melville drolly suggested they used it as a letter-opener,’ there is an audible note of disapproval in the ‘drolly’, as though laughter were not quite the appropriate response to such a natural miracle.
The appropriate response is awe, wonder, a sense of the sublime, what Edward Hoagland described as the mingling of ‘rhapsody with science’ characteristic of American nature writing derived from Emerson and Thoreau. Lopez’s scientific research is exhaustive, but he understands the importance of being flabbergasted. In ‘The American Geographies’ he writes: ‘If the sand and floodwater farmers of Arizona and New Mexico were to take the black loams of Louisiana in their hands they would be flabbergasted, and that is the beginning of literature.’ (He puts the remark in parentheses, the brackets themselves like cupped palms around the soil.)
Arctic Dreams could be described as a sequence of eloquent flabbergastings. It celebrates the sight of ‘a herd of musk-oxen, pivoting together on a hilltop to make a defensive stand, their long guard hairs swirling around them like a single, huge wave of dark water’, or the appearance of an arctic fox who ‘runs up on slight elevations and taps the air all over with his nose’. It depicts bituminous shale fires that have burned underground for centuries, leaving the hillsides smouldering; cliffs of snow tinted blood-red from pigments in the cell walls of freshwater algae; a core of aquamarine ice gleaming below the surface of a tundra pond ‘like the constricted heart of winter’; and hundreds of feathers falling to the ground from a passing flock of moulting ducks: a snowfall of duckdown.
About This Life is similarly generous with marvels. Lopez sees flamingos sleeping on the dark surface of a Galapagos lagoon – ‘a moment of such peace, every troubled thread in a human spirit might have uncoiled and sorted itself into graceful order’. Looking down from the freight planes, he describes the distinctive glows of cities ‘diffused like spiral galaxies’ far below; the ‘dense, blazing arch’ of the Milky Way; the ‘wind-whipped pennants’ of gas flares in Algeria and on the Asian steppes; the ‘great pompadour waves’ of sunlit cumulus cloud; the ‘tangible effulgence’ of sunlight at 37,000 feet: the Earth’s shows. If research is the ballast of both Arctic Dreams and About This Life, wonder is the wind in their sails.
‘The Whaleboat’, one of the most affecting essays in About This Life, finds Lopez sitting in his study, reading an account of 19th-century Arctic exploration. He looks out of the window, into the trees of Oregon. The indoors opens out onto the outdoors. His gaze settles on a wood-model of a whaleboat. He thinks about Moby-Dick, about the interior world of books and the world ‘beyond the windows, where no event has been collapsed into syntax, where the vocabulary, it seems, is infinite’. He looks back at the model of the boat. He returns to his reading. In ‘A Passage of the Hands’, he undertakes the biography of his own hands: their various dexterities, their practised flair, their experience of tools and bodies, and their memories of texture – ‘the even give of warm wax, the raised oak grain in my school-desk top, the fuzziness of dead bumblebees, the coarseness of sheaves immediate to the polished silk of unhusked corn.’ The essay is an attempt to see how much of a life’s story might be read in the hand’s code of crease and scar.
Have the correct regard for what is near at hand, these books imply, and you will be rich beyond account. For Lopez, ‘wealth’ might mean the ivory and pearl shading in a polar bear’s fur, caused by the refraction of sunlight in its guard hairs. (These hairs are hollow, ‘which means that a polar bear’s fur stays erect and doesn’t mat when it is wet’, and they function ‘like light pipes’, funnelling energy from the sun to the bear’s black skin.) It might mean an understanding of the casual drift of the North Magnetic Pole, which, in 1985, was 400 miles to the north and west of its 1831 position. It might mean the sight of the winter sunrises of the far north, when the sun appears on the southern horizon and then sinks at nearly the same spot, ‘like a whale rolling over’.