Curtains of Geese

Benjamin Lytal

  • Horizon by Barry Lopez
    Bodley Head, 572 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 1 84792 577 0

Towards the end of his best-known book, Arctic Dreams (1986), after chapters on migratory routes, ice, and musk oxen, Barry Lopez recounts the legend of Saint Brendan, the sixth-century Irish monk who sailed north with his brethren in a leathern boat. The monks see an iceberg – ‘a crystal pillar’ – and row towards it, though it takes three days to reach, finally threading a tunnel in the berg that, in the setting sun, seems ‘like the eye of God’. Lopez has much to say about the arrogance, racism and barbarism of Europeans, but he emphasises the goodness of a few: ‘these impeccable, generous, innocent, attentive’ monks, who were, ‘one must think, the perfect travellers’.

How to be a traveller is, for Lopez, the great question. In his first collection of short stories, Desert Notes (1976), the human is always offside in the landscape. ‘I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here.’ In 1981 he gave up freelancing as a nature photographer because National Geographic didn’t think enough happened in his photographs. Lopez himself had also grown dissatisfied with the isolated instants captured in his pictures. Instead, he chose to record his experiences by taking extensive notes at the end of each travelling day. What he finally captured, in Arctic Dreams, was the complexity of a supposedly barren, landscape: huge curtains of geese, arctic caterpillars, 19th-century tins of Prince Albert tobacco lying on the ground, lemmings that burst out of underground caves, eggshells falling like snow from sea-cliff nests.

Horizon, his most recent book, begins at a tourist resort in Hawaii. Lopez is an old man now, a grandfather reading in a deckchair while his wife and grandson play in the surf. He takes in his fellow holidaymakers – ‘they all seem to have the bearing of people familiar with luxury, as I imagine that state.’ He notices their expensive clothes, the crisp, impatient way they read the newspapers, their ease with the staff. A Japanese woman makes a practised dive into the pool. ‘I want to thank the woman for her exquisite dive,’ he writes. ‘I want to wish each stranger I see in the chairs and lounges around me, every one of them, an untroubled life. I want everyone here to survive what is coming.’

The stakes have changed since 1986. The scene at the resort looks like a riposte to the title story from Lopez’s collection Light Action in the Caribbean (2000), in which two shallow, mean-spirited American tourists meet a gratuitous end in the tropics. In interviews Lopez has said that he waited so long to write Horizon because he was angry: ‘I had to bleed all that off before I wrote the book.’ But the difference between Arctic Dreams and Horizon is not that Lopez has become nice. Rather, Arctic Dreams concerned the fate of the land, but Horizon concerns the fate of humans.

Nevertheless, geography still structures Horizon. Lopez camps in Oregon; studies prehistoric survival in the high Arctic; measures the tension between conservation and democracy in the Galápagos Islands; scours a remote part of Kenya for hominid fossils; reckons with prisons and aboriginal dispossession in Australia; and, finally, revels in Antarctica.

In his introduction, Lopez picks out other places where he’d felt a ‘peculiar sense of urgency about humanity’s fate’. As part of a writer’s delegation to China in 1987 he blunders into a crowded night market where endangered river dolphins, monkeys and songbirds are being sold as food, and sees the West’s future, ‘when we [will] begin killing and consuming every last living thing.’ In 2012, working as a paid guide on an Arctic ecotourism trip, Lopez sails into Peel Sound, to show his charges polar bears hunting on the pack ice – only to find iceless water. In Kabul in 2007 he visits an asylum that houses people ‘driven mad by the war’. Afterwards, his Red Crescent minder ‘seemed ashamed and embarrassed, grieved by what we had seen. He hadn’t wanted me to see it.’

The best parts of Horizon are like a carefully constructed mosaic. In the first and most singular section, ‘Cape Foulweather’, you hardly know what you’ll be reading about from page to page. Lopez is camping on the coast of Oregon, a place he visits regularly. This time he’s there to meet a storm. He finds a bra strapped to a tree stump, shot full of holes. He then lists some of the places he’ll visit, over the coming years, in order to better understand human suffering. He envies the coming storm: ‘It’s entirely free. Its own idea.’ He assesses the literature on James Cook as both revisionist and jingoistic. He recalls visiting several places Cook visited – something Cook’s biographers often neglect to do. He is camping in an area that has been logged, and observes that it’s late in the day to bemoan the practice of clear-cutting; similarly, the attempt to distinguish between native and non-native plants can become ‘a xenophobic pastime’. He praises the view from the cape, ‘a huge domed space’, and the sense it gives that humanity has ‘more room … to manoeuvre’ than it thinks. He imagines the Mariana Trench and the submariner who got to experience that depth. He mentions Halobates, water-skimming insects that live on the open sea, out of sight of land. He tries to find constellations in the night sky; he writes of a friend who discovered the first lunar meteorite. In one of the book’s most memorable episodes, he takes a telescope and slowly scans the entire ocean horizon, degree by degree, from breakfast until dusk. Always playing with scale, he wonders if images from another telescope, the Hubble, could put humanity’s direst problems in perspective. Lopez always carries a 17th-century Spanish piece of eight as a reminder that his stepfamily built the boats Cortés used on Lake Xochimilco to conquer the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. But he believes that it’s necessary to do something more than just identify exploitative cultures, ‘the Genghis Khans, the Pizarros, and the Trujillos’. Just as potential medicines are destroyed in the felling of the rainforest, ways of assessing loss and conceiving hope are locked away in languages we can’t speak – many, like that of the Tillamook and Alsean people native to the cape are now lost. But ‘human cultures need to distinguish between sentimentality about loss and the imperative to survive.’ The job of elders is not to die defending tradition but to recognise early that change is coming and ‘to locate, again, a through line to the future’.

This is a reasonably faithful summary of just thirty pages of the book. It may sound frantic, but that’s not the way it felt to me. Lopez packs his pages like the hold of a cargo plane, with everything strapped down, aisles between, and labelled. The argument is sometimes fleeting, and Horizon is a less focused book than Arctic Dreams, but it has a definite design – like that of a garden. He wants to place the Mariana Trench beside the ‘huge domed space’; he wants to talk about ‘invasive species’ (like bamboo in suburban gardens) in sight of Cook. The book’s style acts out its therapeutic aim: a battle against despair. ‘Most anyone today can imagine the biblical horsemen of the Apocalypse deployed on the horizon, pick out each one and characterise him.’

What can Lopez do with all his travels? Where can he house the lessons of a peripatetic life? This may not be the high-stakes book about climate change we initially want it to be; rather, it is a book about knowing the frustrations of the world – and what might happen to it. In a section about camping on Cape Foulweather, he writes at some length about Cook’s ‘exasperation’ – with an ignoble crew, a public hungry for tales of cannibals, a wife and child he hardly knew – and pairs him with the half-Chinook, half-Scots mestizo Ranald MacDonald, who, in 1848, went to Japan, where he taught the shogunate court English, hoping to prepare them, it seems, for the inevitable invasion of western culture. Lopez imagines a meeting between Cook and MacDonald – ‘I infer from their biographies that both died without having anyone really to talk to’ – and the reader intuits that Lopez wants to make a third at the table and that Horizon is the conversation he imagines the three men would have.

Late in the book, Lopez is down a snow pit in Antarctica, helping scientists collect sterile samples from snow that fell hundreds of years ago and can to help establish a chemical history of the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s tempting to see Horizon, a book thirty years in the making (Lopez was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to write it in 1987), as having its own layers, the topmost iced with the adrenaline and fear of the present moment while the middle snow has a looser texture. Most of the travels described here were undertaken between 1985 and 2005.

After Arctic Dreams, Lopez’s work – particularly his fiction – became increasingly character-based, anticipating the turn towards human fate in Horizon. By the time Field Notes was published in 1994, Lopez’s short stories had settled into a pattern: most of them concerned a relatively normal person who encounters someone extraordinary. A local contractor becomes fascinated with a local hermit and watches him pray. A brash anthropologist seeks out uncontacted aborigines and discovers their powers. A man realises his estranged sister is not a heedless rebel but an outstanding outdoorswoman. An element of wishfulness runs through these stories, but what makes them interesting is the ordinary person’s groping sense of another person’s way of knowing.

In Lopez’s first non-fiction book, Of Wolves and Men (1978), wolves are the extraordinary other. After 75 pages discussing biological information about wolves, Lopez announces: ‘It occurred to me early on in my association with wolves that I was distrustful of science.’ The book then asks what Nunamiut hunters (who share wolves’ prey) know about the animals. Comparing the hunter’s knowledge with that of thebiologists’, Lopez surmises that the Nunamiut are just as precise as the scientists, but more open-ended in their conclusions. The wolf becomes the other that man jealously wants to be, and should therefore try to imagine in better faith.

Now Lopez is the other – not, he stresses in interviews, an extraordinary person, but someone who has had the opportunity to travel and see so much of the world. Someone, Horizon emphasises, who wants to share his experiences. An essay from 1989, ‘Apologia’, prefigures the difficulty of doing just this. Lopez has been driving from Oregon to Indiana to visit a friend; on the way he pulls over several times to attend to roadkill. He stops, waits for the traffic to clear, and then pulls the recently dead animal off the road and into the decency of the grass. When he finally turns into his friend’s driveway, he doesn’t know how to behave. He anticipates ‘the powerful antidote of … conversation’, but doesn’t entirely want it.

Horizon is full of small miscommunications, unasked questions, odd tensions between Lopez and his scientific colleagues. He makes a point of recording them. In every section something unnerves him: that bra used as target practice, a pair of men in the Galápagos pitching Lopez a story on sex tourism, a helicopter pilot bullying the scientists he is ferrying to Antarctica, the Kenyan airport security men who make fun of the bundle of stones and feathers Lopez has brought from his home in Oregon. And then there are his own moments of presumption. At one point, Lopez plays Beethoven’s Ninth for the spirits of the prehistoric dead on Skraeling Island in Nunavut. After the first movement, he stops the tape, horrified by his own earnestness. You get the impression that he doesn't recover from the episode for many weeks.