on Horizon by Barry Lopez

“It’s good to know where you come from, so that you do not live as though you’re lost,” Barry Lopez writes about halfway through Horizon, his first full-length work of nonfiction since he cast his careful gaze on the far north in Arctic Dreams thirty-three years ago. At the point where he makes this assertion, he is at a camp in the Eastern Turkana uplands of northern Kenya, observing, helping out, and occasionally frustrating the paleoanthropologists who competitively scratch around here for the earliest fossil remnants of the ancestors of Homo sapiens, trying to map out the traces of where our story began. This spot, like many of those that form the heart of this book, is a place from which certainty is rarely easily extracted, even after sustained inquiry and repeated visits. The story of where we come from, Lopez believes, is not just in the bones but also in the traps we fall into as we look—the cages we construct with our own points of view. 

Horizons are not promises. They are a calling over which we disappear. When we look toward the horizon, we also have the instinct to turn our heads back and comprehend what brought us here. The lost person Lopez does not wish us to live as is the person he frets that many of us have become, “someone wearing a mask of confidence but feeling no measure of assurance—about anything.” What he offers for the lost in Horizon is a sprawling catalog of noticed things, the tiny details hidden in the planet’s confounding canvas, stretched loosely across decades. The book is a hopeful and generous offering, given via an orchestrated tangle of autobiography folded in with the stories of the scientists, explorers, and colonizers who have looked out beyond that unknowable edge for centuries. 

Lopez lays the foundations of Horizon’s long journey in the sites that have continuously called to him over his life, from the remnants of Thule settlements in the High Arctic to the desolation of the edge of the polar plateau of Antarctica, where fragments of meteorite lay hidden amongst the rubble of the wind- and time-ravaged rock of the Graves Nunataks, a range of jagged, bare protrusions of a single mountain from beneath the ice shelf. He takes us, too, from Cape Foulweather in Oregon, where Captain James Cook made his first landfall on North America’s west coast, to the south coast of Tasmania, where a chill runs through the author as he leans against a yellow Volvo in a car park at the colonial prison grounds of Port Arthur—an ominous unintentional prelude to a mass shooting just weeks after his visit, a fresh stratum of horror in the history of a place and a nation where it already runs far too deep.

Time does not move in a linear fashion through Horizon. Though Lopez is the kindest of guides, place is the reader’s only true bearing. Rarely, over the hundreds of pages, does one catch him mentioning a specific date, or helping out as his observations shift back and forth over decades. Only in the brutal specifics of events such as the 1996 Port Arthur massacre are we absolutely certain of the when of where we are. At the scale on which Lopez is working, that’s not what matters. 

He writes, as he always has, with deceptively loose grace. There’s something of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in the way the specific geographical anchors of each chapter are little more than a mooring—a trailhead for a glorious meander that is always on the verge of losing its own point before snapping so sharply into focus that it socks you in the solar plexus. As Lopez depicts the lifeless beauty of the abiotic far reaches of Antarctica, the descriptions of the cathedrals of ice or the clear water or the harsh winds are not what stop you dead—any writer can tell you that the Antarctic is cold and alien. Lopez swims you down beneath the surface, where in your diving suit you might encounter a small air pocket between the ice and the frigid water. 

If you remove your regulator in that void, the funk of stagnant seal breath will fill your nostrils and your lungs, the small thing unfurling into the universal and back again to the smallest, in sentences so deft you haven’t noticed the transport, just the rush of the arrival. Since Arctic Dreams (1986), generations of those who would write about humanity’s place on this planet have modeled their work after Lopez’s particular skill at capturing the unnoticed detail of the landscapes around us with generosity, wonder, and specificity. Thankfully, these days the tendency to downplay such work as merely “nature writing” appears to be receding, for this small-thinking, passive term entirely misses the level of vision at which Lopez and his peers aim to understand our place on the planet. Horizon is not a book about standing back and beholding the majesty of nature, but about understanding the context in which we exist, and how we as a violent and curious species aggressively and relentlessly reshape that context. The book is also not, simply, travel literature, though the nature of what it is to travel, and why Homo sapiens was compelled to do so from the start, is at the core of its enquiry. As he writes, 

Traveling encourages the revision of received wisdoms and the shedding of prejudices. It turns the mind toward a consideration of context and releases it from the dictatorship of absolute truth about humanity. It helps one understand that all people do not want to be on the same road. They prefer to be on their own road.

Though environmental catastrophe certainly loomed within Arctic Dreams, just as the inherent brutality of mankind did in 1978’s Of Wolves and Men, the concepts of “climate change” or “global warming” were too new then to figure in a manner so easily named. Ideas of the Anthropocene or the sixth mass extinction through which we are now living, and which is happening by our hands, had not yet settled, though the signs were of course there in the ice Lopez was showing us. He has not been quiet, continuing his work through a couple of masterful essay collections, a respectable body of fiction, and countless other side projects and collaborations—but to date, at least, the next generation of environmental writers has done much of the work of filling in the full horror of these new ideas. David Quammen, Elizabeth Kolbert, Rebecca Solnit, and others have picked up what he laid down back then and carried it forward into these darker days. 

Horizon is a slow and ambitious reaction to contemporary environmental and social crises. Lopez has never been the vigorous campaigner that those other writers are; his pace is more tectonic. Though his rage is deep and the threat immediate, what we most need from him is a felt, interior response to the Earth’s destruction:

However it might be viewed, the throttled Earth—the scalped, the mined, the industrially farmed, the drilled, polluted, and suctioned land, endlessly manipulated for further development and profit—is now our home. We know the wounds. We have come to accept them. And we ask, many of us, What will the next step be?

Throughout Horizon, as Lopez journeys to points of this Earth most of us will never see, he is as full of studied awe as he has ever been. But he is also terrified, and he is sad. Continued concern about war, empire, capitalism, technology, and the overwhelming nature of modern life repeatedly intrudes upon his peaceful observation, across the decades and across the continents, to the point that one begins to feel a little exhausted and—if familiar with his earlier books—confused that his past precision isn’t quite how you remember it. Points already well made emerge from every possible landscape. Half-formed thoughts that compare, say, hedge fund managers to suicide bombers interrupt tranquility without warning. But over the course of the book, these constant jolts become clearer in their cause: they are the harried interruptions of anxiety, the mental health burden of looming collapse that we all feel. Lopez is not hiding his own from us or pretending to be somehow too wise for entrapment. This is not a world in which one can remain at peace for long, and Horizon is not a retreat. Like a city dweller practicing mindfulness techniques, he navigates through fear with deliberate and calculated noticing, refocusing his gaze where it needs to be, on the things he needs to note and the things he needs us to see.

One of the most significant of the many inherent problems of writing about the colonized world from the point of view of the traveling colonizer is that, ultimately, you are not the keeper or rightful teller of the most important parts of the story. At your worst, even if your motives are sound, you are the latest explorer pulling into the bay, ready to dispatch your thoughts back to the Company at home. This is something Lopez has always wrestled with in his work, and has respected as much as one can. At best, he suggests, what he can offer those whose cultures have been brutalized by colonialism is “to listen, to be attentive. In those circumstances, giving in to the urge to say something is often only indulgent or self-serving.” 

Despite the constant probing of his own ethics throughout, Lopez is also aware that there comes a point where “the white guest does not see himself as a guest,” and he wonders whether, in his travels, he has “unconsciously behaved in some way like a grave robber, given offense where I haven’t meant to, assumed rights or privileges not mine to assume.” By way of specifically acknowledging this, he recounts his own painful attempt, amidst the remains of the ancient Skraeling Island settlements in Nunavut, to introduce remnant Thule spirits to the joys of Beethoven. As soon as the music begins to play on his tinny tape recorder, Lopez recognizes the arrogance of his well-intended gesture and stops the recording before it can finish; struck by his own shame when the music our society considers great—and the wonders of which he discusses at length here with both Arvo Part and John Luther Adams, two of the last half-century’s most adventurous and significant western classical composers—feels impossibly crass in this setting. 

I’m not sure whether Lopez sees crassness in himself again when, later, he depicts a group of Aboriginal people observing an ore train go by in the mining-ravaged landscapes of Australia’s Pilbara—and projects onto them a certainty that the train’s passage is traumatic, that its passing signifies something profoundly dark for them, without also proposing they might be a family waiting for a train to pass so they can get home to cook dinner. Certainly they may have been sad, for this land being carted away in carriages was indeed stolen from them—but he did not stop to ask them. In Lopez’s view,

[The train’s] very presence signifies their loss of ownership and denial of their access to their ancestors’ lands. This is an old story in Australia, in the Americas, or on the Tibetan Plateau, and elsewhere. But now, before them in the cars, is the very country itself, being shipped off somewhere. For a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, it would be as if Jerusalem and the ground it stood on had been put through a rock crusher, and the gravel of the tombs, the temples, the churches, and the prayer walls had been hauled away by NASA to build dormitories on the moon.

This moment stands out only because Lopez otherwise works so strenuously to avoid projecting poetic pain onto those he encounters, whether literally or in his reflections. It is a brief, rare transgression that risks undermining where his observation takes him.

Lopez’s singular capacity for empathy is one of his greatest strengths, but it is not without its risks. Horizon hits problematic waters in its reconsideration of the historical legacy of Captain Cook, whose explorations and ultimate fate are a recurring thread throughout. This reflects what the author acknowledges as an “obsessive” desire to feel contemporaneous and empathetic with a man, the same man who casts a pall like few others over the stories of many of those colonized people for whom Lopez holds such deep reverence. On a purely logical level, the reconsideration of Cook is sound and well explained: the man was a servant of empire, but he was not himself that empire, and to understand how we arrived where we are, we might be helped by understanding the man who sailed us there. Much of the historical record Lopez points to does suggest a thoughtful soul who “sought to navigate where others had been satisfied merely to sail,” who would bravely step out of orthodoxy to know something new and to wipe the words here be dragons off the map for good. Lopez’s imagined Cook was a man who, like the author, was driven to see:

Cook, I think, did not entirely trust the assumptions behind the Enlightenment principles that urged him to measure, to record, and to define the world. He did not completely concede the authority that lay behind gradations of social rank, perhaps even naval rank. He spent his life charting raw space, putting down grids and elevations, but he also understood what could not be charted, the importance of the line that separated the known from the unknown. He understood what occurred in the silence between two musical notes. He also knew, I believe, the indispensability of this. He was a connoisseur of the undifferentiated.

Lopez knows this is fraught, and he works hard to balance the competing histories. However, the assertion that Cook was a man “quietly but profoundly conflicted about the consequences of his work” seems to come more from a desire for this version of the story to be true than from anything the presented evidence solidly points to. It is also in notable contrast to Lopez’s past indictment of Christopher Columbus—in his Clark lecture published as The Rediscovery of North America (1990)where he firmly asserted that a legacy of violence and incursion could not be “isolated in the past” when it is carried still into present disaster, nor could it be considered secondary to the genius of the great discoverer. 

There is effective relief in the parallel tale Lopez weaves of another grand explorer, Ranald MacDonald, whose story likely does not sit alongside Darwin and Cook in grade-school history, but should. MacDonald was a half-Chinook seaman whose life took him from a Hudson’s Bay Company boarding school in Winnipeg to the court of the shogun in Japan, where he taught English to the emperor’s advisors four years before the arrival of Commodore Perry in Edo in 1853: “MacDonald came to believe that Japanese people were actually related to American Indians and that they were soon to suffer the same social disintegration the Chinook had at the hands of aggressive European and American traders. They would be as powerless as the Chinook, he thought, to prevent or control it.”

MacDonald’s tale is a riveting adventure, one of a man propelled across the globe without the resources of an empire behind him, compelled by what he had seen in North America to prepare those not yet conquered for the consequences of what was coming. The pages Lopez spends with this remarkable figure, previously unknown to me, are unforgettably electric, and I would gladly read an entire book of him recounting this story. By mirroring Cook’s journey with MacDonald’s, Lopez makes more sense of both, and of that age of exploration more broadly: “On their long ocean journeys, these men, each one putting to sea from a country roiled by economic change, defined a search for the ineffable.” In Lopez’s invented image of the two of them in conversation over tea on a Pacific island, “speaking out of earshot of anyone who might judge them or try to explain them,” one can only wonder at the new territory they might discover together. 

Across Horizon’s many settings, Lopez often returns to the notion of the elder, which remains consistent and anthropologically important across many societies and cultures. (MacDonald himself, ultimately, becomes something of one.) Elders, Lopez finds, don’t just embody competence but are also a constant and committed “wellspring of calmness.” They are the knowledge carriers, the chaos sorters, those who would gesture in the right direction without demanding you march there. They do this not necessarily because they have built the grandest buildings or fought the bravest battles, but because they have observed, and they have learned, over time, how to put it all together. Over the course of decades of quiet observation, Lopez too has hung back, observed, watched people who know more than he ask the more studied questions, and he has only complained internally when those experts left him off the helicopter to go to the places a writer is not invited. Barry Lopez is never the scientist, never the discoverer. He is the gatherer.

“Elders,” he says, “are looking neither for an audience nor for confirmation. They know who they are, and the people around them know who they are. They do not need to tell you who they are . . . Elders are more often listeners than speakers. And when they speak they can talk for a long while without using the word I.” Lopez is not talking of himself, for an elder would not. But between Arctic Dreams and here, that is what he has become. The most intimate moments of “I”—his own cancer diagnosis, his survival of childhood sexual abuse, and the recent suicide of his younger brother—are recounted only in heartbreaking endnotes, as though these are an aside to the central existential questions of the narrative. 

We all suffer. Darwin’s curse upon and gift to our species, Lopez tells us, is the certainty that Homo sapiens is an animal like all others, in a transitional form without a destination, whatever we may destroy along the way. Our existence, like that of all other creatures, is ultimately an advance into darkness—and this, however strangely, is the key message of a book I would call profoundly hopeful in spirit.

Lopez opens Horizon’s journey with a perfect moment that ripples throughout. He sits poolside with his wife and grandson in Hawaii, after a morning snorkeling through a coral reef and pondering the wrecks of Pearl Harbor. As he reads, and ponders the wisdom of introducing his grandson to these relics of war, his thinking is disrupted by the flash of a Japanese woman gliding into the pool with a graceful dive: “A scrim of water rises around her like the flair of a flamenco dancer’s skirt. The pool water shatters into translucent gems.” As his grandson waves and the gems sparkle, he marks his place in the book and summons all his power to hold the moment still: “I want everyone here to survive what is coming.” 

Barry Lopez knows that none of us are getting out alive. Whether or not Horizon is his final major work remains to be seen, but what he has gifted to us is what we depend on our elders for: a generous way of looking at where we are, and an invitation to comprehend differently and newly the possibilities of what’s still in front of us, even under a shadow of darkness. 

There’s hope in that, and things worth saving. If nothing else, we may be able to live a little less as though we are lost. 


Horizon. By Barry Lopez. New York: Knopf, 2019. 592 pp. $30.00.


Patrick Pittman is a writer and editor who has reported from many remote corners of the planet for print, radio, online, and film. He was previously the editor of the Montreal-based magazine The Alpine Review and the Australian magazine Dumbo Feather. His debut theater work, Prompter, was staged in Melbourne in 2013. He is currently based in Toronto.