I FIRST MET BARRY LOPEZ decades ago, on a trip to Alaska with my partner, Graeme Gibson. “Welcome to Alaska,” people said, “where the women are men and the men are animals.” It might have been a joke, but there was some truth to it, and a truth that was somewhat familiar to me. I grew up in the north and Alaska is the north. Tough women.
But if you’re going to be an animal, it matters which animal. It’s one thing to be a weasel, another to be a wolf. If you pick wolf, you most likely have Barry to thank. Loyal to their pack, smart, resourceful, survival-oriented, and good-looking as well: what’s not to like? Well, there’s being slaughtered from helicopters. That doesn’t happen to weasels. There is that.
We were already great fans of Barry’s work. Of Wolves and Men (1978) was a breakthrough, as was Arctic Dreams (1986). To meet Barry was to feel we were entering a sphere where a language was spoken that had been fading away—the language of our inseparable connection with the natural world—yet here was a speaker who was renewing it. Barry was a prophet in the wilderness, not that he would have called it a wilderness. A lonely speaker then—he must often have wondered whether anyone was truly listening—he is an essential speaker now. Though many of his contemporaries in the seventies and eighties may not, by and large, have understood the urgency of his message, the young people of such worldwide movements as Extinction Rebellion grasp it very well. Every breath we inhale comes from Nature; kill it and we kill ourselves. The oceans are the lungs of the planet, and the northern oceans are the key to that system, a system that has made Earth a Goldilocks planet for eons.
Now that the man-made Sixth Great Extinction is upon us and the Arctic is melting, the centrality of Barry’s writing is self-evident. We lose our connection with the matrix that sustains us at our peril, and that peril is approaching faster than once anticipated. Let us hope that Barry Lopez will not prove to be a singer of the loved and the lost. The loved “blue marble,” the loved wild—if they are irreparably lost, so will we be. Reading Barry’s work—rereading it—is to remind ourselves how very great—and how immeasurably stupid—that loss would be.
Thank you, Barry.