John Luther Adams
David Lukas (Video w/ Rob Macfarlane)
Kathleen Dean Moore
John Luther Adams
BARRY, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? You and I have been friends for almost forty years now.
We’ve donned hip waders and walked together in the whitewater of your beloved McKenzie River. We’ve walked the woods and hills of the Goldstream Valley. One snowy afternoon, in the crepuscular winter light, as we hiked up the mountain above Cynthia’s and my house, you told me at length about your idea for a sprawling book that would somehow encompass the whole earth with the same intensity and specificity as Arctic Dreams. A few years later, while you were working on that book, Horizon, we spent several days in my wood-burning cabin studio listening to, discussing, and studying the scores of all the Beethoven symphonies. We’ve worked together on several creative projects over the years, and we’ve enjoyed one another’s company all over this continent.
Between our times together, we’ve sustained a running conversation. From time to time, you’d call me to read a passage you were working on, anything that had to do with music or sound. I remember a long discussion about the subtitle of your book Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren. It always felt good to be of some small help to you, and we both relished exploring and discovering the equivalences between our work. How many times over the years have we said to one another: “You and I are doing the same work, in different disciplines.”?
That work is usually solitary. But knowing that you were there in your studio doing your work, made my work in my studio a little less lonely. The oriole nest that you gave me, with the long strands of cassette tape woven into it, is a cherished talisman, always close at hand. And whenever I leave my studio with unfinished work on the table, I always bow and back out of the room, the same way that you bow and back out of yours.
Somewhere along the way, you and I began calling each another “Brother.” Both of us came from troubled families, and over the course of our lives we’ve re-created our own families of people with whom we share ties deeper than blood. You, dear Brother, are the heart and soul of the family I have chosen. I’ve relied on you to give me courage and insight, to help me remember what matters most.
A few years ago, you and I sat on the terrace of Cynthia’s and my apartment in Harlem, taking the afternoon sun, rambling in the easy conversation of two old friends. “You don’t have to answer this now,” I said. “But at some point, I’d appreciate a little direction. I need you to tell me: What should I do when we’re no longer able to sit side by side?” You smiled, chuckled, and said: “Oh, that’s easy, John. I can answer you now. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
You made your home in the rainforest on the west slope of the Cascades to protect a beautiful stand of trees from clear-cut logging. You lived and worked there for fifty years. Until the fire came. It’s cruelly ironic that your forest has now been logged to salvage the charred remains, and that you who spoke so eloquently about the changes we are making to the earth, passed your final days as a climate refugee.
In one of our last conversations, you said to me: “We will all pass away. It’s the earth that is precious.”
I understand, and I feel the same way. But you too, Barry, are precious to me. Your love, your faith, your devotion to the work, and to the earth, have sustained me all these years. And I promise you now that I will continue my own devotion to that work for as long as I live.
Rest well, dear Brother. Know that I love you. And I always will.
John Luther Adams discovered a unique musical world grounded in space, stillness, and elemental forces while living for almost forty years in northern Alaska. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, he worked full time as an environmental activist. But the time came when he felt compelled to dedicate himself entirely to music. He has become one of the most widely admired composers in the world, receiving the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and many other honors. In works such as Become Ocean, In the White Silence, and Canticles of the Holy Wind, Adams brings the sense of wonder that we feel outdoors into the concert hall. And in outdoor works such as Inuksuit and Sila: The Breath of the World, he employs music as a way to reclaim our connections with place, wherever we may be. Since leaving Alaska, JLA and his wife Cynthia have made their home in the deserts of Mexico, Chile, and the southwestern United States. Photo: Pete Woodhead.
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.
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in more than forty-five countries, is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; as well as The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam, and Hag-Seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award. In 2019, she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature.
In early summer, we spoke about the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its role as an agent of betterment of the world. This felt an extension of our conversation about what kind of a needful reassessment and goodness a writer must bring about, how we can—soberly, responsibly—counter despair. I am too solitary to make any kind of generalization about writers, but I imagine, or maybe hope, that it is a question about which all writers think, or at least all writers worth their mettle.
Perhaps because I have known hunger and have witnessed starvation, I have always felt writing was not enough, that I also must feed people. So this year, because of the pandemic-imposed distance, I have been making jam. I don’t know if the jar I mailed you and Debra made it in time, but while I was wrapping it, I thought of you talking about a writer’s role onstage in Portland, Oregon, a year ago, during that conversation we had in public. I was watching all the people in the audience who came to hear you, who later stood in line to have you sign their copies of Horizon. Every one of them had responded to your work’s example (or challenge, or encouragement) to listen, to foster attention and astonishment and respect, to develop—or at least to imagine—an emotional vocabulary against depravity. I have no idea who any of those people were, or how they go about their daily lives; I do know that they look up to you, that you set an example, and in this way, through their attention to your encouragement, the world is changed, is changing.
Dear Barry, on my desktop is a photograph a friend took from a fishing dock on the east bank of the Euphrates, in Falljuah, at sundown, in September 2003. It is a photograph of a boy jumping off the railing of the dock. The boy reminds me of Lazarus in the Caravaggio painting, the way he bridges the two chiaroscuro banks; he also makes me think of flight, his wings two-thirds of the way to an upstroke, tips pointed like an albatross, and the sun skims a benedictory doubled flare off his shoulder blade. And directly underneath him the river ripples in two concentric circles that I think are pursed there in the middle to keep him in the air, to hold him aloft.
That evening in Fallujah, before my friend and I met this boy, I filed a newspaper story about a bombing, by the US military, that destroyed a farmhouse not far from the fishing dock, and killed and wounded members of the family that lived in it; two of the wounded were brothers, eleven and nine years old, Hussein and Tahseen. And yet—and yet—that very same day, there was this bird boy, a fisherman’s son, taking flight over the eternal river, glowing, pushing all shadow out of the frame. This is what you teach your readers to see, how we steady the heart and indeed how we soar, no matter the shadow, and in such light. Gratitude.
Anna Badkhen is a writer and essayist who has spent most of her life in the Global South. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and the Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones. Her immersive investigations of the world’s iniquities have yielded six books of literary nonfiction. She has written about a dozen wars on three continents, and her essays and short stories appear in periodicals and literary magazines such as the New York Review of Books, Granta, The Common, Scalawag, Guernica, the Paris Review, and the New York Times. Badkhen is a contributing editor to the Mānoa Journal. Photo: Kael Alford
Barry Lopez Whale Dream
DECEMBER 26, 2:00 a.m. I’m standing on Cape Foulweather, at the edge of a cliff, looking down into the ocean at a single whale, gray-purple in the expanse. I am trying to time my breath to the breath of the whale. Because the distance between us is so great, I can only rely on my sight. The whale surfaces, and I breathe out as I watch the white blossom of steam dissipate. And then I breathe in and hold my breath as the whale sinks below the ocean’s surface. We do this several times, until I finally get it right. This time, as I hold my breath and the whale sinks, I feel all of the air on the cape become pressurized, and the whole world begins to experience what that whale is going through. It is not just me; the whole world is becoming the whale.
And then I experience a strange shift in my breathing: when I close my nose and mouth, I don’t actually stop breathing; channels open up to various parts of me, the breath travels out my legs, out my arms, into each organ, into each hair. I become intoxicated with the new movement of my breath, how it illuminates all parts of me. I see with great clarity that my new life has to do with breathing through language, that when Charles Olson uses the word field, he is thinking of breath functioning like a gravitational field in which language, as mass and energy, experiences a similar form of concentration and attenuation. I understand this as a teaching delivered to me within the universality of the dream.
The distance between me and the whale collapses. The whale begins to concentrate its breath, and I mine. The whale draws in its breath for one last time and rises out of the ocean, but not as a breach from which it will crash back into the water. Instead, it is sounding, a kind we don’t know about, a reverse-sounding in which it starts swimming through the air and into the sky. It is using its whole body to measure a new depth of something it had long wished to know. It crosses a threshold into that condition described in a gospel: When the inner and outer are one, and the above is like the below . . .
The whale rises vertically now, hundreds of feet above the ocean, passing where I stand on the Foulweather cliff. As it comes level with me, it pauses to look at me with one eye. Its entire being radiates what can only be described as love and something like selfless autonomy. Its huge eye, luminously dark, reflects the world around us, the coastline of Oregon, a line of pale spume, now in great tension, land and sea, earth and sky. I have the strange feeling I have when I look into the eye of a horse, that it is seeing me, all of its body feeling the energy of my body as an expression of who I am. And simultaneously, it is seeing every movement to the horizon, measuring the states of equality within that one uninterrupted field of its perception. We are beyond language now. The whale continues upward. And when I lose sight of it, I wake gasping for breath. As the whale had slowly risen into the sky, I had slowly breathed out every last bit of air I had in me.
I knew the whale was Barry, and that this was a dream of his journey into the next dimension, a dream for which I was simply and miraculously a conduit to that huge spirit of his, and thus a dream to share with all. I walked out on the porch, so grateful for this new cycle of breath, drawing in the air pouring across the meadow and off the pines into my own lungs, felt the illumination of that breath. I thought of how Barry embodied Keiji Nishitani’s observation: “‘Illuminating insight’ does not stop at mere contemplation. It is integrated with the deliverance of all beings in time from the universal suffering of the world.” I felt that selfless vow in the whale’s eye.
In Barry’s words, he was here: “To help. I am a traditional storyteller. This activity is not about yourself.”
Ian Boyden is a writer, translator, and visual artist. His first book of poetry, A Forest of Names, was recently published by Wesleyan University Press (2020). In 2019 he received an NEA Literature Fellowship to translate the poetry of Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser. Read more at his website.
for Barry Lopez
Horizon fades from blue to black
with infinite tenderness in London
tonight. Yet even at full dusk a smear
of cobalt rings the tree line. Maybe
endless love awaits us. I know you believed
so, even as forests and rivers turned to fire,
libraries to ash. Now that you’re not here
to tend them, I see the lamps you lit for us.
Sometimes it’s important to see the darkness,
you would say, to regard one another other,
and our trembling. Or on other nights, like
now: we must look up. How is this same
moon in my sky hanging over Eugene these
small hours? Do you feel its comforts?
As you sleep through this final stretch
how badly I want you to know we have
the torches now, my friend, we’ll protect the flame,
you are free to be the wind again.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing. His books include How to Read a Novelist and The Tyranny of E-mail, as well as Tales of Two Americas, an anthology of new writing about inequality in the U.S. today. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and the New York Times. The former editor of Granta and one-time president of the National Book Critics Circle, he is currently Artist-in-Residence at New York University.
BARRY LOPEZ: SOME GLIMPSES
WHEN I HEARD that he had died, an immediate visual image came to mind. Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson had both spent a lot of time among native people in Alaska. Barry for Arctic Dreams and Dick for Hunters of the Northern Forest and Hunters of the Northern Ice, and they were talking about the potential awkwardness of being observers and outsiders to the cultures they were trying to learn, which must be a professional problem for both anthropologists and journalists.
Dick said, “You need to learn how to hang out. It’s an attitude toward time. You can study people in the culture who know how to do it, which we mostly don’t.”
And I asked, “So what did you learn?”
Barry squared his shoulders, slid a hand into each pocket of his jeans up to the knuckles, his palms flat against his thighs, in a perfect, physical embodiment of just hanging out. He composed a poker face and then faintly raised his eyebrows in a way that said, “Hey, I’m here, don’t have a program, open to possibilities.”
Dick laughed and said, “Exactly.”
I had trouble with the sentence describing Barry’s physical attitude and, as I was trying to write it, thought, “Barry would have nailed this.” He was—painful to be using the past tense—a gorgeous maker of sentences. And I think it had to do with his Jesuit education that he had a moral language in which to talk about writing. I’ve heard him speak of the integrity of the sentence.
Here is what Barry told me of how he began as a writer. It’s such a good story it might not be strictly true:
When Barry finished his master’s degree at Notre Dame, he moved to Oregon and rented a cabin in the woods with the intention of becoming a writer. It was just before the emergence of graduate programs in creative writing at universities. In those days, every drugstore had a magazine rack, and they always contained a magazine called The Writer’s Digest, which printed tips for writers and lists of markets for magazine articles, potential ideas for articles, expected word lengths, and how much they paid per word. Barry bought a copy in his new town while he was getting groceries and went back to his cabin, unpacked, stored the groceries, and began to read. Water for the cabin was supplied by a well and pump, and very soon the pump ceased to function. What you gonna do, the song goes. Barry took the pump into town, and a guy in the hardware store showed him the stock of pumps and explained the pros and cons of each type very clearly. Barry went home, wrote an article on how to buy a water pump, looked over Writer’s Digest, and decided to send the piece to a magazine called Popular Mechanics, which could also be found on the drugstore rack. Popular Mechanics took the piece and paid him fifty dollars. He was in business.
Another occasion. A summer day in Sitka. Dick Nelson is taking us out to Saint Lazaria in his Boston whaler. Saint Lazaria is an island, an old eroded volcano, about eighteen miles out from Sitka harbor, facing onto the Pacific, a nesting place for northern birds and one of the wonders of the earth. I think it can no longer be visited on foot—it is so dense in summer with bird life—but Dick had managed to get us permission to go ashore and talked to us on the way out about what we’d see—colonies of thick-billed murres, the duck-sized black and white birds that fill in Alaskan waters the niche filled by penguins in the Antarctic; brilliant clown-faced tufted pufflins, and smaller birds, pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets. The trip there in summer is itself an amazement, Baranof Island rising steeply out of the sea, rafts of sea otters in the kelp beds around smaller islands and sea lions sunning on the rocky shores, bald eagles soaring overhead, humpbacked whales breaching and blowing. We had binoculars, were taking in as much as we could and occasionally just looked at each other, shaking our heads in wonder. Dick got us ashore which was a bit tricky but we scrambled up a stair-like rise in the basalt As many as 75,000 birds, I have read, breed on the island at a given time in the season and suddenly we were in the middle of it. One walked cautiously. Dick had it in mind to show Barry a spotted lily endemic to the island. We mostly gawked at the teeming life. They were birds I had never seen before or seen only from a distance and they were everywhere and we were decidedly in their living quarters. The racket of bird cries was intense and over a small rise we saw the source of it. In one crevice of rock, perched in its nest, was a fledgling bald eagle, and it was driving the other birds crazy to have this predator in their midst, especially the puffins and the storm petrels and the gulls—glaucous-winged gulls with silvery mantles. They were harrying the young eagle relentlessly, dive-bombing toward the nest and veering away and calling out sharply. The eagle seemed to ignore them and kept hunching his shoulders as if he were contemplating the idea of flying. It had never occurred to me what the young at the top of the food chain had to grow up enduring. Barry said later, when we were heading back to town, and saw those powerful birds commanding the air overhead that it was as if, to be a prince, you got sent to one of those awful English boarding schools that specialized in hazing the young. But at that moment on the island we were just taking in the spectacle. It is another visual memory I have of him, Barry on a ledge of volcanic rock raising both fists in the air and pumping them, as if to say, “If this isn’t the heart of life, what is?”
His mind. At a conference—I no longer remember where; it might have been in Sitka, might have been at a gathering of writers in Washington DC sponsored by Orion—Barry gave a talk that stayed in my mind. He began by saying something like: “I want to say what I’m about to say very carefully because I want to talk about the value of prejudice.”
I haven’t kept my notes. I remember he spoke of the photograph of a black girl in Little Rock, Arkansas being escorted by a Federal officer who was enforcing the desegregation of a school through a crowd of white people who were screaming at her, their faces disfigured by anger and hatred. What had struck him, he said, was the rage on the faces of the white children who were imitating their parents, who had been taught a style of feeling by their community. He talked about the way frugal members of a family could talk for years about the fecklessness of the more open-handed members of the family and the way the openhanded members of the family could talk about the stinginess of the frugal ones. He talked about the antipathy in Alaska between Athabascan and Inuit peoples, said cultures begin in geography, that the culture of cities had to do with density and diversity, so that they should be easy places to cultivate cultural diversity and cultural tolerance, but that that kind of cultural relativism was different from the actual living out of the values of a given culture given to a particular geography when there is so much evidence of violence there like an electric third rail in the relations among peoples. I don’t remember him drawing a conclusion. What struck me was the fearlessness and earnestness of his description of the dilemma he was turning over in his mind.
His prose. “I slow the car, downshifting from fourth to third, with the melancholic notes of Bach’s sixth cello suite in my ears—a recording of Casals from 1936—and turn east, away from the volcanic ridge of black basalt.” This is the beginning of “A Reflection on Snow Geese,” an essay about his visit to the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the California-Oregon border. It was published in Crossing Open Ground in 1988. The refuge is one of the places on the Pacific flyway to see migrating birds by the thousands—snow geese, Ross’s geese, Canada geese, whistling swans; and hundreds of thousands of ducks in immense flocks—mallards, gadwalls, pintails, lesser scaups, cinnamon teal, goldeneyes, wheels and wheels of them rising out of the marsh at dawn or settling into it at dusk, and the essay is a place to see Barry at work.
Downshifting is a typical move, a recommendation to slow down and pay attention. And naming the exact version of the Bach cello suite is a Barry move. Someone passionate about all species on earth was also passionate about being specific. The movement of the essay belongs to the genre of nature writing Barry had taught himself: first the wonder, then the science, and then in his work—and this where the cello suite returns as an ecological theme—an implicit argument that the fusion of beauty and science in what we are seeing ought to draw out of us a kind of moral wonder. I looked again to see how he does it in this essay:
“What a visitor finds startling is the great synchronicity of their movements: long skeins of white unfurl brilliantly against blue skies and dark cumulonimbus thunderheads riding the towering wash of winds. They rise from the water or fall from the sky with balletic grace, with a booming voice like rattled sheets of corrugated tin, with a furious and unmitigated energy. It is the life of them that takes such hold of you.”
The last time we talked at any length we talked into the night, drinking wine. It was during the time when he was finishing his work on Home Ground. He had been doing a series of readings and he seemed tired and a little strung out and I had the sense that Barry’s feeling for what he was trying to do in Home Ground burned in him like a fever. I think he must have been trying to talk out the ideas in the introduction he needed to write for the book. He and his partner Debra Gwartney had conceived the book along with the editor at Trinity University Press Barbara Ras. The idea was to get a couple dozen writers from all over the continent to compose a dictionary of words used to describe the North American earth. I had a small hand in it, so I am not entirely disinterested but I do think it is one of the most delicious books I know about the English language and about American geography.
“Honor” was another word Barry was inclined to use—“honor” as a verb, or as a verb that he felt urgently needed to be turned into a noun. He thought that he and Deborah were assembling a record of the way that language honors the land by representing over time the exactness and immense variety of the human attempts to name what we see. He wanted to believe that honoring the land would draw honor out of us and our behaviors. That night as we talked his impulse seemed to me messianic. It is a lot to ask of words and the way we use them. But it was a part of Barry’s discipline and self-discipline as a writer to ask it, and it is part of what I admire so much about his work. It mattered to him intensely—the difference between a “wharf” and a “pier,” between an animal’s “den” and its “lair.” And he was inclined to think that, for humans, the welfare of the earth depended on seeing clearly enough to honor those distinctions in the way that the distinctions themselves were ways of seeing that honored the earth.
Out of curiosity I looked to see what words and/or what things Barry had assigned to himself when he was editing Home Ground. Here is the list: acre-foot, blind creek, desert, ice volcano, mudslide, pitch, refugium, sand, scarp, shinnery, soil, strike valley.
I wondered why he had chosen the—it would seem—fairly boring term acre-foot to elucidate. In his entry he begins by discussing folk measurements—“ stone’s throw,” “a day’s ride,” “two thumbnails to the left of the highest peak there”—the kind invaluable for orienting one birder to another’s find, measurements, he observes that, though they are not precise, are accurate. And then observes that acre-foot joins “two once-imprecise folk measurements to create a term that, apparently leaves nothing to interpretation. It’s exactly 43, 560 cubic feet of water—a single acre, one foot deep.” Folk measurements: well, a foot must have begun as a rough measure, human feet varying in length, and an acre in medieval England was the amount of land a man with a couple of oxen could plow in a day. And—Barry’s mind—he concludes the note this way: “Given the behavior of water, however, such precision is rarely dead accurate, which accounts for the enduring wisdom behind the use of folk measurements.
And while I was at it, I consulted what he had done with sand. He begins with a definition. Definitions always look easier to come to than they are: ‘loose aggregations of mineral grains, mostly quartz, created by geological forces that include plate tectonics and erosion.” The next sentence is classic Lopez: “Wind and water sort this hard detritus so efficiently into masses of like-sized particles that we are able to speak of a sandbar (as distinct from a gravel bar) and other discrete forms, such as a mudflat, which is made up of same-sized particles of clay or silt.”
This morning I think about the fever of the cancer that took Barry and the fire that burned through his property just months before his death, and about the cool and clarity of the landscapes and habits of mind he was drawn to. There was a mix in him of fire and ice that is going to continue to be his gift to us.
Robert Hass was born in San Francisco. His books of poetry include The Apple Trees at Olema (Ecco, 2010), Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Time and Materials (Ecco, 2008), Sun Under Wood (Ecco, 1996), Human Wishes (1989), Praise (1979), and Field Guide (1973), which was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Hass also co-translated several volumes of poetry with Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz and authored or edited several other volumes of translation, including Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems (2012) and The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994). His essay collection Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hass served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997 and as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He lives in California with his wife, poet Brenda Hillman, and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo: Margaretta K. Mitchell.
A Very Large Array Person
“If I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold ways in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.” — Barry Lopez
“I am perfectly comfortable being in a state of ignorance before something incomprehensible. And it’s in that moment that you’re driven to your knees and you believe—I wouldn’t call it religious. It’s just what happens when you open up again to the extraordinary circumstances of being alive.” — Barry Lopez
IN 2015, Barry and I were invited to do an onstage conversation at the Key West Literary Seminars. We loved the idea of it but hated the given title, and ended up talking on the phone for most of an hour, trying to arrive at a word that felt home-language to us each. The suggested word, spiritual, we felt utterly threadbare. Barry’s preference was reverence, a quality that ran deep in his life and words. But mine was not. We arrived, at last, at numinous. A word whose linguistic root is the act of nodding, a physical, embodied yes.
What his life was.
We first met at a meeting Orion Magazine held at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, in 2008, though I’d read his books from the start. One of Barry’s great gifts, and so my great luck, was his gift for friendship. Its entrustment runs through every one of the books—in friendships with persons, with plants, animals, orange-eyed mullet, ice. But his affections weren’t given blindly. They were forged of the give-and-take of conversations and relationships in which, whatever the differences, both debaters knew themselves taking the same side. The side of reality, respect, awe, balance, justice; the side of life. These qualities shone out from him, too. We began talking at that meeting, in a walk under moonlight, and didn’t stop.
In 2010, I was poet in residence at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, ten minutes from the Blue River, Oregon, house that Barry shared with his beloved poet-wife, Debra. Barry broke his strict work schedule and took me—in a Toyota truck old enough to vote though not to drink—onto forest roads up the mountain, then down to a wild hot spring half-hidden under the river’s edge. He showed me wild ginger, and how to notice, in each of a Douglas fir cone’s sturdy bracts, a running mouse shape disappearing headfirst deeper into it, delving the dense nutrition of hidden seed.
A self-portrait, that.
The last time I saw Barry in person, in 2019, the hay bales in Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes, California, were crowded with an audience of over three hundred, come to hear him read from Horizon. He asked for a copy of my introduction, so he must have liked it, pages that must have burned in the Blue River studio lost to last summer’s fires. It described Barry as being akin to the Very Large Array astronomical observatory, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico—but with his telescopic listening turned earthward, to the earth’s denizens, beings, landscapes, icescapes, stories.
“What comes before affects what comes after.” This basic principle of existence, forest ecologists call “legacy.”
Barry’s words, acts, loves, curiosities, ethics, and judgments; his humility in asking essential and basic questions; his stories directly and gorgeously told; his physical, moral, and personal courage—these living gifts, now become legacy, take on the force of evolution, along with Barry’s raised alarm at our immediate, indecent emergency of climate and biosphere and species’ extinction; along with his hopes for, and ceaseless work toward, the earth’s and our psyches’ long-term repair. He knew these things are not separate.
Few people live through and live out so completely their yes, inside the furnace of the world’s burning.
Barry, no words can hold the loss so many feel of your passing, or the gratitude for your life. I summon, today, from your basket of legacy, your lifelong refusal to entirely despair. Your persistent belief that we might yet live up to the grace of this incomprehensible world and not its darkness, mustered by a man who knew what it is to doubt, to despair. You kept working, kept serving. That helps me. It will continue to help me do what this moment asks: miss you rightly. Miss all the losses rightly, and go on.
Jane Hirshfield’s ninth poetry collection, Ledger, a book centered on the environmental crisis and issues of social justice, appeared from Knopf in March 2020. Named by the Washington Post as “among the modern masters,” Hirshfield founded Poets for Science in 2017, in conjunction with the first March for Science, in Washington, D.C. She is also the author of two now classic books of essays, Nine Gates and Ten Windows, and the editor/co-translator of four books presenting world poets from the deep past. Her last book, The Beauty, was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Hirshfield was elected in 2019 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
IN 2002, Barry Lopez wrote an introduction to a catalog about an artist’s books that began like this:
“The book is the container for the idea but, like the skull, is an idea all its own. It is the suitcase that makes the idea portable, the pyx that allows the divine—Dante’s Commedia, Goethe’s Faust—to be slipped into a pocket.”
Barry and words were inseparable and intertwined. His quest for the right word is what drove him. He took the greatest pleasure in finding a word that connected perfectly with his thoughts. He also took pleasure in offering his words to artists who made books using them. He loved to see how an artist’s book gave flight to his words.
When he shared this with me, we laughed together over the word pyx. It’s the name of the container that holds the wafer served at communion. We laughed because it also can score forty-five points in Scrabble—with a mere three letters. The perfect word.
Charles Hobson is an artist who uses books as an expressive medium. He has created more than forty artist’s books, including four using Barry’s words: Apologia, 1997, Anotaciones, 2001, The Near Woods, 2006, and The Mappist, 2005. The quotation in the text is from Why I Love Books, The Artworks of Charles Hobson, Bolinas Museum, Bolinas CA, 2002.
LOOK, he was always saying, listen.
The last time I saw Barry was at the Berkeley Book Festival, in 2019, where he told a story about sitting in a strip mall in Alice Springs, Australia, with a Pintupi man. Barry was explaining to the man the distinction our culture makes between nonfiction and fiction, the factual truth versus the emotional one. The man listened carefully, thought for a moment, shook his head, and said, “that wouldn’t work for us.” Then he said, “the distinction we would make is between an authentic story and an inauthentic story. An authentic story is about all of us, all the people. An inauthentic story is only about the one who wrote it.”
I put this story in my pocket, with another I heard Barry tell about a word an Inuktitut speaker in Yellowknife shared with him: Isumatuq. Storyteller. The person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself. And in that same pocket, I added something else Barry said when we were teaching together at Pacific University, that we are pattern makers, that if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.
Triangulated, these three seem sufficient to construct a writer’s life.
Barry and I were both victims, as children, of serial sexual abuse, and for each of us it was the fleeting glimpses of the wild world available in our respective suburbias—the hot Santa Ana winds, in his case, the blossoming of dogwood forests in mine—that suggested we might one day come fully alive. We recognized this about each other instantly the first time we met, years before either of us would write or speak aloud about those traumas.
In 2013, when Barry told his story in the heart-stopping essay, “Sliver of Sky,” I learned we had even more in common, that, as adults we had chosen remote homes bordered by rivers and ridgelines to keep us safe; that our childhood terror had, somewhere along the way, mostly metamorphosed into compassion; that, though the abuse had left us utterly disassembled, we had put ourselves back together, thanks to some of those patterns provided by grace.
When I heard Barry died on Christmas night, I regretted, for a minute, that we never talked about these things, and then I decided maybe we hadn’t needed to. We’d talked instead about the lady in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, who sold us the warmest hats we’d ever owned right off her kitchen table, or the boat that did or didn’t flip in House Rock Rapid in the Grand Canyon, or a crab named Sally Lightfoot, or eight hundred narwhals running south at the mouth of Kangiqtualuk Uqquqti (formerly Sam Ford Fjord), or how we might try to live now, here at the edge of total climate collapse, how we might best try to take care of each other.
Those were a few of our authentic stories, and in giving them to each other we invited wisdom, or wonder, or laughter, or at least some clear evidence of our survival.
Look, he was always saying, listen, here are the ways you can still be in love with the world.
Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, which won the 2019 Colorado Book Award, the High Plains Book Award, and the Reading The West Advocacy Award, and more recently, Air Mail: Letters of Politics Pandemics and Place, coauthored with Amy Irvine. She is also the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, Contents May Have Shifted, and four other books of fiction and nonfiction, all published by W.W. Norton. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level on a 120-acre homestead near the headwaters of the Rio Grande and teaches creative writing at UC Davis and at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is cofounder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing by Writers and fiction editor at the Environmental Arts Journal Terrain.org. She raises Icelandic Sheep and Irish Wolfhounds and is a fierce advocate for the Earth.
JANUARY 2006, the Key West Literary Seminar. I find myself onstage with Barry Lopez, the beloved icon whom I’ve never met until this week. Our moderator asks a friendly opening question, and I reply with something fast and funny. The audience breaks into laughter.
Then Barry speaks and instantly I’m brought to attention and humbled all at once. This is a rare chance, his gentle and deeply thoughtful answer might be saying, to share something sustaining that will leave all of us with something important before we disperse. We’re beings of weight, of responsibility; let’s use this invitation to speak with intimacy, so that maybe this entire community can be brought a little closer to its better self.
It was just the voice of conscience and rigor I’d met for decades already on the page. Reading Barry, I’d always imagined someone who was part priest and part explorer. The light within was what guided him, and the light without was what he wished to bring us to. Grace and discovery were the engines, and better action was the destination.
In one of his collections of fiction, I’d read a piece that begins with the narrator on retreat in a monastery high above a California resort town and beach; at some level, that was how I always saw this uncommonly searching and self-questioning soul.
Barry was accompanied, that week in Key West, by one of his radiant daughters, Stephanie, so I could also see the warm companion and counselor in him. But what moved me most was to realize that the man and the writer were of a piece, inseparable; both were committed to the undistracted penetration that makes for a kinder world. Waking us up was a large part of what he was doing.
That would always be an invigorating goal, but as the world rushes towards ever more diversion, more forgetfulness, and more carelessness, Barry’s special gifts—of patience, of meticulous care, and of sobriety—come to seem more and more bracing. In my mind he was traveling widely, to forgotten places across the globe, with a searchlight, like some archaeologist of the inner landscape, hoping to remind us of what we could be. Working, in effect, to bring us back to our senses.
Nine years on, Barry and I met again on that same stage in Key West, and this time I was ready. I wouldn’t enjoy many chances, ever, to engage in a real talk in public that would have the closeness of a conversation in private; it’s not often one can share what one cares about most and know that someone else will listen, understand, and respond in kind.
In a crowded greenroom, Barry took me aside and said quietly that he was very sick. But that was not something we need to worry about. He had deposited in his New York editor’s office a large book, with instructions that she not read it for now. I couldn’t find the words to tell him that I had sent a link of our first talk onstage to that same editor, the only such gift I’d inflicted on her in thirty-one years of friendship.
Today, a writer who was in the hall that day sends me the news that Barry is gone, along with a link to an interview that reminds us both that Barry will never really be gone. In it he describes being invited to deliver a lecture at an Athenaeum in New England and asking his host what Emerson had sought when he had done the same.
“Elevation,” came the answer. That part, I felt, Barry had mastered long since.
We’d met only three times in person when we converged in Key West in 2015. But after I’d gone onstage to say a few words and returned to my seat, Barry smiled, patted me warmly, and said, “I’m so proud to be your friend.” As ever, he was giving me a model for what I would wish to write to him.
Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2017, I was awarded the Barry Lopez Fellowship for a monthlong writing residency at Playa’s Summer Lake in Oregon. My first thought was that I didn’t deserve it because I didn’t exactly write about the environment, and Barry Lopez would surely have wanted someone who was doing that kind of writing more directly. I had written a novel set in the stories of farmers losing their land and their lives in India, and I was now struggling to write a feminist memoir. I was told that yes, all of this would be the kind of work that was supported in the award instituted in the name of a writer with a staggering legacy of work that connects the physical landscape and human culture.
Every single day of that residency, I swam in a large pond, walked on the vast, dry bed of the lake that presented a surface and a quake of the kind I had never felt beneath my feet, and gazed at sunsets that melded into playa’s horizon in strips and hues of color I had never witnessed in my life. I wrote this quote from Barry Lopez on a Post-it note and pasted it on my desk:
“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
I was putting my body into spaces and sensations it had never experienced before. I was pushing past my discomfort in the writing that was pouring forth in my memoir, stories that carried anger and shame. These two situations could not be unrelated. I wondered whether I should write to Barry Lopez, to thank him for the fellowship, for his immense writing, for my writing. I hesitated, thought it meaningless, and so I never did.
I am feeling the sadness, the beauty, and the weight of all of it now.
Sonora Jha, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming How To Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family. Her debut novel, Foreign, was based on the stories of farmer suicides in India. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Seattle Times, The Establishment, DAME, and in several anthologies. She grew up in Mumbai and has been chief of metropolitan bureau for the Times of India and contributing editor for East magazine in Singapore. Sonora is a professor of journalism at Seattle University.
June 13, 2019 | Powell’s Bookstore, Portland Oregon. The British writer Robert Macfarlane conducted a short reading tour in the United States in support of his new book Underland. The highlight of his tour was meeting Barry Lopez for an enchanting evening of conversation at Powell’s Bookstore.
David Lukas is a freelance naturalist and author of many books, including Language Making Nature. Lukas received a Formby Fellowship to study the archived papers of Barry Lopez at Texas Tech University. His books and tours can be viewed at www.lukasguides.com.
BARRY AND I have known each other for thirty-four years. That long friendship would not have come about except for a chain of unlikely events that began in 1982, when I pulled an unadorned paperback called Winter Count from the shelf of a bookshop in Santa Barbara. I hadn’t heard of its author, Barry Holsten Lopez, and what drew me to the book’s gray, slender spine remains a mystery to me.
Reading the stories back in my hotel room, I was awestruck by their understated power and the precision of the prose. I felt as if I were in conversation with another painter—one who had concluded, as I had, that art begins with our capacity and willingness to observe. These stories were, among other things, tutorials in seeing. They proposed that heightened attention to the world could be revelatory and life-changing, that the tactile world around us, seen properly, could lead to the edge of the mystical and take us across that border into the realm of magic. Barry’s stories suggested, too, that the beauty we discover through sustained attention contained discreet lessons in morality, that beauty shows us the ways past our cursory judgments and prejudice.
I met Barry at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. He was there to receive the academy’s Award in Literature for Arctic Dreams, and I was attending the ceremony as a past recipient of the academy’s Rosenthal Award. I recall very little of our first conversation, only that I expressed admiration for Barry’s writing and that I told him some things about my own work as a painter. The next day he went to my 57th Street gallery, where he saw one of my large paintings of stones. A few days later I received a letter from Barry—a shout of recognition and mutual understanding that sealed our friendship. His visit to the gallery surprised me; it was my first glimpse of Barry’s respect and loyalty to other artists—my first indication of the importance of friendships in his life, and of his determination to nurture a community of like-minded artists.
Soon after that meeting in New York, we began the first of many collaborations. Barry wrote an essay to accompany an exhibition of my collages, Inlets, and I provided the cover image for Crossing Open Ground. In 2003, Barry and I recorded an in-depth conversation that became the introduction to the book Alan Magee: Paintings, Sculpture, Graphics, and my monotypes accompanied the chapters in Barry’s book Resistance. In 2019, a filmed commentary by Barry played an important part in a feature documentary about my work, Alan Magee: art is not a solace.
Over the years, Barry and I have been engaged in what we’ve called an extended conversation—a single thread occasionally interrupted by Barry’s travels or by my work on an imminent exhibition. We were always able to rejoin the conversation where we’d left it, ever after a lapse of several months.
We seldom talked about our finished work or our careers. The underlying theme of our friendship and conversations was the practice of art—the complicated and perilous process of bringing something new into being. We agreed that the creation of a book or painting is unruly, sometimes painful, and always wrought with periods of doubt. It seemed as if Barry and I were discussing the nature of work while standing backstage in a theater, amidst a tangle of electric wires, scattered tools, and open cans of paint. We both felt that, metaphorically, our work was often done in places like this, where it was easy to get lost in the rubble, where a friendship can be the only lifeline.
Every few weeks I would receive a letter or note from Barry. These were handwritten or typed, sometimes on pages from small notepads saved from hotels in distant parts of the world. The notes accompanied clippings that Barry wanted me to read, or suggested books or artists to check out. Some were just a few sentences expressing friendship and support. The envelopes were small works of art, with galleries of vintage stamps chosen to mirror the note’s theme.
We talked often about the work of other artists and asked ourselves and each other, Does this book, this painting, change your life? We were drawn to art that chastened and unsettled us, but also to those artists, writers, and musicians to whom we kept returning to be reminded of what was, for us, solid ground. We talked about the painter Antonio López García and the photographer Emmet Gowin, the poems of Miłosz and Neruda, Wendell Berry and William Pitt Root, the novels of Wallace Stegner and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, about the music of Erwin Schulhoff, John Luther Adams, Keeril Makan, and Arvo Pärt.
Barry Lopez and Alan Magee at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Photo: © 2005 Monika Magee
We traveled together to places that he knew were important to me. These locales were admittedly tame compared with Barry’s favored high-risk destinations—beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, for example. Our trips were adventures of a different kind. We spent time together near our respective homes—on the Maine coast, where we explored the dusty salvage yard at the Dragon cement plant, and along the McKenzie River, where we watched spawning salmon near Barry’s Oregon home. I was able to introduce Barry and Debra to Berlin, where Monika and I had been spending a part of each year. We traveled with them to Prague, where we marveled at the stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral. We paid respects to Kafka beside the little house at twenty-two Alchemist’s Street, and to the writer Bohumil Hrabal at his beloved beer hall, U Zlatého Tygra (The Golden Tiger). Barry told me that Prague’s Old Town Square, under the spires of Tyn Church, was the most beautiful city square he’d ever seen.
In early 2004 Barry called to tell me that he was about to begin a new book. It would be, in part, a response to the changed political climate in the United States following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was, as I was, profoundly unsettled by the clamor over “patriotism” and by our country’s drift toward a surveillance state. He asked me to send him prints of nine of my black-and-white monotypes of faces, a group he had already chosen. (This series of monotypes began as my response to an earlier invasion of Iraq—the Gulf War that began in January 1990.)
The monotypes, Barry felt, could be arranged around his writing studio and serve as visual sparks in the creation of nine character/narrators in the new book. Barry didn’t write about the monotypes, but he was able to find his cast by looking into these monotypes and pulling his own memories from the faces. The resulting book, Resistance, is an account of nine lives and the decisions that brought each of them to the attention of a Office of Inland Security, and into imminent peril. All of these people had become, in some expanded sense, activists. Barry later told me that the fictional characters in Resistance “are us”—the scattered group of friends in Barry’s diverse and widespread community of artists.
Barry has often said that his role as a writer is to help. He did that by offering us a vast landscape of experience to consider, and he showed us how to observe and attend to our own landscapes with tenacity and kindness. Political opinions are rare in Barry’s writing, as are pronouncements or reprimands to readers. Nevertheless, Barry’s work is resonant and symphonic in its call for environmental justice and human decency.
Writing this last paragraph—looking for words to describe the ways in which Barry’s work guided rather than pushed, I was reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s observation on the role of the artist:
“The allotted function of art is not, as often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
Alan Magee is a painter, sculptor, singer/songwriter, and filmmaker who began his career as an illustrator in New York, creating covers for Time, New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and for books by Graham Greene, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Edward Abbey, and many others. He was the recipient of a National Book Award in 1982. More at: alanmageemusic.com.
BARRY IS STILL WITH US, a force, like gravity, that holds our world together. It is almost impossible to think of him in the past tense.
We first met in 1986. When our long association began, I realized that Barry had an approach to writing I had never encountered in twenty years of our “peculiar business” (Barry’s phrase). He had an ethical, almost religious relationship to the work, a ferocious respect for clarity, for making oneself understood. Many drafts were required: four or five routinely. Horizon required seven, and still Barry thought it contained some “infelicities of language.” How the work was presented to the reader was likewise a matter of concern. But this was not the attitude of a writer who overvalued his talent, whose ego was tied to reputation, but, rather, that language—and how we understand each other, and what contributed to that understanding—was vital to human existence, to the way the essential stories we tell each other are made manifest. What was involved extended into the past and into the future, and getting it right, whenever possible, was what mattered. In a 2005 exchange with a magazine editor, Barry insisted that his preferred use, Homo sapiens, was necessary, rather than the magazine’s house style, homo sapiens, because “it makes a clearer distinction between the biological and the cultural animal.” That not one reader in a thousand would note the difference did not win the point. This was an education that I, like so many others, trust will continue to be honored.
For a lecture on lessons learned from watching wild animals, Barry wrote: “The animal did not start doing something when you began watching. It did not finish when you stopped watching.” He would not be discomforted by my applying this lesson to the years watching, listening to, learning from Barry. In the thirty-four years we worked together, I cannot remember one cross word. There were certainly times when things went wrong, disappointments, missed communications, but of all arguments that raised the temperature or left a sour aftertaste, no cross words. He was constant in his charity—even to the apostate—and in his modesty, his concern for humanity, for the future, his ambition “to help.”
He stays with me in his work, and also as a presence, forevermore felt, if no more seen.
Peter Matson is the literary agent for Barry Lopez. He and his wife live in an eighteenth century barn in western Massachusetts.
Kathleen Dean Moore
FOUR DECADES AGO, a skinny young guy walked into my American Land Ethics class and burned the place down. He had just published Of Wolves and Men; my students also were trying to reimagine their relationship to animals that had, for centuries, been regarded as enemies or slaves.
With a capacious mind, reckless curiosity, and the courage of a Renaissance explorer, our visitor was brave enough to follow an idea wherever it led, a trail wherever it would take him. The students listened open-mouthed as this map-maker, this meaning-maker, this maker of magnificent sentences set their imaginations on fire.
Barry Lopez was having fun.
He has reveled in his global and spiritual explorations ever since. Reviewers call him a “straight-up magnificent writer,” a “writer of conscience,” the “Philosopher-king of Gaia.” But I think that if he can be categorized at all, he is a “natural philosopher.” Before there was science and philosophy, there was what Aristotle called the study of Nature’s nature—natural philosophy. Barry Lopez was our Aristotle. Writing with clarity, grace, and boundless appreciation, he closely observed human and wild nature, art and science, on near and far horizons. As he explored the world, he explored also the human capacity for caring and redemption.
Kathleen Dean Moore is the author or coeditor of a dozen books about our moral and spiritual connection to wet, wild places, including Wild Comfort, Great Tide Rising, and Piano Tide, winner of the WILLA Literary Award for contemporary fiction. She has been writer in residence at Denali National Park, the Island Institute in Sitka, and best of all, the lovely spruce cabin Hank Lentfer built in Gustavus, Alaska. Formerly professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, she left the university to write and speak about the moral urgency of climate action. With her biologist husband, Kathleen writes from Oregon and from a seasonal cabin where two creeks and a bear trail meet a cove in Southeast Alaska. Kathleen’s new book is Earth’s Wild Music.
I WISH I knew Barry better. I do admire him. His writing. His fearlessness. And I felt a genuine connection, immediately, the night we met. He and his family came here for drinks before we went out for dinner. Not long after that we did Outside together—a beautiful collaboration. And I admired him even more, because collaborations can often go awry. But I kept my distance, knowing that he has a circle of followers and friends. And if his life is like mine, they can sometimes be pains in the ass, as well as delights. So I kept the distance, not wanting to be a pest. Now, as time runs out for all of us, I regret that the distance can’t be reeled in.
Barry Moser is a renowned artist, most famous as a printmaker and illustrator of numerous works of literature. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Moser studied at Auburn University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and did postgraduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Some of his most celebrated work has been his illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, each of which consisted of more than a hundred prints, and the former of which won him American Book Award for design and illustration in 1982. He has illustrated nearly 200 other works as well, including the Bible. He currently serves on the faculty at Smith College. His works have been displayed in such places as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, Harvard, and the Library of Congress.
I AM SO GRATEFUL to Orion for introducing me to Barry, who became my valued friend. He was a truly unique human being who never ceased caring for his family, his friends, and the natural world. Even as his beloved McKenzie River community burned, he offered his words of wisdom and support to others. Through his beautifully crafted words, Barry took us along with him to experience Indigenous lands and cultures. He was the heart of a family of environmental writers that became the core of Orion magazine.
Susan O’Connor is an environmental and arts advocate. She has served on the boards of several art museums, including the Menil in Houston, Texas. She has also been a board member of The Orion Society and the American Prairie Reserve. She cofounded several nonprofits, including Pacific Writers Connection, Ala Kukui: Hana Retreat, Ohana Makamae, and Families First, both in Boston and Missoula. She is coeditor with Annick Smith of Hearth: A Global Conversation on Identity, Community, and Place and The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
WHEN, IN 1989, Barry drove from Oregon to Indiana to serve as a visiting writer at Notre Dame, he found himself stopping for roadkill. For each dead animal along the road, he stopped and moved its body to a softer resting place. Most were killed by other drivers, but some he had himself struck with his car. He told this story, as I recall it, early on in the class I took from him that semester. It established a tone. He was not on campus to talk about his recent National Book Award.
By my fifth year of architecture school, I was feeling unsure about my future. I was grateful for my education but tired of being routed through an educational system. I cringed at the thought of an office career. I didn’t know how to secure the kind of work I might enjoy. I was taking classes in anthropology and literature. In the café of the Collegiate Gothic liberal arts building, I sometimes sat with Barry before class, in wooden booths next to tall windows, trying to get a foothold on my future. He gave me a place to explore my doubts about familiar options for life after school.
On campus, male students had laundry services bundled with their tuition. Classicism was beginning to take hold in the architecture school. A usually mild-mannered professor became irate when I suggested concrete as a finishing material for a studio project. These are small conflicts in a privileged life. But if we aren’t supposed to note them, what do we make of other injustices? Barry’s respectful engagement gave me permission to notice small things, to see patterns, to connect them with their effects in a wider world, just as he had witnessed animals destroyed by our hurtling from one place to another too fast to notice.
What a gift for a student—a young woman—to have an elder encourage her toward turning her own intellectual curiosity to agency. To have a relationship with an educator that, although asymmetrical, is not hierarchical. Without prescribing, he pointed me to works and voices that might resonate for me, give me places to root my questions. We kept up this relationship, loosely corresponding and visiting each other when our paths crossed, for thirty years.
When I was in my mid-thirties, a friend and I visited Barry at his home on the McKenzie River. He’d rented wet suits for us. Even midsummer, the river is strong and cold and Barry wanted us to walk in it. He wanted us to get midstream, to feel the river. The current looked slow and mild, but in fact, it was full of power. As we waded out, his only instruction was to remember, should we be carried toward a snag or boulder garden, to lift our feet in front of our bodies and flow with the current. I picked up a small forked stick that day, chewed through in tidy parallel channels by a beaver. It lives propped above my drafting table, a single artifact from a multitude of acts over time that change the direction of things.
Molly O’Halloran is a cartographer and illustrator specializing in making hand-drawn and painted maps for publishers, filmmakers, schools, and conservation groups. She is a member of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) and is currently serving on the Board of Directors (2019 – 2021). Molly lives in Austin, Texas.
Reading Barry Lopez
WHEN WE’RE READING Horizon, we’re not only learning what Barry Lopez has learned and wondered. We’re also gazing at language, our eyes moving over and through it, somewhat as when we are sitting by the sea, watching it—we are experiencing language, moving through sentences, seeing phrases, words, single letters (sounds), we are experiencing reading, engaging in that precious human action. We are sharing minds with Barry, and he is sharing his mind and his senses with us. And while I am reading him, I’m not as alone—and not as dumb! I have his big, kind, brilliant, generous mind to dwell in for an hour. (And to come back to, when I read this page again.)
Now, as I pause to rest, I rest my hand on the page—my right hand, with the pen still in it, a human organ, hand and tool, and feel how completely I trust Barry, his love of the truth so deep, so alive, so practiced. He seems without vanity or subterfuge, he worked a lifetime for this, the spiritual, visual, historical, moral art, of writing the real.
Horizon (like Moby-Dick) became, as soon as I’d read it once, a book (like Arctic Dreams) that I would read again and again, a book I would never again not be reading. (Like the work of poets—many come at this moment to mind, close friends with whom I share a gender and an approximate age.)
Each time I finish Horizon again, I am “spoiled for” some other works of memoir and nonfiction. How has Lopez “spoiled” (fulfilled) me, how have his revelation and courage inspired and then satisfied, sated, my hunger? It is as if he is never content to stop, when he reaches an initial revelation. When a quest, or question, has seemed to fully blossom on his pages, then, so often, from the corolla of that blossom begins to grow the calyx of yet another blossom. I guess the giver is really Barry’s mind, his imagination, which gives question after question, wonder after wonder, challenge after challenge, to him—and he listens, he looks into his mind with his soul’s eyes, and he tells us what he finds. After I have been reading him, I miss his momentum and courage, his desire, his need to keep wondering until the story of his wonder, our wonder, feels more complete, has gone everywhere, for now, it needs to go. There are few writers who give us such thorough companionship and leadership on our life’s path and our species’ often terrible path. Barry has the wisdom to go for guidance to cultures other than those under the aegis of Western science. I’m thinking of a photo of Lopez during a meeting with First Nation people. There is a circle of women and men, outdoors, standing on bare dry earth. There is beauty in the picture, the color red, red feathers. Barry is standing there with the others. He is listening.
Sharon Olds is an American poet. Olds has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980. She teaches creative writing at New York University.
WHAT DO WE MEAN when we speak of a writer’s voice? It’s an ineffable literary dimension, harder to pin down than the dried corpse of a delicate butterfly—a zebra swallowtail, say, or a red-banded hairstreak—but it can be important. Not always. Some writing just rattles along, serviceable, informative, maybe even graceful, without much distinctive voice. But we know a good voice when we hear it. We give closer attention, slower consideration, and sometimes deeper respect to that writer whose voice somehow seems to command such regard. Barry Lopez had a voice—good lord, did he have a voice—that commanded regard. But he was the gentlest of commanders.
Dictionaries define this thing variously. “In literature, the voice expresses the narrator or author’s emotions, attitude, tone and point of view through artful, well thought out use of word choice and diction.” Or it’s “the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.” That’s not wrong, but it sounds pretty mechanical. When asked to define it myself, I’ve said that voice is the deep character of the writer, reflected, for better or worse, in words on a page. One of the great talents Barry had was to do that, to season his writings—about wolves or the Arctic or Captain James Cook or the Turkana people or whatever—with tincture of voice. And one of the reasons we loved Barry’s voice, I think, is that it reflected such an estimable character. This was skill plus goodness.
It’s there in Arctic Dreams. He is our guide, our storyteller, and his literary baritone is the soundtrack. It’s there in Winter Count, one of my own favorites of his books, notably in the superb story, “Winter Count 1973: Geese, They Flew Over in a Storm.” It’s there in Of Wolves and Men, of course, and in Crossing Open Ground:
“One summer evening in a remote village in the Brooks Range of Alaska, I sat among a group of men listening to hunting stories about the trapping and pursuit of animals. I was particularly interested in several incidents involving wolverine . . . To hear about its life is to learn more about fierceness.”
It’s there in the fiction and the nonfiction, the anthropological and the personal, the serious and the sly. It’s certainly there in Horizon, his parting gift to us, a book for which I among others waited expectantly for more than thirty years, to be not disappointed when it arrived.
So here’s the good news, for which—as we mourn the loss of this extraordinary writer and friend—we can be glad: Although his heart has stopped beating, after a long and dignified battle, Barry’s voice hasn’t been silenced. No. It abides in the books. They remind us that the world is vast and wonderful, that the heart and the curiosity of one Barry Lopez were vast and wonderful too, and that his character was keen and strong and benevolent. That’s the miracle of literature. We still have his voice, and it’s incomparable.
David Quammen has written fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, and has published many articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and other journals. He’s a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award and has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. As did his friend Barry, he writes mainly about wild creatures, wild places, and our relationships with them.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Barry’s work while working on Searching for Zion in my late twenties. I was trained as a fiction writer and had published a novel, but found myself unexpectedly drawn to writing narrative nonfiction without having ever been trained as a journalist, and with some confusion about the rules of engagement. Someone recommended Arctic Dreams to me as an example of the kind of approach I might take in my own travels and meditations (on the subject of Zionism as expressed in the African Diaspora). I was blown away by his sentences, the depth of his perception, and his ethos of kindness. Subconsciously, I think I recognized our mutual Catholic upbringing in his way of seeing, his desire to witness on Earth what some might call the face of God. For me, his work was radically instructive. It gave me a kind of permission to be both philosophical and novelistic in my structure, to ask questions, to be unashamed of and expansive about the workings of faith. It also inspired me to undertake my own polar travel. I wanted to feel the disorientation he described, to be humbled. Soon after reading it in 2008, I went to Antarctica during what was the International Polar Year.
Years later I got to meet Barry at a reading in Brooklyn, where we’d been invited to speak on our contributions to the “Home” issue of Freeman’s. John Freeman, by the way, has described Barry’s writing as “a prosthetic of kindness.” I agree with that description. I didn’t know then of Barry’s cancer diagnosis. I felt very shy in his company and recognized that he is also shy. He told a story on the panel, the end of which was: “Wake up.”
Later, I wrote him asking if he could refresh my memory of that story. This was just after the 2018 IPCC report came out. I had begun writing about climate crises and felt his story would help me in that endeavor, which I experienced as a struggle. It’s still a struggle. A few weeks later I received a typewritten letter, to the effect that he didn’t remember the story he’d told in Brooklyn, but that all the unguarded conversations he’s had with Indigenous people end that same way: Wake Up. Nor did he have any advice for me about how to approach my subject, but he acknowledged the challenge thusly: “Perhaps one of the problems we’re having as writers around this issue is that we don’t know how to paint a dark enough picture and then follow this with an evocation of humanity’s strengths that empowers or animates people sufficiently to keep them from caving in the face of the dark picture.”
It was so generous of him to write me, and to name the challenge so precisely. He extended this kind of care to everyone who sought his wisdom. He was attentive. I will say I believe he struck the perfect balance of hope and despair in Horizon. I can’t express how much he’s influenced my path as an environmental writer and thinker, even though I’m a Black woman living in what some might describe as a rough part of New York City, writing about parenting and the city, rather than the natural world. Our environmental and humanitarian concerns are the same. I was deeply sorry to hear of the recent fire that damaged his home in Oregon, widely thought to be the direct result of a climate change event, and depressed to learn of his death on Christmas.
How to characterize his expansive writing? He is often compared to Thoreau. I don’t think the “nature writer” moniker for Barry seems too reductive necessarily, more like marketing strategy from a publisher to a particular book-buying audience. I do wonder how Barry would describe his own writing, or if that really matters. What we’re seeing now with growing concern about the climate crisis is a broadening appreciation for environmental writing along with a wider and perhaps deeper understanding of what “environmental writing” means and who may lay claim to it. We all live in environments, even those of us who live in built environments. I think for a long time, environmental writing was associated with a particular type of white male writer who climbed up a mountain or went into the wilderness, had a sublime experience with nature and/or Native peoples, and returned to report upon the experience. While Barry may belong to that camp, he can’t be reduced to it. He was concerned, above all, with wonder.
I had a recent conversation with Sumanth Prabhaker, Orion’s new editor. He said he felt Barry had invented a whole strand of writing that we’ve by now normalized but that didn’t exist before Barry formalized and refined the style: history + travel + environment + philosophy + art criticism + personal reflection + landscape + human and nonhuman inhabitants of landscape + policy. You can see his influence upon so many writers today. I still hear him ending the story with that warning: Wake up.
John Freeman, Lawrence Joseph, Barry Lopez, Emily Raboteau, and Kerri Arsenault discussing the meaning of “home” at Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY, May, 2017. Photo: Sarah Burnes.
Emily Raboteau is an essayist, critic, photographer, and novelist whose work on race, place, environmental and social justice has been published in such places as the New York Review of Books, New York magazine, the New Yorker, Freeman’s, and Orion, where she serves as a contributing editor. Her most recent book is Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, winner of an American Book Award. Her next book, Caution: Lessons in Survival, is forthcoming from Holt.
In July, 1986, I had just completed three weeks of rappelling into peregrine falcon nests on the Arctic Circle in Greenland. I was part of a team counting, tagging, and drawing blood from the birds as they continued their decades-long recovery from the ravages of DDT and other pesticides, acquired on their distant winter ranges in the U.S. and Central America.
After the weeks of camping and packing in the wilderness, we had a couple of days at the research base before flying home. Assessing me as perhaps the more bookish of the group, the team leader handed me a brand-new book by someone named Barry Lopez, whose name I recognized but whose writing I had not actually encountered. The book was Arctic Dreams.
I practically inhaled that extraordinary book. Ten years later, I phoned Barry Lopez. An editor had given me his number. I called to inquire whether I might send him the manuscript of my first book, in hopes that he might find in it merit enough to write an endorsing blurb for the back cover. The prospect of phoning was uncomfortable and intimidating. These blurbs are a bit of a burden in book publishing; noted authors are constantly bombarded with too many such requests.
Barry picked up.
I explained who I was and why I was calling.
He politely explained that he was working on a book and so did not have the time for doing endorsements. Then he asked me how I got his number. He politely and clearly—his clarity with language being perhaps his most oft-noted trait—asked me to tear the number up. I was mortified by my intrusion.
Several years after that, on my way to give a talk in Arizona I was seated next to a woman, and, after exchanging pleasantries, I remarked on her computer’s screensaver photos of natural landscapes. She asked me if I’d ever heard of a writer named Barry Lopez. I told her how much Arctic Dreams had swept me away, and how I’d quickly read much of his other work, how his voice, his breadth and depth, the musicality of his word choice and sentence structure, often moved me.
“I’m his wife,” she said. “My name’s Debra. Barry’s picking me up when we land. Would you like to have breakfast with us? We’re meeting Chip Blake [former Orion editor-in-chief] at a diner.” I’d never met any of them but, of course, knew who they all were. Barry said it was nice to meet me.
“Actually,” I said, “we’ve spoken once, on the phone.” We had a good laugh over that story. He was warm and friendly, but I did not pursue a closer friendship; he had plenty of friends.
We had a very sporadic correspondence in the years after that. I remained wary of intruding. I regret that I felt that way because he was warm and inviting when I did contact him. When I sent him my 2011 book, he mailed me a personal thank you card. During a complicated multi-country trip in 2019, I read his book, Resistance. I was so moved that I emailed him from the Seychelles, to tell him how reading his work about far-flung resistors during my far-flung journey had made such a deep impression.
All of his work did. Barry opened up an enormous swath of life, time, and reflection, the wisdom of which we are free to access thanks to Barry Lopez’s stated motivation: to help. He worked to generously share with us what he had seen and gleaned of life. Some of it holds a sadness, a sense of loving a world where too many people have fallen out of love and lost their bearings, a world in which human conventions often deny the human spirit its freedom to flourish in dignity and with respect.
After I emailed my letter, months passed. One day in April, I was surprised to find in my mailbox a personal letter from Barry. He began kindly, explaining that medical issues had caused a delay in responding. Then he spoke of the implications of COVID-19’s erasure on planned travels:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer whose work was triggered by travel. For several reasons, I’m not likely to travel much in the future so I’m in the middle of a retooling operation, trying to find a path that works for me as a writer, given these new circumstances. It’s like making the reverse maneuver on a balance bar. You hope to achieve it with a measure of grace.
Debra and I have been at home for going on three weeks now . . . I’m very comfortable with it. The house is in the woods on the west slope of the Cascades and fronts on a whitewater river. In June, I will have been here for fifty years. Every year I feel more deeply the privilege of living like this. Spring Chinook spawn on gravel bars in front of us. Elk move like smoke through the trees here. We see myriad creatures every day—otter, bald eagles, bobcat, black bear, gray fox, hummingbirds and varied thrushes, blacktail deer. It’s a kind of paradise.”
After some generous words about my work he closed with, “I hope your health is good and that you are thriving. Abrazos fuertes.”
The rest of 2020 became too unsettling and, frankly, too dispiriting to put me in the right mood to act on the sticky note on my desk telling me to “reply to Lopez.” In December 2020, I stumbled upon an online piece he’d written in LitHub about his pivotal early travels in Alaska with the wolf researcher Bob Stephenson. That was a perfect prompt for me to finally compose a reply that felt adequately elevated and forward-looking. I decided to print and mail it unaware that a fire had ravaged Barry and Debra’s beloved home on the McKenzie River, forcing them to move.
A few days after I mailed it, my wife Patricia came to find me one morning to convey the news that Barry Lopez had passed. The following day I phoned Debra, intending to leave a message of condolence. I was surprised that she picked up. It was the first time we’d spoken since that morning in the diner. I extended my sympathies and conveyed some of the things I’d said in the letter that never reached Barry. We had a warm, if heartbroken, conversation.
Barry Lopez is a person who can pass, but cannot die. Too much of him is here, with us, in us, in our work, out at work in the world.
Carl Safina is an ecologist and author whose work explores how humans are changing the living world, and what those changes mean for wild places and for human and other beings. His writing has won the MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. Safina hosted the 10-part PBS series, Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia and their dogs and feathered friends. Carl’s most recent book is Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.
BARRY, brother, forty years ago you taught me, All stories are about relationship: who I am to all creatures where I am…who I am to who you are…who we are to who we will become. So goes, now and always, my story with you.
Kim Stafford is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose and is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, where he has taught since 1979. He has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Governor’s Arts Award, and the Stewart Holbrook Award from Literary Arts for his contributions to Oregon’s literary culture. His books include 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, The Muses Among Us, Wind on the Waves: Stories from the Oregon Coast, A Gypsy’s History of the World, and Wild Honey, Tough Salt.
Read Orion’s official statement following Barry Lopez’s death here.