Writer Barry Lopez Reflects On A Life Traveling Beyond The 'Horizon'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For the writer Barry Lopez, travel is a moral act. His new book is called "Horizon." It's a nod to heading over the edge of the familiar into the unknown. What we encounter there, he says, can change us.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 30 years ago, Lopez came up with the idea for "Horizon." It was soon after he finished his National Book Award-winning "Arctic Dreams." The new book would be a career-defining work, a personal reflection on six places that have shaped his understanding of the world.
CHANG: Years went by. He published fiction and essays, but he never quite felt ready to tackle "Horizon." Finally, this month, it's out. Our producer Dave Blanchard has this profile.
DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Lopez's urge to travel started young. His mom gave him an atlas when he was a boy, and he set up a little studio in his bedroom closet.
BARRY LOPEZ: So I had a little school desk in there and a gooseneck lamp, and I would sit there for hours turning the pages of this book. And then in pencil, I would draw the route that I was going to travel one day.
BLANCHARD: Now he's made most of those trips. For "Horizon," he searched through humanity's past in archeological digs in Kenya, flew a kite at the South Pole, retraced the steps of Darwin in the Galapagos. After every adventure, he returns to his home on the McKenzie River in the foothills of Oregon's Cascade Mountains. His house sits only about a hundred feet from the highway, but it feels a world apart. Evergreen trees tower overhead, and the smell of rich, wet earth hangs in the air.
LOPEZ: So often people say, wow, my God, you know, you've been to 70 countries, whatever. What's your favorite place? And the place I most want to be is here. This is where I have had the longest conversation.
BLANCHARD: The conversation he's talking about is a way of paying attention. Traveling or at home, Lopez finds lessons in the everyday. Walking outside his house, he grabs a branch from a small tree.
LOPEZ: This is vine maple. And you can see it's just starting to bud.
BLANCHARD: This little sign of spring tells a bigger story to Lopez.
LOPEZ: Yeah, it's the insistence of life. This is full of I-won't-quit energy.
BLANCHARD: Lopez then takes his focus even wider still, tying this persistent little bud to people who feel the world is coming undone and who've lost hope.
LOPEZ: They're ready to give up. But you - it's how embarrassing to give up when everything around you is growing.
BLANCHARD: Lopez is also worried about climate change in particular. He says he's seen its effects during his travels in the Arctic and even here at home. And he fills "Horizon" with little ethical prompts, like his reflection on the tree bud, to make us think about our complicity and complacency in a world that we have the power to change. Part of the reason Lopez waited to write it was it took him a long time to gain the perspective he felt he needed.
LOPEZ: I think I had a greater tendency when I was younger to judge, to maintain states of anger. I had impatience. And I had to bleed all that off before I wrote the book.
LOPEZ: Well, the real answer would be cancer.
BLANCHARD: In 2013, Lopez found out he had an extremely aggressive form of metastatic prostate cancer. For him, even this diagnosis was a lesson in empathy.
LOPEZ: I imagined in everybody I passed there was some story that they carried with them that would break your heart. So how could you have the temerity to approach that person and say, here's what's wrong with you?
BLANCHARD: When he finally began "Horizon," that new outlook shaped his writing. The book has an apocalyptic tone. In addition to climate change, Lopez is concerned with corporate greed, ineffectual governments, the treatment of ethnic minorities. But he doesn't scold the reader. He thinks his job is to remind them.
LOPEZ: The Achilles heel of consciousness is that we forget. We forget what we stand for. We forget to maintain good relations with the people around us. The reason for story is to repair the damage that forgetting always does. The story comes along to say, so what about this? What about living like this?
BLANCHARD: And while he writes his stories, reminders for his readers, he's surrounded by reminders for himself, souvenirs from his travels. He pulls a small coin out of a cloth pouch and lays it on his dining room table.
LOPEZ: So here's this piece of eight.
BLANCHARD: He kept it on his desk while working on "Horizon." It's from a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck, a bit of profit made during an era when European colonizers devastated Indigenous people in pursuit of resources and land. He picked it up while travelling in the Caribbean.
LOPEZ: I keep this coin to remind me of the capacity of human beings to destroy other human beings on a massive scale for money.
BLANCHARD: Lopez grieves for those human beings. And in a passage in "Horizon," he also mourns the loss of those cultures' stories, their unique thoughts about the world. He writes...
LOPEZ: (Reading) As our own cultures continue to unfold around the riptides of aggressive commerce and heedless development, it seems these thoughts might have been good things to have made note of.
BLANCHARD: Lopez stares at the coin in his hand. As with the tree bud, he sees more than just the object. He sees stories.
DEBRA GWARTNEY: This has been a long, long process with "Horizon." It was so entwined and embedded in him.
BLANCHARD: Lopez is married to the writer Debra Gwartney. They used to walk in the woods around their house together all the time. Since Lopez's diagnosis, she often walks alone.
GWARTNEY: We don't do so much anymore with Barry not feeling up to walking as much.
BLANCHARD: Gwartney more than anyone understands what a labor writing "Horizon" was for Lopez. She remembers when he finished.
GWARTNEY: A weight lifted off his shoulders that I knew would happen, but I just didn't know how visceral it would be. I mean, I could actually see it physically.
BLANCHARD: In the evening, Gwartney cooks up some tuna steaks for dinner.
GWARTNEY: Oh, my gosh, what a beautiful day it was.
BLANCHARD: Lopez feeds their cat, Mimsy (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)
LOPEZ: Here's for kitty.
BLANCHARD: It's one of their last nights together at home before they both head out on book tour. Gwartney published a book about the pioneer missionary Narcissa Whitman just days before "Horizon" came out. They're both concerned about Lopez's health, but he's not one to feel sorry for himself. He remembers a time earlier in his career when he was feeling exhausted and a little hopeless. He called a friend of his, the Onondaga elder Oren Lyons.
LOPEZ: The peculiar thing that he said was, all of our chiefs die on the road. And what he was talking about was, we must all bear up and know that we will all pass away, but it's important to keep these things alive and to give your life to the protection of these ideals.
BLANCHARD: For Lopez, protecting his ideals, staying on the road means continuing to write, continuing to tell stories.
LOPEZ: There is no other choice. In the end, you'll just drift away like wood drifts away out there in the river.
BLANCHARD: Lopez is already looking for his next road to travel. He dreams of continent-spanning trips across all of North America or all of Africa.
LOPEZ: A very long trip like that that I would do in my own vehicle, which is old (laughter) and has 363,000 miles on it kind of like me.
BLANCHARD: As with all of his travels, he doesn't know what he'll find, and that's why he goes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.