Barry Lopez won the National Book Award in 1986 for his monumental nonfiction work “Arctic Dreams.” His 2019 book “Horizon” found its way onto numerous best-of-the-year lists. When he died in December 2020, laudatory obituaries compared him to Thoreau and referred to his writing as “landmark.”
Despite these accolades, Lopez has not received the critical reception he truly deserves. To begin with, most of the obits focused on his nature writing, which, while understandable, excludes his fiction (of which he published eleven volumes), but most significantly, the artistry of his essays. His final collection of essays, “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World,” should remind readers just how wide-ranging, artful, and deeply personal his writing could be.
Lopez wrote about the natural world, yes, but it’s more accurate to say that he wrote through it. For instance, the book’s opening essay, “Six Thousand Lessons,” focuses not on where he has traveled in his long career, but what lessons he learned about the world’s cultural multiplicity, noting that after a life of such nomadic movement, one might “assume, if you are not paying attention, that you know where you are, succumbing to the heresy of believing that one place actually closely resembles another. But this is not true. Each place is itself only, and nowhere repeated. Miss it and it’s gone.” Diversity, he concludes, “is not…a characteristic of life,” but rather “a condition necessary for life.”
In “Out West,” Lopez considers why American art doesn’t engage in the massacres of Native Americans the same way Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe engages with the Holocaust. What follows is a detailed exploration of Native art, depictions of Indigenous cultures, and his misgivings over modernism and postmodernism. He describes an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston called The Modern West: American Landscapes, which recognizes “a spiritual dimension to Western space,” an idea often left out of myths of expansion. “If a place is stripped of geography,” he writes, “and geography is stripped of spirit, any destructive scheme for profit will fly.”
Other essays in “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World” show not only the range of Lopez’s scope but also his artistry. “¡Nunca Más!” is written in the form of a diary, tracing Lopez’s journey to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. This form situates the piece as personal reflection rather than reportage. “Fourteen Aspects of Power” contains fourteen short, discrete sections exemplifying, as the title suggests, different kinds of power, from the strength of the mamba snake’s venom to the force of various types of human authority. Lopez doesn’t name each aspect, nor does he directly elaborate on what effect having them all juxtaposed against each other is intended; instead, Lopez lets the reader make those connections.
What’s most striking about the collection is how personally revelatory Lopez could be as a writer. Two essays here — “A Scary Abundance of Water” and “Sliver of Sky” — detail his childhood in Los Angeles and the sexual abuse he suffered from “an older man who ran a drying-out clinic for alcoholics,” a serial child rapist who escaped previous indictments in Toronto and Colorado. The first essay spends much of its considerable length on the history of water in the San Fernando Valley, the way irrigation brought about “an almost incomprehensible [population] increase of 20,000 percent” between 1911 and 1950. Water becomes a metaphor for Lopez’s childhood — the swimming pools, the LA River, et al — a life-giving substance tainted by the pollution of horrific abuse. “A Scary Abundance of Water” was published in 2002 in L.A. Weekly, whereas the second essay on this subject, “Sliver of Sky,” a much franker and more direct piece on the abuse, appeared in Harper’s in 2013. It’s as if Lopez needed to write the first in order to be able to get to the second, which examines Lopez’s own investigation into his past (which he began in 1989) and the various psychological effects the abuse had on him throughout his life. It is a harrowing, emotionally challenging essay, written with Lopez’s characteristic generosity and forthrightness, although here it is aimed at himself, an instructive candor for anyone grappling with trauma.
Throughout all of Lopez’s writing is a moral clarity that is as striking as it is inspiring. “As I see it,” he writes, “in a democracy such as ours the writer is called on especially to expose the notion of entitlement” and that “the peculiar task of American writers today…is to address what lies beyond racism, class structure, and violence in American life by first recognizing those failings as real.” Lopez advocates not for achievement but for witness, not meaning but experience. He believed that if he hoped to try to understand a specific culture or geography, then it was more important to spend a great deal of time amongst them, speaking with the locals, listening, participating, observing, than it was to focus on more “deskbound” research. “The why and wherefore,” he notes, “of what occurred often becomes more obvious (and less confabulated) when the real ground, the actual location, becomes a part of what one knows.”
In the oldest essay in the book, “Our Frail Planet in Cold, Clear View” from 1989, Lopez writes that “whatever our individual failings might be, many of us in the end, I think, wish only this, to make some simple contribution, a good one or an original one if that be our gift, to be recalled as having done something worthy and dignified with our time.” According to this metric, Barry Lopez contributed enough in his 75 years on this planet for dozens of lifetimes.
Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and “Skateboard.
EMBRACE FEARLESSLY THE BURNING WORLD: Essays
By Barry Lopez
Random House, 352 pages, $28