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The Upside Down: Long Live the Elders! The Exemplary Life of Barry Lopez

John Mitchinson returns with his reflections on the final book of the late great American author and what it reveals about the demands on humans to evolve ethically in order to meet the many challenges on the horizon

THE UPSIDE DOWNLong Live the Elders! The Exemplary Life of Barry Lopez

John Mitchinson returns with his reflections on the final book of the late great American author and what it reveals about the demands on humans to evolve ethically in order to meet the many challenges on the horizon

On Christmas Day 2020, the American writer Barry Lopez died from complications connected with prostate cancer. He was 75 years old. I mention his age only because of the increasingly depressing conversation around deaths attributable to COVID-19 and the belief in some quarters that the high incidence of elderly people dying somehow lessens the gravity of the crisis.

Apart from the moral repugnance of the ‘let them die’ campaign, it reveals a deeper malaise – one that Lopez was particularly qualified to diagnose. A culture that fails to value its old people, is a culture that no longer values wisdom. 

Lopez is best known for his 1986 classic Arctic Dreams, with its odd and unexpected subtitle: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. It was, and remains, an odd and unexpected book – on the one hand, a magnificently detailed account of the inter-relationship between landscape, wildlife and human culture; on the other, a tentative and bracingly honest spiritual odyssey.

It confirmed Lopez’s place in the rarefied pantheon of the best American nature writers – Peter Matthiessen, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard – but also marked him out as a genuine philosopher; a curator of wisdom and fable who had important things to say about the fate of our species. For those of us raised in Western cultures, he is best seen as our equivalent of an indigenous culture’s wisdom-keeper or elder (to quote his own definition): “The people who carry the knowledge of what works, who have the ability to organise chaos into meaning, and who can point recovery in a good direction.”

How he came to fulfil this role is the subject of his last and best book, Horizon, published in 2019. It is the work of 35 years, of travel through more than 70 countries, and charts his evolving sense of how best to write about our wounded planet. The book is structured around six journeys in which he returns to places where he “felt an identical and peculiar sense of urgency about humanity’s fate”: his own turf on the Oregon Coast, the Canadian High Arctic, the Rift Valley in east Africa, the Galápagos Islands, the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia, and, finally, the astonishingly rich desert of Antarctica itself. It is a magnificent achievement: symphonic in structure, epic in scope, its themes and ideas develop across 500 pages, all rendered in prose of spare and sinuous clarity.

Running through the book is his belief that any solution to the problems gathering on our horizon will depend on a shift in ethics rather than technological advance. As he puts it: “Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.”

He is too honest a writer not to uncover human suffering driven by “intolerance, injustice, and ethnic and national exceptionalism” but he refuses to fetishise it. Instead, he challenges his own responses – fully aware of his privilege as a white, male writer dropping in and out of the places he writes about. 

In particular, he cultivates his skills as a listener, “one of the most remarkable of all human capacities” and the distinguishing trait of a good elder. In the Australian chapter, he tells the inspiring story of how the biologists looking to reintroduce the rufous hare-wallaby or mala in the Tanami desert decide to involve the local Aboriginal elders. They can deliver the animals, but only the Warlpiri can “sing the mala up”, by ritually calling it back into the country. As Lopez writes, the sensitivity shown by the biologists in confessing that they had “neither the authority nor the ability to act in this realm” and that “without the help of the Warlpiri the reintroduction effort would collapse, was mind-boggling for the Warlpiri”.

Horizon is full of such resonant examples of this new thinking. Though very far from a polemic, it should be read by anyone who wants to deepen their sense of what lies in wait. Few writers have seen as much or listened as intently as Lopez and our lives are so much the richer for having him as a guide:

“Anyone, too, facing this frightening horizon, might opt to turn away, decide instead to become lost in beauty, or choose to remain walled-off from the world in electronic distraction, or select catatonic isolation within the fortress of the self. But one can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there to be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working still to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every quarter.”

‘Horizon’ by Barry Lopez is published by Vintage Publishing

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI

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