Tag Archives: Arctic

Consequence and Obligation: Barry Lopez’s Horizon (2019)

20 Apr

I have to admit that as much as a fan of travel literature as I am, I had not read (or eve heard) of any of the American author Barry Lopez‘s previous writings on culture and the natural environment from his many expeditions across the globe, including his seminal 1986 volume Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. This happily changed recently when I came into the possession of his latest work, the more autobiographically minded Horizon (2019), earlier this month.  I am glad to say that I am now, in part, rectifying this gap in my knowledge and I have spent many happy hours pondering his exquisite writing.

Horizon is a hard work to classify – it is not your typical autobiography as Lopez’s life experiences are only alluded to rather than fleshed out, but the depth of his thoughts and experiences of journeying across the earth, uncovering the bonds between both humanity’s impact on the planet and co-dependency with the natural environment, are richly described and expounded upon.  This is further enriched with input from a wide range of friendships with ecologists, geographers, historians, archaeologists and artists alongside inhabitants of the places his visits.

I am struck by the syntax that Lopez uses to draw in the reader into his way of seeing the world; it is a world not riven by borders (physical or mental) between humanity’s cultural world and the natural world but by the blindingly obvious partnership and balance that is needed between the two.

In an early section of the volume Lopez discusses the material objects that act as his talismans as reminders to, or from, previous expeditions and how they link both memory and experience to inform his guiding values in interpreting the world around him.  It is a particularly moving point in which to provide the bedrock for the rest of book and into Lopez’s own evaluation of his critical thinking over time.  In the passage quoted below an Arctic artefact linked to functionality is heavily imbued with a sense of place within the give and take of humanity’s survival:

‘Next to my bed is a sand-cast silver harpoon tip, a stylized replica of a toggling implement that Eskimo hunters have used for centuries to secure and retrieve seals.  A gift from my wife.  To provide food for one’s family , whether it is seal meat or a sack of grain  or the flesh of an avocado, is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life.  To act here is to face one’s own complicity, to choose to take life in order that one’s own kin might continue to live.  When I lie down to sleep far from home, I place this small work of art close by on a folded scarf.  It was crafted by a man named Jimmy Nagougugalik, an Inuit artist and hunter from Baker Lake, in Nunavut, Canada.  It reminds me of the centrality of the symbolic in human life, and of both the consequence of providing and of the obligation to provide.’

– quoted from Lopez (2019: 40).

The volume is laced with an undercurrent of worry for the future generations of the world, in both the political and physical sense, as we head to unprecedented population numbers and increased stresses on the environment leading to resource depletion, unsustainable economic growth and ecological damage.  Yet there is a hint of hope, that if a balance can be achieved and stability in how we manage our resources then we can live more harmoniously in sync with each other and the natural environment.

If you are looking for a volume to read that will challenge the way you think about humanity’s impact on the earth and are curious to read about far-flung places with an anthropological slant then this may be the book for you.

Bibliography

Lopez, B. 2001. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. Vintage: New York.

Lopez, B. 2019. Horizon. London: The Bodley Head.