Dear New School Friends:
The great writer and naturalist Barry Lopez participated in a Commonweal retreat a few years before he died. That is where I came to know him. On May 31, Ben Ehrenreich, himself a great writer and naturalist, published this New York Times review of the last book Barry Lopez left us—a book of essays with this unforgettable title: Embrace Fearlessly This Burning World. Rebecca Solnit, another great writer, wrote a beautiful introduction.
I dedicate this post to Barry Lopez. Here are some quotes from Ehrenreich’s review that touch me most deeply:
“The central project of my adult life as a writer,” [Lopez] says, “is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.”
“Throughout this book, Lopez considers his calling in terms that are unabashedly spiritual. Raised a Catholic, he was “fixated” in high school, he wrote, on emulating the life of the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Even after drifting away from Catholicism, he took time off from a New York publishing job for a retreat at the Kentucky abbey where the mystic and writer Thomas Merton lived. Fortunately for us, he didn’t stay. But years later, Lopez still relied “on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence.”
“We must invent overnight,” Lopez concludes, “another kind of civilization.” He offers no details, only fundamentals: “It is a good idea to love each other, and to love the Earth.”
“Embrace fearlessly this burning world” says in five words what I seek to do. The world is burning. We do what we can to save what we can. But we cannot halt the conflagration. We need to discover within ourselves a deep spring of hope and courage to walk through the fire. That is the hope and courage we need in these times.
Here is Ehrenreich’s review on the New York Times website (there is a paywall).
“I would ask you,” writes Barry Lopez in one of the essays collected in Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, “not to give in to the temptation to despair.” These days, it’s what you could call a Big Ask. Lopez, who before his death at 75 had traveled to more and stranger corners of the earth than most of us have bothered to imagine, certainly understood it as such. “To read the newspapers today, to merely answer the phone,” he wrote elsewhere, “is to know the world is in flames.” So perhaps his request is better read as a challenge—not only to readers but also to himself, a writer who, as long as he can keep our attention, holds our souls in his hands.
Lopez did not take the task of writing lightly. The books for which he is still best known—Of Wolves and Men (1978) and Arctic Dreams (1986)—are works of extraordinary immersive rigor, imaginative breadth, and intellectual depth. He published short stories, a memoir of sorts and countless essays, both substantial and ephemeral. In one of the 27 essays that are collected here, he tries to pin down the point of it all: “The central project of my adult life as a writer,” he says, “is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.”
Throughout this book, Lopez considers his calling in terms that are unabashedly spiritual. Raised a Catholic, he was “fixated” in high school, he wrote, on emulating the life of the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Even after drifting away from Catholicism, he took time off from a New York publishing job for a retreat at the Kentucky abbey where the mystic and writer Thomas Merton lived. Fortunately for us, he didn’t stay. But years later, Lopez still relied “on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence.”
That is a definition broad enough to include the act of writing, especially if your sentences shimmer and punch as magnificently and as hard as Lopez’s do. Lopez focused much of his respectful attendance on the land itself: this earth and the manifold forms of life that teem upon it. In one of the best essays in the collection, and one of the finest pieces of writing about Los Angeles that I have read, Lopez recalls a bucolic childhood in Reseda, a San Fernando Valley neighborhood that is now synonymous with dense suburbia but that in the 1950s was mainly farmland. The essay is, in part, a history, from the genocidal arrival of whites in the Valley to the whiplash suburbanization of the postwar boom. (He describes the latter as like “watching something emphatic move across the land, implacable, unfolding like the flaps of a cardboard box.”)
The piece opens up, though, into a painful reckoning with the years of sexual abuse Lopez suffered as a child, the victim of a respected member of the community. While living there, he wanted desperately to escape, but after his family moved away, Lopez writes, “I missed California to the point of grief.” The darting of jackrabbits, the crashing surf, the smell of eucalyptus, the “surgical sharpness” of the light—“without these things I believe I would have perished.” If you love it enough, he suggests, the land will love you back, and even heal you. No matter how much we degrade it, “it’s still present, vibrating in the shadow lines,” beneath the asphalt and concrete.
In the years that followed, Lopez traveled widely, preferring the spare and harsh lines of the desert and the polar regions to the busy tangle of the cities. He did his best to extricate his wanderings from colonial myths of conquest. In an essay on Antarctica, Lopez writes of the “coarseness and brutality” of the nationalism that drove the continent’s early-20th-century explorers and of “the curious emptiness of their achievements.” Something humbler was impelling Lopez. “Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do,” he writes, “is to pay attention.”
Indeed, if these essays have a unifying theme and express a single mandate, they are about the redemptive importance of paying attention to the planet and to the other beings with which we share it. Attentiveness works as an antidote not only to distractedness but to the fatal unseriousness of modern life. “Each place is itself only, and nowhere repeated,” Lopez writes. “Miss it and it’s gone.” He describes this “intimacy” with place in erotic terms, as something “primal” and “ineffable,” “the easing of a particular kind of longing” that results from “intense, amorous contact with the Earth.”
Thrilling encounters with wolves and killer walruses notwithstanding, Lopez wasn’t after Animal Planet-worthy adventures. He wanted us to seek out the human histories that reside in the landscape, too: the legacies of atrocity and exploitation that bounce around the rocks and valleys of this country as much as elks and coyotes do. As a young man, Lopez made a point of visiting the scenes of battles and massacres in Euro-Americans’ centuries-long war against the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants. “The battle sites,” he writes, “were fewer than the massacre sites.” Most of the latter were unmarked. “What kind of governance is apt to arise,” he asks, among a people so devoted to amnesia? The question is rhetorical. We know the answer all too well.
The essays in Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World are not ordered chronologically, so the growing alarm of Lopez’s later years registers only as a sort of punctuating urgency. “We can no longer afford to carry on in a prolonged era of polite reflection and ineffective resistance,” he writes in a piece published just last year. The implications of attentiveness, it becomes clear, are radical and deep.
Paying attention, for Lopez, means grappling with the ways in which genocide and slavery still shape our social geographies today. It means respecting diversity—epistemological as well as biological—as an essential principle of life. It means giving the nonhuman its due, not as a collection of exploitable resources but a web of interrelated beings, each with “their own integrity and perhaps even their own aspirations,” our partners in the divine. It means a thorough rejection of the myths and values on which our society, and all of capitalist modernity, is based. “We must invent overnight,” Lopez concludes, “another kind of civilization.” He offers no details, only fundamentals: “It is a good idea to love each other, and to love the Earth.”
Early in September 2020, a wildfire roared through Oregon’s McKenzie River Valley, where Lopez had lived for half a century and where, he writes, “I have had the longest conversation with the world outside myself.” The fire burned more than 170,000 acres, including the woods surrounding Lopez’s home. “The land around us as far as we can see,” he wrote in a post to his website, “looks flayed.” Lopez died three and a half months later. What more is there to say? He loved this world, and did his best, and pointed us the way.
I encourage you to read Lopez on Embracing Fearlessly This Burning World. And to explore whether it works for you to join those of us who follow this path. It’s not easy. It’s a path for those who choose to walk through fire.