Remembering Barry Lopez, acclaimed Oregon writer, who died on Christmas Day
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Barry Lopez won the National Book Award for 1986 Arctic dreams.
John W. Clark
National Book Award winner Barry Lopez was famous for recording his travels to remote places and the landscapes found there. But his writings were not just accounts of his travels – they were a reminder of the precious life on earth and our responsibility to care for it. He died on Christmas Day after years of battling prostate cancer, his wife confirmed to NPR. He was 75 years old.
Lopez spent more than 30 years writing his final book, Horizon, and you don’t spend that much time on a project without going through periods of self-doubt.
When I met him at his house last year, he told me that if he felt defeated by work, he would walk down the nearby McKenzie River.
“Every time I did it, there was a beaver stick at my feet in the water. And they are workers, of course. So I imagined the beaver was saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Job.'”
Up in his studio he had a collection of the sticks and he showed me how they carried the marks of small teeth. It was a lesson for Lopez. “Every day I saw the signs of: Don’t lose faith in yourself,” he told me.
This was the world of Barry Lopez – a world where a beaver could teach you the most precious lessons.
Lopez was born in New York, but his father moved the family to California as a child. He would eventually settle in Oregon, where he became known for his writing on the natural world. In 1986 he won the National Book Award for his non-fiction books Arctic Dreams.
At the time, he told NPR how he approached the seemingly empty arctic environment.
“I focused on places where I thought nothing was going on,” he said then. “And then, after a while, the landscape materialized more completely. Her expression was deeper and wider than I had imagined at first glance.”
In Lopez’s books, a cloudy sky contains “shades of gray of pigeon feathers, slate and pearls”. Packs of hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands move “like swans milling on a city park pond”.
The composer John Luther Adams was Lopez’s friend and collaborator for nearly four decades. He says Lopez’s letter is a wake-up call.
“He overlooks the beauty of the world as well as the cruelty and violence we humans inflict on the earth and one another, and he does so with deep compassion,” says Adams
Lopez experienced this cruelty firsthand: as a child, he was sexually abused by a family friend. He first wrote about it in 2013, and later told NPR that the experience made him feel anxious and shameful about other people. The animals he encountered in the California wilderness offered something else.
“They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we know what you’ve been through,'” he said. “I felt accepted in the living world.”
Lopez would spend his life writing about this world – especially the damage climate change has done.
It’s so hard to be human There are so many reasons to give up. Withdraw in cynicism or despair. I hate to see this and I want to do something that will make people feel safe, loved, and able.
That hit Lopez last September. Much of his property was burned in forest fires that pierced Oregon, in part due to unusually dry conditions. His wife Debra Gwartney says he lost an archive that held most of his books, awards, notes and correspondence from the past 50 years, as well as much of the forest around the house.
“He’s talked a lot about climate change and how easy it is to believe it will happen to other people and not you,” she says. “But it happened to us, it happened to him personally. The fire was a blow from which he could never recover.”
When I spoke to Lopez last year, he said he always tried to find mercy in the midst of the devastation.
“It’s so difficult to be human. There are so many reasons to give up. To withdraw in cynicism or despair. I hate to see this and I want to do something that makes people feel safe, loved and able to be. “
In his final days, Lopez’s family brought items from his home to him at the hospice. Among other things: The beaver is out of his studio.
This story was edited by Rose Friedman and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer
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