EIGHTEEN MONTHS BEFORE HE CROSSED the river for the final time, Barry Lopez traveled from his home on the banks of the McKenzie to see me in Portland, Oregon, where I was passing through on my first trip to the American west coast. Barry and I had never met in person, though we’d corresponded by letter and email for several years. I was acutely nervous in the hours before our encounter, for Barry’s influence on my life over the preceding two decades had been that of a north star: distant, blazing, and guiding. In my early twenties, while traveling in the Canadian Rockies, I’d read his masterwork Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, published in 1986, and it had changed the course of my life. That book—with its glittering, mica-like prose poetry, its luminous moral vision, and its vast freight of research and experience—had blown open my sense of what nonfiction could be and might accomplish and had confirmed in me my wish to become a writer about nature, landscape, place, and people.
Twenty years on, I finally had the chance to meet the person who had opened a life’s path for me, as he had for so many others. I creaked down the stairs to the hotel lobby where Barry was waiting for me, heart-thuddingly anxious about disappointing him in some way I could neither foretell nor forestall. He rose with some difficulty—for his illness was at this point considerably advanced—greeted me with warmth and courtesy, bid me sit next to him, and then pointed to a big book already placed on the coffee table in front of us. It was a world atlas. He opened it. “I brought this,” he said, turning to the section on Europe. “I thought you might show me some of the journeys you’ve made over the past few years and point out some of the landscapes you’ve described for me in your books.” Set immediately at ease, I leaned forward, and for the next half hour or so we passed the atlas back and forth, finger-tracing paths of journeys taken, places known, recalling encounters with wise people, wild creatures, and fierce weather.
It was, I reflected later, a simple and beautiful thing for Barry to have done: geography as generosity. It allowed us quickly to find common ground—and encouraged each of us to speak to the other of our home grounds. For me these were the fenlands of Cambridgeshire and the Scottish Highlands, especially the Cairngorm massif in northeast Scotland. Barry’s home grounds were the McKenzie River on the west slope of the Cascades, where he’d lived for half a century; the American and Canadian Arctic in which he had spent so much time as a watcher, walker, and writer; and the creeks and fields of the San Fernando Valley, where as a child he had learned to fly homing pigeons: “I would turn slowly under them in circles of glee,” he later recalled in “A Voice,” the introduction to About This Life, an image in which, counter-intuitively, the tumbling pigeons become the fixed points around which that young life orbited in wonder.
A keynote—a grace note, really—of Barry’s vast and varied body of work concerns the need to speak with precision about the places you inhabit and that inhabit you. To be able to disaggregate and denote the elements of your home ground is not to practice an Adamic, possessive form of naming, but rather to sharpen perception—and to begin to honor the immense complexities, human and more-than-human, of a given landscape and its communities. Good place-language, well used, opens onto mystery, grows knowledge, and summons wonder. And in the absence of an exact and detail-giving lexis, the living world can blur into a generalized wash of green, becoming an easily disposable backdrop. Certainly, the nuances observed by specialized vocabularies of place-perception are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy, and virtualization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (field, hill, valley, wood) and as such, more exploitable. Landscape has become blandscape, ripe for rezoning. We are increasingly blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the term in his 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” to mean “indifferent to the distinction between things.”
In the early 2000s, Barry and his wife, the writer Debra Gwartney, began work on a project intended to celebrate and restore “the distinction between things.” It was called Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape and might be described as a place-dictionary that answers the cry given by the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig in 1983: “Scholars, I plead with you / Where are your dictionaries of the wind, the grasses?” Home Ground retrieves, defines, organizes, and illuminates more than eight hundred words and phrases specific to aspects of American topography through the voices of forty-five American writers invited by Lopez and Gwartney. I say “defines,” but that is not quite the right verb, at least not in its strict lexicographic sense. For Home Ground does not so much define as evoke. “That rivers and streams seldom flow (naturally) in straight lines is a gift of beauty. Otherwise we would not have canyons that bear the shape of moving water,” begins Ellen Meloy’s elegant entry for gooseneck, a term meaning those “meanders so tight in succession that their bows nearly meet one another.” Lopez tells us a shinnery is “[a] type of low brush thicket . . . difficult to impossible to cross on foot or horseback” that takes its name from the shin oak (Quercus havardii). Here, human affordance is measured, as well as constituent flora. Cowbelly, perhaps my favorite of all the entries in Home Ground, refers to the velvet-soft river mud which forms “along the banks of slow-moving creeks, where the current slackens completely, that the very finest particles of sediment settle out of the water. . . . At the boundary where water becomes silt, the bottom is so plush the sinking foot [of the barefoot wader] barely registers the new medium, only a second change of temperature.”
What a finely particular definition for a finely particular phenomenon! Here, as described by Conger Beasley, Jr., finesse exists within finesse: the generic “mud” is refined to a subcategory of itself, which is sensed haptically as an almost imperceptible change of temperature (rather than texture), felt by the bare stepping foot of the river-walker. One’s grounding by the world becomes the means of knowing and distinguishing one’s standing in the world.
The aim of Home Ground was, indeed, explicitly ethical rather than only taxonomic-descriptive. It shared with everything Barry wrote—and more broadly with the lived practice of his being-in-the-world as mentor, friend, ally, and teller—a belief that having such language available to us is vital because it encourages the kinds of allegiance and intimacy with one’s places that might also go by the name of love, and out of which might arise care, grace, and good sense. I think of Home Ground, really, as less of a dictionary or onomasticon and more of a uniquely structured prose poem, exquisite in its precision and its metaphors and hopeful in its vision. It advances a way of seeing, as Barry put it in the introduction, that might “keep us from slipping off into abstract space.”
I don’t know whether Barry ever corresponded with the great geographer of the American vernacular landscape, J.B. Jackson, whose essays and lectures were so influential in dignifying and directing scholarly attention onto gas stations, lawns, woodlots, road-layouts, ballparks, and other everyday human structures as part of “the full imprint of human societies on the landscape,” in Jackson’s phrase. Jackson was a vocal critic of the exclusionary wilderness aesthetic as it existed in much mainstream North American conservation and (dread phrase) “nature writing.” He and Barry shared a dislike of any way of seeing that sought dogmatically to exclude human presence from place. Both regarded landscape—to quote from Jackson—as “a complex and moving work of art, the transcript of a significant collective experience.” Both felt that to use language well in speaking of place was to use it particularly: precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention.
They differed in two crucial ways, however. Barry recognized the land to be “home ground” to a community of life which extended far beyond the human species, and Barry also increasingly acknowledged the capacity of humans to damage and destroy the land’s ability to be homely to that broader biota. It is worth recalling here that our word “ecology” comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “household,” “dwelling.” Ecology is literally “the study of home.” Human activity, immensely amplified by technology, is rapidly rendering the entire planet uncanny, unheimlich, unhomely. Aldo Leopold’s famous line about the penalty of an ecological education being that one “lives alone in a world of wounds” came to ring truer and truer in Barry’s work as it proceeded.
One means of measuring the distance that Barry traveled—from wonder and anxiety to rage and despair at the radical “unhoming” of life on Earth—may lie in the contrast between his essay “The American Geographies,” first published in 1988 and reprinted in About This Life, and his 2020 essay “American Geography,” the foreword to American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present, drawn from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Both are dazzling pieces of writing, but where the first argues richly for a particularized, pluralized geographical knowledge as a precaution against damage, the second, three decades on, unflinchingly addresses a shattered ecological present and a calamitous future. Trouble, in the first, is starting to make itself felt: “a less noticeable pattern of disruption: acidic lakes, skies empty of birds, fouled beaches, the poisonous slags of industry, the sun burning like a molten coin in ruined air.” Trouble, in the second, is everywhere apparent; the question is only how best to stay with it.
Here is Barry in 1989:
So when I traveled, when I rolled my sleeping bag out on the shores of the Beaufort Sea or in the high pastures of the Absaroka Range in Wyoming, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I absorbed those particular testaments to life, the indigenous color and songbird song, the smell of sun-bleached rock, damp earth, and wild honey, with some crude appreciation of the singular magnificence of each of those places. And the reassurance I felt expanded in the knowledge that there were, and would likely always be, people speaking out whenever they felt the dignity of the Earth imperiled in those places.
And here he is again in 2020:
Crudely put, it is that we can no longer afford to carry on in a prolonged era of polite reflection and ineffective resistance. An Era of Emergencies is bearing down on us. We must now consider, for example, how to organize the last industrial extractions of oil, fresh water, natural gas, timber, metallic ores, and fish in order to ensure our own survival; and we must consider, of course, what comes after that. We must reckon with the Sixth Extinction, which will remove, for example, many of our pollinators and one day, probably, many of us. We must invent overnight, figuratively speaking, another kind of civilization, one more cognizant of limits, less greedy, more compassionate, less bigoted, more inclusive, less exploitive.
Only a few months later, wildfire—part of a combustive pattern in the American West intensified by global warming—ripped over the ridge to the north of the McKenzie River and tore down toward Barry and Debra’s property, unhoming them for the last months of Barry’s life and laying waste to the small outbuilding that housed more than five decades of his journals and correspondence.
From Here to the Horizon: Photographs in Honor of Barry Lopez is a field guide to both wonder and loss. Tonally speaking, we might say that it spans the range from “The American Geographies” to “American Geography.” It contains images made by fifty of the most exceptional American landscape photographers of the past half-century and has its origin in Barry and Debra’s wish, some fifteen years ago, to create a photographic exhibition that would stand as counterpart to, and extension of, Home Ground. It is now well known, I think, that Barry began his artistic life as a photographer as well as a writer, and that he remained deeply engaged with the art and its practitioners until his death. This volume stands as a means of celebrating and extending that long collaboration between page and image in his work.
I wish, of course, that he were here to walk and talk us through these photographs. None stands merely as illustration of the term of landscape-lexis to which it is latched. Each inflects, provokes, or illuminates. Some evoke huge forces of geology and geomorphology, the timescales of which humble the human instant, like the jagged ridge-blade of Laura McPhee’s sawtooth. Some bring us close to the vernacular geographical vision that Barry shared with J.B. Jackson: Gregory Conniff’s yard, with its rough picket fence, or Mike Smith’s blue hole, its two bathers lazily, happily afloat. Many focus upon the presence of human interventions—aesthetic, industrial—even in contexts that might be characterized as wild or wilderness. Mark Ruwedel’s desert pavement, for example, will light up the mind of anyone who has read Barry’s essay “The Stone Horse,” in Crossing Open Ground. Joann Brennan’s pool and riffle shows a humanly created riverine diversion, deepening the water to aid native trout reproduction; Virginia Beahan’s solfatara is at once a reminder of our planet’s geothermal volatility and the anthropogenic shift in the streamflow of the Colorado River that has exposed these vents.
I relish the witty mischief of Rick Dingus’s image showing sandhills viewed through visitor center windows in a state park in Texas—a reminder that our word “landscape” arrived into English from Dutch in the sixteenth century, carrying a viewerly or pictorial association with the then-emerging school of Dutch landschap painters. Andrew Borowiec’s Meigs County, Ohio, chosen here to signify wilderness, shows a camper pulled up by the manicured bank of the Ohio River: it reminds me of a letter Jim Harrison once wrote me about his favorite “wild place” being the tree stump on which he’d left an empty beer bottle, out in his local woods. At the far end of the tonal range we find images like clearcut, strip mine, and tailings pond. Such landmarks are now as much part of the language of American geography as mesas, canyons, and cirques, and it is important to be able to identify and speak of them with exactitude. Some of these images, then, offer modest tools for modest place-making. Others record landscapes that still resist conversion to standing reserve. Others bear witness to modification, interference, and damage on a variety of scales: entries in a desecration phrasebook. Taken in sum, they speak of landscape’s ability to both pierce and ground the heart.
After Barry and I had finished our storytelling over the atlas that afternoon in Portland, we shared a public conversation upstairs in Powell’s Books, and then we went for a beer together. We talked of Barry’s plans for a last great trip: he wanted to drive from southeast to northwest, from Florida to Alaska, cutting a transect across the American landscape in its spectacular variety, moving from—as he put it—sanctuary to sanctuary, joining up places where people and creatures had gone to seek shelter and make home in precarious times. He never made that journey: illness and fire precluded it. Shortly before he began the long night drive back to his home at Finn Rock, he reached into his bag and took out a brightly colored headscarf, wrapped neatly around a small object. He unfolded the scarf to reveal a rock unlike any I’d seen before. It was a rough rhomboid, five-sided, black-brown in color, and its surfaces were eerily smooth to the touch. “This is for you,” he said, placing the rock on my palm. It was, he explained, a ventifact—a stone weathered patiently into shape and finish by wind—that he had picked up high in the mountains of Antarctica years earlier while on a journey about which he had written in his last great work, Horizon. That stone sits on my writing desk in Cambridge, England. It is before me now as I finish this essay: an anchor point, a tethering post, the glimpse of a landscape, part of my home ground.
“Geography as Generosity” originally appeared in Toby Jurovics, ed., From Here to the Horizon: Photographs in Honor of Barry Lopez, published by Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment, and distributed by Trinity University Press, in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, appearing at Sheldon Museum of Art from January 27 to May 26, 2023 and August 18 to December 21, 2023.
All photographs collection of Sheldon Museum of Art, Sheldon Art Association, the Home Ground Collection: Gift of the artist in honor of Barry Lopez.
For more information on the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment, please see www.barrylopezfoundation.org