Horizon, by Barry Lopez, Vintage, 592 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1529111248
The place from which something begins its essential unfolding.
Heidegger’s definition of a horizon, quoted in Horizon.
Barry Lopez died in 2020, not long after publication of Horizon, in which he surveys his life’s travels and thoughts. His 1986 book Arctic Dreams, which explores the polar environment and its effects on the human psyche, has been cited by many non-fiction writers as a primary influence. In turn, Lopez recalls being inspired by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 book, The Worst Journey In the World, describing the author’s experience as a member of Edward Wilson’s 1911 expedition to the penguin colony at Cape Crozier. Another volume Lopez cites with gratitude is Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View, stimulating questions about boundaries and horizons. Examples of books in themselves serving as a horizon: “the sill of the sky, separating what the eye could see from what the mind might imagine”.
“To explore,” Lopez believes, “is to travel without a hypothesis.” He extols above all Captain James Cook for bestowing “the first three-dimensional sense of Earthly Order”; as he probed oceans and shores and devised ingenious nautical charts that opened routes to fellow Westerners, while acknowledging the conflicts and widespread genocides and ecocides that followed. Yet Cook may have doubted Enlightenment goals as much as he advanced them. A century later, Darwin’s evolutionary theory further shifted perceptions of humanity’s perch in time and space. Lopez relates how in 1960, Picard and Walsh dived to a depth of 35,800 feet on the Pacific floor, “the basement of the world”, seven years after Hillary’s team scaled Everest at 29,000 feet. Planet Earth has by now been tracked and measured all about, in projects widely deemed more valuable than what unschooled Homo ancestors got up to.
But are they? How is unfettered extraction from all remaining ecosystems, however well-paying, going to end? Like Millstream Chichester National Park in Australia, formerly a pearling station until all the pearls were taken, and before that, a whaling station until all the whales were butchered, whose water today is supplied by pipeline to Dampier, a mining town sixty miles away where Aboriginal rock art thousands of years old was removed for land clearance? Anthropologist Misia Landau found human evolutionary theory to be undergirded more by ambiguous hero narratives than by proofs. Conquest stories are unsustainable as already climate change and inequality materially harm most countries. The most important horizons now, Lopez suggests, may be those found within (such as guardianship), to replace self-realisation and self-aggrandisement, increasingly redundant in the circumstances.
Hubble telescope photographs, impressions based on scientific data, felt incomplete to Lopez. He recalls the Navajo treatment of Hózhó: singing over a patient to restore beauty, health and harmony. Australian Aboriginals conceive of local extinctions less flatly and fatally, hopeful they can sing creatures back into existence. Lopez grieves the erasure of vital strategies, “epistemologies and ontologies” ensuing from tribal massacres and oppression. Science-mediated images on their own make for slanted and hollowed knowledge. They are not enough. Genuine scientists gladly take correction from those with native knowledge, as shown by CCNT biologists reintroducing mala species in the Tanami desert, who consulted with the Warlpiri aboriginals for insights into their ancient land use techniques and spiritual mythologies. Datasets can be self-referential bluffs. A March 2022 interview for Issue quotes Daniel Kahneman: “It turns out that people really do best with a small amount of information, and that when they begin to consider the details and the complexities of the individual case ‑ except if it’s a deal-breaker ‑ they’re likely to give improper weight to insignificant matters.” But who are the Solomons equipped to recognise those key nuggets? That matters as much. The idea the world is there for the taking is particularly delusional. Extraction without regeneration is a dead end. Animals, including humans, and the resources they need, are the world. Honouring this holistic reality means surrendering many assumptions, symptomatic of privileged points of view.
Wisdom is about adapting more than about counting. Delaying naming can allow richer details to emerge in their own time. Indigenous people tend to suspend prejudice, waiting for patterns to be revealed, to avoid being misled by just thinking, or by being “fooled by randomness”, as Nassim Taleb puts it. Lopez notes too how theory of mind, the ability to take others’ points of view, evolved to help maintain social networks and foster cooperation, although empathisers are more easily manipulated. There is no security without trust but also without trustworthiness, demonstrated by elders often organically stepping forward, and being intuitively chosen, after catastrophes hit communities. These individuals have a knack of unostentatiously coordinating local responses regardless of centralised intervention. Listening is being alive to others’ acumen – “the ability to understand what someone else is thinking is the foundation of stable social order”. A tall order surely, if not a hopeless challenge, in atomised modernity unless fundamental reforms are made? So far, the wisest minds are usually missing at decision tables.
In 2021, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and similar institutions warned about record methane emissions at 1,900 ppb in the atmosphere, CO2 at 420 ppm, and in early 2022, Antarctic temperatures 70 degrees (F) warmer than normal. Barry Lopez reflects on such climate changes whether roaming around Botany Bay, the Kenyan desert or the Galapagos, questioning even the impact of traces made by teams of archaeologists and others he joined for his wondrous wanderings. Aware of increasing threats to nature, and always informing himself of the names of plants, birds and wildlife at each destination, he “wants everyone to survive what is coming”. Landscape restoration is not really possible, and only affords psychological comfort at best. Through behaviour and technologies, too many changes are being imposed too fast, as never before, without due regard for long-term consequences.
During one trip to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Lopez recounts how his colleagues descended into an ice pit to gather yet more numerous snow samples, to be transported out by fossil-fuel guzzling Snow Cats, 100-metre-long ice-breaker ships to wedge ice open, helicopters etc, which also regularly deliver fuel for generators running the stations and other substantial supplies. On another outing to McMurdo Station, the Antarctic’s most used stop, when ecologists sent by the National Science Foundation tested for pollution in nearby Winter Quarters Bay, (diving with them was “like swimming through the interior of a drowned cathedral”), Lopez learned that the US Navy had dumped on the area’s sea ice barrels of toxic waste, along with transport, construction and domestic waste, making it the world’s most contaminated harbour. The US Geological Survey marks the new location of the South Pole every year with metal rods. Encircling that point are a lot of data-gathering stations, increasingly notorious for energy consumption, performing long-running programmes. And this sketches only the degradation scientists – the good guys – are doing, which has to be dwarfed by the Antarctic operations of industrial and institutional agents.
And still folk wonder why glaciers are melting. Let’s face it: they are being melted. Much like integrated communities are being splintered, leading to the new science of taphonomics, as if selecting information over survival is better. The fact that the only flag Lopez noticed flying at the Pole was the American flag, despite commitment to universal equality of access declared in the Antarctic Treaty, should be but is not surprising either.
Having witnessed women in Afghanistan crazed after war losses, visited many places like Verdun, Auschwitz, and Devil’s Island, and learning of the profane treatment of Ranald MacDonald’s Chinook ancestors, and of boys tortured in detention at Port Arthur leaping to suicide holding hands, Lopez confronts the human toll of anthropocentric power largely expressed by trying to control diversity. Nowhere is free of the risk of inhabitants becoming Hibakushas (nuclear radiation survivors) because of this drive “to eliminate strangers and take possession of whatever they had”, despite a counter-drive existing in most ordinary people to cooperate with, and even love the stranger. He likens those living without restraint, impelled by corporate growth, to suicide bombers in society.
Lopez’s explorations and themes overlap closely with writings like Nostos by the Irish philosopher John Moriarty, who observed, for example, “as is science, so is myth in arrears, in explanatory arrears, of who we are”. Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation; Jonathan Neale’s Fight the Fire; Kim Stanley Robertson’s Ministry of the Future; Paul Hawken’s Regeneration, and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth are just a sample of similar works rapidly accumulating into a genre of their own.
Homo Sapiens is evolving more culturally than physically, risking subsumption of birth culture by electronic culture. An Irish scientist, Charles Boole, paved the way in the 1850s for today’s high-tech revolution. Lopez rues the modern culture of being unable to leave whatever it finds alone, when previously community elders valued stability over progress, to serve shared balance, regularity and symmetry instead of deranging change, ambitions, deviation and growth. But carefully cultivating welfare of people and the environment as the main thing to do always is not profiting and winning in the capitalist economic paradigm, which instead piles on ever more soul-scarring bullshit jobs, to use David Graeber’s term.
Enforcing one right way spells bio-cultural impoverishment, illustrated by the results of the 1970s Canadian Inuit Land Use and Occupancy project, designed to establish the “nature and extent of Inuit use and occupation” of the Arctic. Participants produced ecological maps based on practical familiarity with features like caribou movements, bear denning sites, and narwhal haunts in open water. Encounters with wild species evoke profound wonder and gratitude in Lopez too; responses suggesting some obligations.
In contrast, acting as if they know what’s best, colonisers kill nature and people, expunging evidence of other ways of life. Resituating non-humans in the ethical and humans in the ecological is, according to philosopher Val Plumwood, the pivotal priority, and possible in an alternative care economy. Aggression destroys a kind of crucial anti-fragility bred from intimate nurture and sensitive respect for life’s core mystery, characterised by Heisenberg as indeterminacy; Schrodinger, non-equilibrium, and Kringelbach & Deco, turbulence.
Lopez regards prisons as symbols of society’s perverse values, where many with few rights and privileges are inhumanely subjugated while outside, those overseeing socio-environmental degradation and perpetuating poverty, ignorance and desperation, arranging in the nation’s name for more and more citizens to just do what they’re told, actually pose far greater threats. Instead of waging authority and coldly processing exiles like faulty appliances, continuing yesterday’s large-scale social engineering, people urgently need to tune into one another’s light, as Rutger Bregman advocates in Humankind (see review at https://drb.ie/articles/yes-we-can/). Good neighbours are the best bulwark against traumas.
In Lopez’s tiny but resonant trove of mementos are NATO cartridge casings from a Norwegian whaling station in South Georgia (his description of a sea-storm witnessed there is exquisite), betraying ongoing colonial appropriation being violently enforced. He remarks on “the growing inutility of war in the modern era.” Another item is a seventeenth century Spanish coin associated with the invasion by Hernán Cortez of Cuba, which dispossessed locals for land (claiming the standard terra nullius), including some granted to Marin Lopez, shipbuilding ancestor of the author. This “manifest symbol of unrelenting pathological exploitation” is also reminiscent of Leopold of Belgium up to Lumumba’s murder in the Congo. Struggling against such efforts at extermination are people in villages everywhere recording their histories to oppose caricature or oblivion.
Sailing the Strait of Magellan, Lopez mourned the fate of Fuegian tribes and their rich lore lost to more efficient economies. The small chapel he visited in Port Famine, one of many dotted around South America, makes sense to him in the light of universal suffering arising from frequently having to navigate fearfully through a life not of one’s making. He asserts that “the deep nature of every place is not transparency [but] obscurity”. Arrogance about what is known can occasion dangerous blinkers to the mystery that prevails to a greater degree than certainty, and to any vital messages to be transmitted, of which Barry Lopez is a faithful courier. In any case, “no one can miss now the alarm in the air”.
Horizon comes carefully produced with site maps, page notes, acknowledgements, a bibliography and index, and scientific binomials for animals, fish, birds and plants. The writing confirms why so many other reviewers so highly esteem Barry Lopez, who showed that attention must be paid, even if just to humbly recognise fellow elders of different stripes who can discern alternative solutions. while they are still among us.