When I call author Barry Lopez’s landline at his Oregon home for a scheduled interview, I’m met with a frenzied busy signal. Five minutes later, same thing.
This goes on until Lopez calls me on his cellphone from his truck. Caught in a brutal snowstorm, he’s way down the road from the rural house, 40 miles east of Eugene (“in a temperate-zone green forest,” he says), where he has lived for 49 years.
“We lost power a few days ago,” says Lopez, 74, whose latest release, “Horizon,” brings him to Seattle this week. “I was able to get out and reach the highway, and I’ve come to a spot where I got a signal and could call you. Trees and wires are falling all over. A tree fell on my guesthouse and pierced the ceiling of the living room. It’s dramatic, but it’s life in the country.”
Considered by many readers and critics to be our most important environmental writer, Lopez is a touchstone author whose nonfiction and fiction alike have inspired artists in multiple disciplines. He’s devoted his career to exploring the deep emotional and spiritual ties between people and the settings they move through.
When we’re done talking, he says, he’s going back home to make sure all the older, retired loggers in his wooded community have firewood and food. He’s got a chain saw in the truck to help clear the wintry carnage.
Such is the meaning of home for an inveterate globe-trotter. A lifelong pole-to-pole and west-to-east traveler, Lopez’s visionary descriptions of landscapes are startling in their immediacy. Burgeoning with nature’s diversity, animals, cultural mindsets, beauty and devastation, Lopez underscores in these writings the essential impact of “place” on our lives.
In the 1986 National Book Award-winning “Arctic Dreams”; the remarkable 2015 essay “The Invitation” (about indigenous peoples who see the world as a matrix from which events are never isolated); and “Resistance,” an unflinching look at the importance of place to damaged souls, Lopez has captured myriad, singular experiences.
The often-contradictory perspectives between his characters, his real-world companions on travels abroad, and his own wanderlust serve as a reminder that we all roam through life with a one-of-a-kind, subjective eye and restless heart.
Still, in the most critical and expansive way, Lopez believes that there is no place like home. “The place in which you live is like a person, in that there is always a conversation going back and forth between you and that setting,” he says. “You are included in community. Without that feeling, there is a psychological way in which you feel non-embraced. You feel alone in the world or misunderstood or isolated. If you remain in a conversation with a place, you will not feel alone.
“A lot of places where I’ve traveled with indigenous people, you have questions for them, the same sort of questions you ask everybody. But when I ask those people, what do you think about us, your guests, they always say ‘You’re a lonely people.’ When I press them on that, they say ‘You haven’t got the connections that make you feel non-judged and included.’”
For Lopez, writing about all he has seen and heard on his treks would be meaningless without a larger purpose. “The writer is the servant, not the important person,” he says. “Your job is to find language that elevates human experience to such a level your reader will feel, when she moves away from your pages, more confident, with a deeper sense of her own self-worth.”
If getting out of the way of a good story, even while writing it, is crucial to Lopez, “Horizon” proved a personal and professional challenge. A lyrical recollection of his travels from boyhood to midlife, “Horizon” succeeds in answering the author’s existential question: Were all those adventures worth anything to anyone besides him?
“All the time I worked on ‘Horizon,’ I was thinking, ‘you better be certain the door is open and opened wide, to all kinds of readers’ minds,” he says. “If you’re going to ask somebody to go along with your open-ended philosophical discussion, there’d better be a payoff. A lot of the reason I write about landscape and traveling in Antarctica and all the rest is those places help me understand what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to see human vulnerability and human aspirations. Good writing has got to be metaphorically rich. It’s got to speak in such a way that readers feel like they’re navigating and getting somewhere.”
“Horizon” by Barry Lopez, Knopf, 592 pp., $30
Barry Lopez will speak about “Horizon” at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at the Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free; spl.org