The Reading Room

About This Life

‘About This Life by Barry Lopez…

I first heard of Barry Lopez through reading the excellent Robert Macfarlane’s books, clearly a fan of Lopez and an influence on his own writing style I wanted to know more about Lopez before reading his other work.

About this Life is an autobiography in the sense that he recalls journeys made but it also ties in with his life as a naturalist and, more especially, as an observer. This is a gentle, heartening  collection of essays offering a personal insight into Lopez’s life as a young man and onwards. His connection to the land and its ancestors is obvious, he questions why those who know the land, the ‘natives’, have been systematically bulldozed physically and mentally from any say in the developments made upon their land by those who show no regard for land and community. His chapter on the Galápagos archipelago is particularly sobering with his thoughts on the changes made to the islands from the earliest explorers, to scientists and eventually tourism and commercialism.

“Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want to not forget.”

Lopez believes in that connection between us and our environment, his message is clear, precise and thought-provoking. I write this as countries across the globe took to the streets to protest climate change. That in itself is a great thing but I find myself far more drawn to the likes of Lopez and Macfarlane for inspiration and not those who hammer older generations for past failures. If this new generation wish to make a difference then they should look to authors such as these who forgo multiple television sets, constant smart phone and computer connectivity and throw-away clothing for a more connected existence. They should use the countryside on their doorsteps and embrace what nature offers which is far more than a fleeting hashtag or a t-shirt can ever give.

This sense of ignorance of what stands in front of us yet is so often unrecognised is tackled in his chapter The American Geographies. Lopez talks about his homeland and people but it could easily be said of almost anywhere else; “It has become commonplace to observe that Americans know little of the geography of their country, that they are innocent of it as a landscape or rivers, mountains and towns…As Americans we profess a sincere and fierce love for the American landscape, for our rolling prairies, free-flowing rivers and “purple mountains’ majesty” But it is hard to imagine where this particular landscape is. It is not just that a nostalgic landscape has passed away-Mark Twain’s Mississippi is now dammed from Illinois to Louisiana and the prairies have all been sold and fenced”

He brilliantly captures our romantic vision of what certain parts of our homeland are supposed to be without ever taking the time to look closer. We seem satisfied with a romantic notion of a landscape captured on Instagram which satisfies our preconceptions and blissful ignorance. This marriage of convenience between our perceived care for the planet and a reluctance to be challenged with difficult realities cannot end well. We filter nature like everything else; animals become cute, their innate potential for savagery in order to survive airbrushed out, insects so valuable to our ecosystem screamed at and crushed. More and more of our green belts reduced to provide housing and consumer demands for growing and shifting populations and Lopez reminds us once again of ‘the stunning knowledge’ true natives of the lands of the Kalahari, Australia and the Upper Amazon possess and what we have lost as a consequence of moving so far and fast beyond our own borders.

This is a book and an author which requires careful reading, there are moments of real beauty interspersed with grim realities, it is a revealing book in many ways, not only of a man’s life but of the environment he lives in and loves and like Macfarlane, he makes the reader long for the outdoors and the unique connection no electronic device could ever replicate. That it has been replaced is the real tragedy of the modern age.

About This Life by Barry Lopez published by The Harvill Press.

 

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