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Friday, September 30, 2022

Review: “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World,” by Barry Lopez

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The piece opens up, though, into a painful reckoning with the years of sexual abuse Lopez suffered as a child, the victim of a respected member of the community. While living there, he wanted desperately to escape, but after his family moved away, Lopez writes, “I missed California to the point of grief.” The darting of jackrabbits, the crashing surf, the smell of eucalyptus, the “surgical sharpness” of the light — “without these things I believe I would have perished.” If you love it enough, he suggests, the land will love you back, and even heal you. No matter how much we degrade it, “it’s still present, vibrating in the shadow lines,” beneath the asphalt and concrete.

In the years that followed, Lopez traveled widely, preferring the spare and harsh lines of the desert and the polar regions to the busy tangle of the cities. He did his best to extricate his wanderings from colonial myths of conquest. In an essay on Antarctica, Lopez writes of the “coarseness and brutality” of the nationalism that drove the continent’s early-20th-century explorers and of “the curious emptiness of their achievements.” Something humbler was impelling Lopez. “Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do,” he writes, “is to pay attention.”

Indeed, if these essays have a unifying theme and express a single mandate, they are about the redemptive importance of paying attention to the planet and to the other beings with which we share it. Attentiveness works as an antidote not only to distractedness but to the fatal unseriousness of modern life. “Each place is itself only, and nowhere repeated,” Lopez writes. “Miss it and it’s gone.” He describes this “intimacy” with place in erotic terms, as something “primal” and “ineffable,” “the easing of a particular kind of longing” that results from “intense, amorous contact with the Earth.”

Thrilling encounters with wolves and killer walruses notwithstanding, Lopez wasn’t after Animal Planet-worthy adventures. He wanted us to seek out the human histories that reside in the landscape, too: the legacies of atrocity and exploitation that bounce around the rocks and valleys of this country as much as elks and coyotes do. As a young man, Lopez made a point of visiting the scenes of battles and massacres in Euro-Americans’ centuries-long war against the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants. “The battle sites,” he writes, “were fewer than the massacre sites.” Most of the latter were unmarked. “What kind of governance is apt to arise,” he asks, among a people so devoted to amnesia? The question is rhetorical. We know the answer all too well.

The essays in “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World” are not ordered chronologically, so the growing alarm of Lopez’s later years registers only as a sort of punctuating urgency. “We can no longer afford to carry on in a prolonged era of polite reflection and ineffective resistance,” he writes in a piece published just last year. The implications of attentiveness, it becomes clear, are radical and deep.

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