On Christmas Day, not far from the banks of his beloved McKenzie River, the influential writer and conservationist Barry Lopez passed away. To many at Patagonia, and to all who shared Barry’s love for the vitality and beauty of wild places, it’s a deeply felt loss.
Born in New York in 1945, Lopez spent his childhood in the desert valleys of Southern California. But his most celebrated work came from farther afield, and he’s perhaps most renowned for his reporting on the Arctic. Of Wolves and Men, released in 1978, earned him a place in the canon of contemporary nature writers; he received the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams in 1986.
A man of sly wit, his compassion for nature was matched by his compassion for people, and he was a fierce advocate for the Indigenous peoples and cultures he encountered on his travels. He inspired many of us throughout his remarkable life, and his work will surely be studied for generations to come.
For the last 50 years, Lopez had made his home near Finn Rock, Oregon, on the salmon-bearing McKenzie, which tumbles out of the Cascades east of Eugene. He lived, as he described it, “surrounded by 150-foot-tall Douglas firs, delicate deer’s head orchids, and clearings where wild berries grow.” Parts of the McKenzie are protected in perpetuity under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a critical piece of conservation legislation. We asked Lopez to write an essay in 2018 to commemorate the Act’s 50th anniversary, and he graciously agreed.
A year later, in the early summer of 2019, we spoke with Lopez again, after the publication of his final book, Horizon, a suitably wide-ranging autobiography. In it, he searches for a way to navigate our current anxious times in which the natural and social systems that sustain us are under attack. His body was too: he was battling the cancer that later took his life. Yet throughout our hour-long conversation he shared his optimism that we could still solve our environmental crisis by reconnecting with the wisdom and insight that has long been carried by elders and traditional knowledge keepers. In honor of his passing, we’re sharing a condensed version of that conversation below.
A final note: for Lopez, who put so much stake in an intimate connection with nature, his concern for the future of the natural world wasn’t just philosophical. He saw and experienced the damage done to once-healthy ecosystems, and this past September, as unprecedented wildfires swept across the American West, the Holiday Farm Fire burned along the McKenzie and into his own property, taking an outbuilding where many of his letters, notes and manuscripts were stored. “The land around us as far as we can see,” he wrote, “looks flayed.”
Though greatly saddened by his passing, we take consolation that his last hours were spent peacefully in the presence of family, surrounded by music and birdsong. In his memory, the family has asked for donations to the McKenzie River Trust, to help support its work in restoring and sustaining the river and forestlands he loved so much.
Barry, how have you been?
Well, I was getting ready to go to Alaska tomorrow morning, but had a long talk with my wife and decided to pull the plug on it. I’m just in too much pain to really do anything anymore. I have a mindset to get back on the horse, but apparently, I can’t do that. So it’s a “Where from here?” frame of mind that I’m in.
So sorry to hear that, and I know sometimes “How have you been?” is a more complicated question.
We’ve got this thing in our culture where everyone says “Hey, I’m doing fine, man, I’m doing great.” (Laughs.) But I’m conscious of how exhausted I am, and I’ve been all over the place pretty much constantly since March. This trip to Alaska was to speak at the memorial service for a friend of mine who passed away. He was a pivotal person in my life, and I spent a lot of time on the Arctic Ocean in a Boston Whaler with him. (Note: This was the esteemed marine biologist Lloyd Lowry.) I also wanted to go to Fairbanks to start gathering information about another friend of mine from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who really set my mind up in 1976 to pursue the work that I’ve done. It’s bothering me that I’m not going to be able to make this trip—it’s the time when friends are dying, and I want to make sure I pay my respects. But let’s get on to something positive.
Well, I was telling you earlier, I loved Horizon, and one of the first scenes that struck me was when you were thinking back to your childhood in California, and you describe these memories of being on the beach at Topanga and having a sense that the waves came from somewhere else. And you talk about these flights of imagination that you took with model planes, where you’d fly down into Mexico and back. I’m really curious about your thoughts on the role of imagination—that’s something we deal with a lot in Patagonia, in terms of seeing a new line up a mountain, or a wave that might be surfable, and then they set out to do it. Do you think that strength of imagination was something you had to cultivate, or is it innate?
I think it must be innate, because it was strong when I was young, and it’s remained that way. And now, at this point in my life, I can’t wait to get back into the environment where so many big-scale things started. When I went to Alaska in 1976, for example, I met this guy Bob Stephenson and we went to hell and gone all over up there. We went out to St. Lawrence Island and hunted walrus with Yup’ik Eskimo; we jumped in the Yukon at Circle and took our little aluminum canoe almost all the way to the Canadian border; we camped in the western Brooks Range; we went to Anaktuvuk Pass and stayed there for a while. I got to Fairbanks on the 17th of March, and three days later I was radio collaring wolves in Nelchina Basin, south of the Alaska Range. We just went, and nobody could do that now. We called it commando biology—what’s good for the animals, and how do we get that done?
So to answer your question, I loved being with people who were full-bore, who were imaginative and creative in the outdoors. But not in terms of climbing mountains and running rivers that hadn’t been run before. They were in it for the sake of big animals—bears and caribou. At that time, Alaska Fish and Game also had a permanent summer camp on the Utukok River in the western Brooks Range, and there were people there studying caribou and tundra grizzly and wolverine and wolves. We’d bunk out in tents on the gravel bar on the river, and we had a cook tent, too, and I remember those meals of just sitting around a big table—somebody would say how these caribou did this, or some caribou did that. And then somebody else would say something about grizzly bear behavior, and sooner or later the thing nobody was studying would emerge. That was a new thing at the time, to have people with different backgrounds studying animals get together and talk. Something that was insignificant in the eyes of one scientist would solve a problem that another had. So it was really good science, and it was all about using your imagination.
And another component of that, which I actually want to write about, is what’s called TEK, traditional ecological knowledge. There was no concept of TEK in the ‘70s, but it did exist, and there were people at Alaska Fish and Game that wouldn’t make a move without doing it with traditional people. We talked about that all the time, how many blind spots we had because of our system of logic and our education and our lack of field experience. Guys were talking about 20 years in the bush, and that’s nothing compared to some of these people who’d been in the bush for 70 years and held all of this knowledge. They were putting it to use in Alaska long before there was an idea of TEK, or a peer-reviewed article in Arctic or some other journal.
In Horizon, you’re writing about imagination as a child, and then looking forward. There’s a point where you say that to address the environmental threats we’re facing, this wave of extinctions and the climate emergency, that an unprecedented level of imagination is required for our own survival.
Yes, yes. And the unprecedented level means hunger—that you just never give up, never give up on what you’re trying to understand. And you always bring in people who are out-of-the-box people by virtue of race or cultural background or education.
Another thing that really struck me about Horizon is how honest you are about the world as it is—like in the passage where you’re walking along the shoreline in Oregon, and the kelp at the tideline is all mixed up with plastic, which you describe in a really detailed way. That’s what most beaches are actually like now, but so much in the outdoor world and adventure travel is still idealized—trying to find these places that are “pristine.” But it feels like a kind of denial, that as long as there are places where people can have a fantasy that everything’s OK and just as it was, we don’t have to do anything or act on anything at all.
I think that’s right, and I felt when I was composing Horizon that I couldn’t stay in the background like I did, say, with Arctic Dreams. I had to introduce these ideas—with regard to recovering clear-cuts, for example, to say “Well, of course it stinks, but it’s what we’ve got, and we have to work with it.” We can’t be dreaming about some kind of world that was long ago and you want to make over again—it’s not happening. But that also means we have to take pains to protect what’s left.
There’s that scene, you know, with the elk that woke me up on the Oregon coast that night, and it triggered this sense that they’re living successfully in their own world. The only thing they worry about is hunters, and they’re so integrated in their world, they can often feel something coming and move out of the way and continue to be unfound. But with one simple technological invention, the drone, they’re no longer safe anymore. I’d like to think that I’m probing at that daydream about pristine landscapes, that they’re always going to be there. I remember flying last week from Denver to Eugene and even I, who live here, just could not fathom the extent of wildfire damage and beetle kill. Where there used to be these rolling square miles of conifers, now they’re brown trees and burned-out sections of a national forest. And we’re just way behind in understanding how rough things are.
Even though it’s impossible to fully restore any landscape, you write about how restoration in itself is important, how it’s an act that can provide at least some living ground for things to survive.
What restoration work does is restore hope, especially for the people doing the backbreaking work. You know it if you’ve ever planted trees—planting on a slope, bent over for hours on end, the feeling you have with that bag of baby trees on your hip. At the end of the day, you’re good worn out instead of bad worn out. And that feeds your sense of hope and your sense of accomplishment, and then other people pick up on that. So restoration work is a sign of hope, and it builds hope into people who do it. I think we face a really major problem—if you sit down and read the scientific literature, you’re ready to give up. And we can’t do that, we just can’t do that. I see my grandkids, and I think “I can’t give up.” They’re not going to have anything unless I do my part and everyone else does, too. You know, I think back to the piece that we did about the McKenzie River, and I wrote something there that I don’t believe I ever wrote before, about throwing your lot in with a river. That idea has been working on me since I wrote it. What does it mean to say, “I love my people and I love this river, and I’m throwing in with the river?”
Well, in terms of all doing our part and not giving up, through Horizon there’s also this idea of navigation, in terms of looking at what the next steps will be. You talk about Cook a lot, you talk about the Hōkūle‘a and how important it’s been in helping Polynesian peoples to strengthen tradition and find their way again. But in the book you didn’t go to a place that tells people “This is what we have to do, here’s how to solve this.” Was that a conscious choice? Because there are a lot of people who really don’t know where to start or what to do to make things better.
I think throughout the book I’m arguing for another kind of social organization, something that lies beyond—or comes after, if you will—democracy. And in its simplest form it’s the presence and the advice of elders. I think we throw the word around so easily that we’ve confused somebody who’s older with being an elder—they’re close to each other in terms of spelling, but that’s it. These are people who have constant access to the overview, who are driven by the preservation of something other than themselves. We’re talking about survival here, and traditional people have always depended on their elders to do the things that would ensure their survival and the survival of their children and grandchildren. That’s why Aboriginal people in Australia, for example, have been around in continuous, unbroken lines of development for 30 or 40 or 50 thousand years. And if they told you this is what we’ve got to do, you did it, painful though it might be. Because you knew if you didn’t do it, worse was coming.
Though, in many ways, you’re one of those elders now.
Well, I greatly appreciate your saying that, but I’m not an elder. I had a lot of teachers who, over 40 years, impressed ideas on me that I never got when I was going through a formal education. I was taught by them and by the landscapes I sojourned in. That’s the position I’m in—these are not things that I own. These are things that I learned and trust.
I’ll correct my statement, then, but Horizon does a wonderful job of passing those lessons on.
That’s what the storyteller is supposed to do—recognize that it’s not you that’s important, it’s the story. And if Horizon inspires anybody to rethink and act, then I think I’ve done my job.
At the beginning of our conversation, you said you looked forward to talking about something positive. And there are all the anxieties and uncertainties of these times, but the world still has a lot of beauty in it—your books have always shown that beauty really clearly, and I think that’s where our hope is based. So looking forward, what do you say to people who ask you what they should do, how they should help preserve what they can?
You have to dig into yourself. Discover what it is that gives you the keenest sense of behaving in a proper way, and what skills are part that kind of living. And then use those skills to do whatever you’re inspired to do. If you send a writer out on assignment, if the writer isn’t already inspired, the piece is probably not going to be any good. You’ve got to have that burning sense that you’re on the right path. And then, you know, you can do anything. It is not important to be first, to be the leader—all that stuff is soul-killing. This is a Titanic moment we’re in, and nobody is going to remember that you picked the baby up out of the water and put him in a boat. But you have to do it to play your part in mitigating the disaster. You can’t worry that you’re not going to win a prize or get a medal. You’ve got to understand that those days are over. The days that are here are days in which we all have to do our utmost and be comfortable with being forgotten.
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