by Barry Lopez

Bodley Head, £25

Review by Brian Morton

Horizon is a book about language rather than a simple autobiography or collection of travel writings. But neither is it a mere procession of linguistic and anthropological curios, like the number of words the Inuit have to describe ice or gull-flight or a bear’s nearness. It is about how language processes the natural world, the single most damaging and despoiling thing, beyond sulphur dioxide, radiation and microplastic, that we add to our shrinking and raddled environment. Even the act of looking up, as a nature-watcher will, and saying “shelduck” or “juncus” or “cumulonimbus” is to impose a human fixity on what should remain a fluid and dynamic field of unnameable possibilities. As soon as the bird is identified, sexed, dated and added to the list, the scene freezes into documentation.

It is, fundamentally, a book about the difference between “boundary” and “horizon”. As Barry Lopez says in an early chapter, “[w]hen a boundary in the known world . . . becomes instead a beckoning horizon, then a world one has never known becomes an integral part of one’s new universe. Memory and imagination come into play. The unknown future calls out to the present and to the remembered past, and in that moment of expansion, the imagined future seems attainable.” What adds tension and sometimes a whiff of raw fear to this utopian vision is Lopez’s conviction that our actual, species future might well already be foreclosed and facing extinction.

But that passage sums up much of what Horizon is about, and as such, it is inevitably a book about me, as it will also be about you, when you read it, as you really ought. I used to travel a great deal, and now I have stopped. I used to gather tiny objects, nothing of “heritage” or intrinsic value, and now they gather dust. The reason for that half-conscious decision to stop, which I think Lopez himself understands, is that one gets to the point where the only point of travel would be to do it continuously and to revisit every place obsessively, accumulating mental as well as physical itineraries to the point where “air miles” and “carbon footprint” are less of an issue than the simple psychic overload of having to process place into language.

I often wonder why I chose the home that I confidently, or sourly, or resignedly, intend to be my last. It’s sunk in the hills, the first place I have ever lived that doesn’t offer some kind of vista, but in which almost every spadeful of earth contains some possibility of human artefact. I have to climb fairly hard to be able to say “sea”. It is a place that offers boundary and only a breathless and shelf-wide glimpse of horizon.

Barry Lopez has been travelling in remote places for most of his active life and has written about them in Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men and in About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, which is a virtual companion volume to this. He has also written a good deal of fiction, some of it illustrated by others. One of the great lessons of his work, and particularly the wolf book, is the effect we have on the world by pinning our languages to it rather than simply swimming in its multiversity. He points up, never more clearly than in an early chapter about archaeological work done on Skraeling Island in the high Canadian Arctic, that we have left our traces everywhere, even in locations we are pleased to call “wilderness”: fragments of shaped chert or flint, scraped hide and firewood, even the dimples in the ground where we hid our dead before the sea reclaimed them. In a moving passage that bespeaks not so much depression as a deep existential anxiety, he writes of the futility – or arrogance – of taking tapes of Bach, Beethoven or Sibelius out into the wild, as if to play back in feeble tribute some of the inspiration that “wilderness” seems to offer us, even though it is doing no such thing. I vividly remember having a conversation for this paper with Sir David Attenborough about this very subject. He used to take cassettes on expeditions, with the rule that if the first two picks didn’t fit his mood, he had to play the third; until, that is, he realised that nothing of human culture matches the context is which we dare to expose it. And yet, in conversations with composers Arvo Pärt and John Luther Adams, Lopez recognises that in our art and music, and our literature, lies our only means of redeeming what we have taken away, forgiving ourselves for grasping inattention.

I often speak to walkers who pass on the road, less to be seen to have some prior knowledge of what they might find by way of wild life or early human making, more to warn them how easy it is to get lost out there. I really ought to be wearing sandwich boards proclaiming that the end is nigh(ish) and warning of the deleterious effects of sex and protein. They always tell me brightly, these walkers, that they “have GPS” and “cannot” get lost, though you’re never more lost than when you get down to numbers like 55.354135434104045 and -5.712890625000001. This, they like to think, is the postcode for “wild and unspoilt”, even though it is a landscape that is no more natural and disorderly than Edinburgh New Town. Lopez’s meditations among the monocultural forest and clearcut forest of the Oregon coast are perhaps the most obviously connected to Scotland, not least because they involve a dark revision of the voyages of Captain James Cook, the son of a Scot from Roxburghshire, whose travels passed beyond science and became a fugue from reality.

Much of Horizon is concerned with bringing together Lopez, the anxious older man, sitting at a poolside, admiring a woman’s dive as he might admire a breaching orca or gannet plunge, but filled with pessimistic dread from the watery memorial/graveyard of Pearl Harbor, and Lopez as his younger self, anxiously watched by an adult as he plouters through the waves. I kept thinking, unaccountably, of John Irving’s Undertoad in The World According to Garp, the amphibian that lies in wait for all of us when we get out of our depth, ready to suck us from possibility into meaning.

The World According to Lopez is a dark and often fractious one, overpopulated not just with tourists and pleasure seekers but with stuff. One night on the Galapagos, that byword for fragile plenitude, he arches his back to look out of a window opened to relieve the night-time heat, looking out at a sky where there is no upside down, because there is no down or up, and remembering that Stephen Hawking tells us there is no Nothing anywhere; that even in the gaps between the galaxies there is still Something. It’s calculated as 4π x 0.0000001 newtons/ampere², if you can get your head round that: not much, you might think, but you have to go a lot further out before you butt up against the horizon of Nothing.

You sense that all this haunts Barry Lopez, the fullness of existence, the impossibility of escape from our own impacts, the cumulative damage that labelling everything has done. We are – though he only mentions Alexander the Great and not any of the cities named after him – like the Great Library at Alexandria, with all the world’s knowledge crammed together in a building where the security arrangements and fire precautions have been woefully neglected. That Horizon is a beautiful book there is no questioning. That it is also apocalyptic should be evident from the earliest pages. But it holds out hope, too. It calls for an urgent moratorium, not on carbon emissions, waste disposals and toxicities of one sort or another, but simply for a moratorium on our greatest pollutant of all: philosophical certainty.