An Oregon-based author, who spent his entire career writing about environmental issues, lost his lifelong home to the wildfires in September of 2020. Not only were many of his own priceless memories destroyed by the flames, so were important records of his career and passion. Worse still, after a 7-year battle with pancreatic cancer, he passed away on Christmas Day.
A “two-part death,” as one close friend put it.
That writer’s name was Barry Lopez, and the saddest part of the story may be that this is the first you’re even hearing about him or the tragedy that befell his family last summer. When Curbside Press envisioned our Gone But Not Forgotten Series last year, we set out to ensure that no influential artists from Oregon’s history were ever forgotten to time or calamity. Lopez may be our most fitting subject yet.
What makes someone an adventurer? Is it simply exploring the world? Or is it the stories you live as you travel the globe and delve into the depths of exploration, history, culture, and community?
And what makes a storyteller?
Barry Lopez sought to bring adventure to everyone, by living it and writing it down for the world to read. But more than that, he listened to the knowledge of others -- and through those communities sought a deeper understanding and gratitude for the motivations of communities around the world. He wanted to connect people back with nature, and used his writing to stir that connection within us all.
Lopez expressed the bounds of human curiosity, empathy and will. His fondness for the natural world and love for epistemology led him around the world, seeing over 80 countries (97 by his count) during his career. His experiences helped craft his numerous nonfiction works and fiction novels, essays, and short stories. He has been compared to Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir and more. His breadth of work has gained international recognition and has received dozens of awards such as The National Book Award in 1986 for Arctic Dream.
“I'm not writing about nature. I'm writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.”
Bill Moyer introduced Lopez in a PBS interview, “You need a long shelf to hold Barry Lopez’s novels, essays, articles and short stories, the volumes of travel, photography, and language, vivid portraits of landscapes, emotions and experience. Common to them all is one man’s effort to go out into the world, to discover what is beyond and within us.”
Robert MacFarlane, a novelist and writer for The Guardian, referred to Lopez as “The most important living writer about wilderness”. He was deeply concerned with the climate and the future of all Earth’s inhabitants. Lopez was a lifelong humanitarian and one of the few true explorers of the 21st century. His passing was covered by NPR, The New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, and just about every large news company that exists in the media world.
Lopez’s longtime friend Debra Stills, who writes for Moosenewsblog.com, wrote of his passing in a piece called “Remembering My Buddy Barry Lopez.”
“Born on Epiphany, 75 years ago; died on Christmas Day,” Stills wrote. “‘The true truth is always metaphorical,’ Barry once told a friend, and his greatest belief was in the power of stories, and these seem to be the paths to follow here.”
"I want to live a life that helped." - Barry Lopez
Barry Holstun Lopez (1945-2020)
The son of a divorced schoolteacher who worked three jobs to keep a roof over her sons' heads, Barry Holstun Lopez was born in New York on January 6, 1945. His family moved to California before he reached school age, and later attended Catholic school in Encino, California. When Lopez’s mother remarried in 1955, his stepfather adopted him and the children took his last name.
As a young boy, his mom gave him a Hammond's Illustrated Library World Atlas. This gift led him as a child to plan his future adventures around the world. He was 11 when the family moved back to New York, this time to Manhattan. Barry enrolled at a Jesuit high school called Loyola. He spoke in his later years of the museums he frequented and of going to the theater.
Those experiences helped him understand the world in a multifaceted way. He graduated from Loyola in 1962, then enrolled in Notre Dame, gaining his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the late 60’s, and shortly thereafter began attending the University of Oregon.
He bought property in Lane County, Oregon, near Finn Rock on the McKenzie River, where he lived for over 50 years before it tragically burnt down.
“When I moved here in June of 1970, I was knocked over by the power of that river.” Lopez explains in the video below. “The power of that river, the expression of full-blown life that is that river -- It was like blood moving through an animal to me.”
His first writings started showing up in the late 60’s. One of his first fiction books was named Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, which was a collection of fictional narratives he wrote in 1976.
After this, his career saw a cascade of book releases and essays.
Two years later, he wrote the nonfiction book, Of Wolves and Men, which was a major hit. It explored the relationship of the wolf as it has interacted with civilization over thousands of years. But it is so much more than just a story of wolves, as it explores indigenous stories and traditions.
Lopez maintained this appreciation of indigenous and native stories and sought to tell them in an equitable way throughout his writing career.
“When I was young and just beginning to travel with indigenous people, I imagined that they saw more and heard more than I did,” Lopez wrote in his last masterpiece Horizon. “That they were overall simply more aware than I was -- They were.”
He spent five years in the arctic, largely working as a biologist, which inspired his nonfiction hit, Arctic Dreams, in 1986. The book explores the great mysteries, wonders, and ecological perils of the North: the people, the lights, the sounds, the struggles. He would win multiple awards for the book, including the National Book Award and the Oregon Book Award.
50 years of writing and adventuring led him all around the world -- Traversing the Transantarctic Mountains in ‘88 with Al Gore (top left photo above); Meeting with Desmond Tutu in 2006 (top right photo above); Exploring Afghanistan, Antarctica, Australia, Kenya and countless others. All of his travels led him back to the place where a part of him always truly belonged: that small parcel of land on the McKenzie River.
That small oasis in one of Earth’s mighty rainforests.
Lopez gave back to the community he lived in for most of his life. He began working with the McKenzie River Trust, a group dedicated to maintaining the health of the river.
Writing for the Trust’s website, Lopez said:
“Much of what I know about integrity, constancy, power and nobility I’ve learned from this river, just as I’ve learned the opposite of these things—impotency, fecklessness, imprisonment—by walking across the dam on Blue River, a tributary of the McKenzie, and by standing on Cougar Dam on the river’s South Fork, another tributary. I stare at the reservoirs from the tops of these dams and see the stillness of the impoundments. The absence of freedom there.”
Those 50 years of adventuring, writing and listening led to his ambitious and long-sought autobiography -- his 500-page Horizon. A culmination of his many experiences, the project had been simmering in his mind for over 30 years before finally getting it on paper. It was also a visceral reality for him, as he questioned what was beyond his own horizon.
“Art’s underlying strength is that it does not intend to be literal. It presents a metaphor and leaves the viewer or listener to interpret. It is giving in to art, not trying to divine its meaning, that brings the viewer or listener the deepest measures of satisfaction.”
― Barry Lopez, Horizon
Diagnosed in 2013 with prostate cancer, he reflected on the lessons he learned throughout his many years of listening. He used six locations from his travels to frame his life-long retrospection. The book spans from continent to continent, explained by Penguin Random House as a journey “from Western Oregon to the High Arctic; from the Galápagos to the Kenyan desert; from Botany Bay in Australia to finally, unforgettably, the ice shelves of Antarctica.”
It was also a call to action: to look at the horizon of climate change, the impending ecological end-date for humanity, and use the knowledge of cultures who understand how to live in harmony with their land. Through this, Lopez never lost sight of his eternal optimism that we might be able to make it past this “hell,” as he described it.
Horizon was released in 2019, shortly before the tragedies that struck the Lopez family.
“As for Barry’s death itself, we have two dates to choose from: September 8, the day the fire came over the mountains and down toward the river, or December 25, the day he stopped breathing,” wrote his longtime friend Debra Stills. “On the night of his first death... Barry and Debra anxiously watched the eastern sky before they went back into the house and to bed and to sleep... Around midnight, they were awakened by a firefighter banging on their door, who told them they had five minutes to evacuate. ‘It was hellish,’ Barry texted friends. ‘No warning. We just ran.’ ”
By October, Stills stated, “The fire had come for Barry, too.”
All of his original manuscripts, boxes of materials set to join his collection at the University of Texas -- everything was destroyed in the McKenzie river fire. A lifelong collection from around the world, destroyed by the same force he was warning the world about.
Stills continues, “While the mind rushes to the irony of the event, the heart seems to understand the correctness of the devastating moment, which is not ironic. Nature never loses. Whether you’re trying to destroy it or save it, the whale wins.”
Lopez spent his last days surrounded by his family. His wife explained his last hours, “On Christmas Eve morning, he woke up and said, ‘It's a wonderful morning. How is everyone?’ Barry entered nearly every day with joyful optimism, including his last ones.”
His second death would come the next day. Gwartney said, “The scent of herbs, the prayers, the fresh air through the windows. The light. We told him a thousand times, a thousand-thousand times, that we love him, that we will love him always, that he could cross his river now. At 7:21, he stepped in, with one last long breath.”
They bathed him in the McKenzie river, and wrapped him in a Pendleton blanket.
Stills explained in her memorial piece, saying “A future son-in-law built a handsome pine coffin with cedar trim and beaver-stick dowels, in which they laid him out on New Year’s Eve and filled it up with things he loved and flowers and ferns and flora that was already growing back on their fire-scarred property, and then his daughters had the sacred duty of pushing him into the furnace and back into the flames, and from there, in the hands of Debra and the girls, he would find his way down to the river.”
To summarize such a life seems inadequate. Instead, it seems best to reflect on the lessons he so fervently tried to present to us all.
Stills said: “Barry once told me about a question he asked tribal elders in traditional cultures. ‘What do you mean by a storyteller?’ They answered, ‘When the stories you tell help’—and it has to do with your mature perspective on what in fact helps and what diminishes that dynamic in a society or an individual. The question ‘Is it helpful?’ is ultimately a community decision.”
She expanded, saying, “For Lopez, writing was an essential act of community, no matter that it was born and executed in isolation and self-exile. The point you had to come to, he emphasized, was this: Am I alone after reading this story? With any great writer, you never touched bottom, and you never felt alone.”