On the Wild Side: Writer Barry Lopez on Antarctica and His Next Adventure

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 08: Author Barry Lopez is interviewed on stage at the 2011 Wordstock Literary Festival at the Oregon Convention Center on October 8, 2011 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images)
Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images

After four decades of venturing to the world’s farthest reaches, Oregon writer Barry Lopez returns with a career-spanning book that finds hope amid environmental uncertainty.

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At age 74, Barry Lopez is still fascinated by the rain. On the December day we talked, the National Book Award– winning author had spent the morning walking the woods near his home, in Oregon’s McKenzie River Valley, where he has lived for 49 years.

“It’s just exhilarating for me to be in the weather—just to feel the power of it,” he said. His fascination with the natural world is well-evidenced in his dozens of books, including the 1986 classic Arctic Dreams, a travelogue and history of the far north. Lopez’s latest, Horizon, due this month, is no different. Featuring all-new material, it spans decades and continents and proves that few people have thought about our complex relationship with nature more deeply.

In Horizon, you trek to see one of Antarctica’s largest penguin colonies and describe feeling a shared fate with it. What do you mean?

We’re going to lose a lot of people, whatever happens with the planet. I’m rooting for Homo sapiens—that’s my animal. But sooner or later, all these other animals are going to face what we’re facing, and they don’t have a way to protect themselves. And if you’re somebody like me, you think, We have a responsibility here. It’s easy to feel daunted by what the planet is up against, but I’m very hopeful about young activists and their determination for the future, though it looks like there will be no future for many species.

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What do you think of today’s activists?

If I were in my 20s, I would be in a constant state of rage about what was being offered to me as a citizen of the United States; it’s shameful how backward-looking the country is in terms of the environment. But I know young people who have the strategy and the energy to attack this thing in ways that never would have occurred to me. They’re cynical about big business and government, and they know how to make technology work for them to change things quickly.

You’ve visited some the world’s coldest places. How has that affected your thinking?

The most exhilarating weeks of my life have been spent out on the edge, drinking it in, like at Skraeling Island, in the High Arctic. But when I visit these places, a voice in my head always says, “You better bring something back we can use, because the rest of us have to change diapers and drive school buses and keep food on the table.” That’s my goal: To illuminate how vital these places are and motivate people to attend to them. A Navajo guy once told me that he was asked to offer an assessment of another Navajo, and he paused and said, “His life helped.” What more would you want on your gravestone?

You’ve traveled just about everywhere. What do you still find mysterious at this point?

Everything. A year ago, I was walking to our outbuilding, and 50 feet away, this cow elk was just staring at me. I saw the whites of her eyes, because she was trying to look at the calves behind her, encouraging them not to be afraid. Then she turned and looked dead at me, and I felt she was saying, “What are you going to do?” Then she turned and led them through the trees. I felt a sense of responsibility in that moment, too.

What’s your next trip?

I have a friend who drives a bus from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Coldfoot—about 230 miles north. I’m going up in February to ride with him. We might see caribou or the northern lights, but for me, it’s just about being out there in the wild. A hotel room makes me jumpy.

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