Review | Horizon – Barry Lopez

About the Book

From the National Book Award-winning author of the now-classic Arctic Dreams, a vivid, poetic, capacious work that recollects the travels around the world and the encounters–human, animal, and natural–that have shaped an extraordinary life.

Taking us nearly from pole to pole–from modern megacities to some of the most remote regions on the earth–and across decades of lived experience, Barry Lopez, hailed by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as “one of our finest writers,” gives us his most far-ranging yet personal work to date, in a book that moves indelibly, immersively, through his travels to six regions of the world: 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.

     As he takes us on these myriad travels, Lopez also probes the long history of humanity’s quests and explorations, including the prehistoric peoples who trekked across Skraeling Island in northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered Central Africa, an enlightenment-era Englishman who sailed the Pacific, a Native American emissary who found his way into isolationist Japan, and today’s ecotourists in the tropics. Throughout his journeys–to some of the hottest, coldest, and most desolate places on the globe–and via friendships he forges along the way with scientists, archaeologists, artists and local residents, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world.

     Horizon is a revelatory, epic work that voices concern and frustration along with humanity and hope–a book that makes you see the world differently, and that is the crowning achievement by one of America’s great thinkers and most humane voices. 

592 pages (kindle)
Published on March 19, 2019
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This book was a library loan.

I’ve been on a bit of a travel kick recently, but there’s a pandemic and I’m immunocompromised, so the only real way I can currently travel is through books. A little while ago, I went online and put out a call, “I need to go on a vacation, but I still can’t really risk leaving the house. Tell me what books I should read that will take me on a mental vacation.” Someone mentioned, “Anything by Barry Lopez” and here we are. 

I’ve never read a Barry Lopez book. In fact, I’d never heard of the man before, and what an absolute crime that is. The reader who needed a vacation in me was thrilled at this particular find. The writer and editor who makes a career out of words was basically in heaven. This book scratched every possible itch for me. 

This isn’t like the other travelogues I’ve read. He both goes into a lot of detail about the numerous locations he visits, and he doesn’t. In Horizon, the book is largely about the distance, some point, far off, where heaven and earth connect. That line that bisects everything known, from everything unknown, and how said horizon can be both far away, and much closer than we really expect. That theme weaves itself through the narrative. He spends a bit of time in this book, hopping between a few different locations around the world, and in each different place, he both experiences and ponders different things, muses about the nature of humanity, and all the ways we are connected. I never quite knew what I was in for. 

For example, he spends some time at the start of the book at Cape Foulweather in Washington. While I did feel he spent less time explaining the topography of the land he was immersed in than I expected, I didn’t actually end up lamenting that fact. Instead, he used his time at that location to weave together not only the narrative of his journey and experiences, but tied his time there with the past, with information about Captain Cook, and somehow managed to weave that in with his current experience, and even some musing about the future as well. It was all so artfully done, I felt like I’d fallen prey to some spell he’d woven. I was just completely taken away by his mastery of the tale he was telling.

“He spent his life charting raw space, putting down grids and elevations, but he also understood what could not be charted, the importance of the line that separated the known from the unknown. He understood what occurred in the silence between two musical notes. He also knew, I believe, the indispensability of this.”

This was pretty standard issue with every location he spent time at. Each place would drive him to examine the past, the present, and look toward the future as well. This is, perhaps, why the title of the book, Horizon, is quite apt, as the horizon is, quite literally, the point where he would often tie all of these strings together. It is both known, and tantalizingly unknown.

His writing was what really impressed me, though. There are certain authors I read just because I want to see and understand how they use words. It is part of what drives me. Words, language, the power of all of that is something I can’t get away from. Hey, I’m a full-time book editor, a published author, and book reviewer. My life is made up of words and how they are used to their full effect. Lopez is a very lyrical writer, and if you’ve read either of my books, you know that lyrical writing is my jam. I often found myself completely captivated by how he would twist phrases, manipulate words, and pack a powerful punch with all of the above. He doesn’t write on one level, but multiple levels, and I loved that. I loved the way I could be reading about, for example, Captain Cook, but also very much be reading about my own human experience in the world, as well as Lopez’s. Layers and metaphor are my playground, and Lopez is a master of that particular craft. 

Horizon is a work of art. I was enchanted not only by the journey Barry Lopez takes throughout this work, but how well he ties together the human experience, showing that we are not islands unto ourselves, but connected to each other, to the world as a whole, to history, to the future. He doesn’t shy away from hard truths, like our changing landscape, and our responsibility for said changes. Neither does he seem to lose all hope. That being said, it is the quiet moments that had the most impact on me. The moments where he seems to put everything else aside, and just quietly reflect.

“The history of art in the West, I believe, can be viewed as the history of various experiments with volumes of space and increments of time, with frequencies of light and of sound. 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. Art does not aspire to entertain. It aspires to converse.”

The horizon is not just something to explore, a hazy, far off dream, but a point of connection. In a world that, despite our connectivity, feels increasingly disconnected, this book ended up be the exact medicine my soul needed. Horizon is a poetic, powerful examination of the human soul, the larger world, and the horizon, which both connects and obscures. Filled with some of the most beautiful writing I’ve come across in a long time, and an overwhelming sense of wonder and respect, this book put Barry Lopez on my radar, and I’m excited to spend some time reading more of his work. 

“The moment of surprise informs you emphatically that the way you once imagined the world is not the way it is. “To explore,” he says, “is to travel without a hypothesis.”

5/5 stars


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