American Culture

Exploring American geographies and the threshold of memory

#12: About This Life by Barry Lopez (1998)

The pieces collected in Barry Lopez’s About This Life profess to be “journeys on the threshold of memory.” They take the shape of essays, travel stories, and memoirs, although Lopez firmly plants them all in the first-person perspective. Most relate in some way to a specific place. At the heart of the book, though, his essay “The American Geographies” speaks most directly to the importance of landscape—and how people continue to misunderstand and even misrepresent what that really means.

“The real American landscape is a face of almost incomprehensible depth and complexity,” he says.

We profess “a sincere and fierce love” for the American landscape, Lopez says, yet we continue to get farther and farther away from our own geographies. “Year by year, the number of people with firsthand experience in the land dwindles,” he says…. “[I]t has only been in the last few hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.”

People only able to venture into the countryside on annual vacations are, increasingly, schooled in the belief that land will, and should, provide thrills and exceptional scenery on a timely basis. If it does not, something is wrong, either with the land itself or possibly with the company outfitting the trip.

We expect purple mountains and amber waves of grain, grand canyons and dismal swamps. In other words, we expect the idea of a landscape, not necessarily the landscape itself. We tend to collapse America’s complex calico of geography into a single idea of “America.”

“It’s always been a romantic’s landscape,” Lopez says, which means geography gets treated like a commodity. Lopez describes it as “the packaging and marketing of land as a form of entertainment.” It appears, he says, in advertisements, as the background in movies, and on patriotic calendars.

“On reflection,” Lopez realizes, “this is an appalling condescension and a terrible imprecision, the very antithesis of knowledge.”

Ignorance of the land has another, more sinister result, too. “What is true,” Lopez says, “is that man has a power, literally beyond his comprehension, to destroy.”

The lethality of some of what he manufactures, the incompetence with which he stores or seeks to dispose of it, the cavalier way in which he employs in his daily living substances that threaten his health, the leniency of the courts in these matters…, and the treatment of open land, rivers, and the atmosphere as if, in some medieval way, they could still be regarded as disposal sinks of infinite capacity, would make you wonder…if we weren’t bent on an errand of madness.

As Lopez ends the essay, he introduces an idea that seems to contradict, at least in part, an idea put forward by other writers I’ve encountered. He says:

A testament of minor voices can clear away an ignorance of any place, can inform us of its special qualities; but no voice, by merely telling a story, can cause the poisonous wastes that saturate some parts of the land to decompose, to evaporate. This responsibility falls ultimately to the national community, a vague and fragile entity to be sure, but one that, in America, can be ferocious in exerting its will.

Gessner, Williams, Carson, and in a somewhat different way, Thoreau, have all suggested that it will require individual effort, and individual storytellers, to affect change. While I agree that no one writer can undo damage that’s been done, I do think they can prevent damage from continuing or from happening again. (Carson is proof positive of that!) I don’t want to read too far into Lopez’s words and would be eager to read something of his that expands on those themes.

Of all the pieces in Lopez’s book, “American Geographies” is perhaps the least personal. He’s constructed the essay more as a treatise than a memoir, revealing much about what he thinks without necessarily getting too personal about it. That’s okay. Other pieces in the book are highly personal, such as the morning of his mother’s death or the afternoon his childhood dog was run over by three Navy men in a green convertible—both stories of deep grief for their times, in their ways. His essay about his connection to the Grand Canyon and other landscapes of his youth is also a standout.

The book opens with a series of travel pieces where Lopez, the nature writer, acts more as a reporter than a memoirist. Still, even there, the pieces resonate so strongly because he allows himself the luxury of commentary. In my favorite such piece, he explores the air-freight industry by flying on air freighters for weeks straight and then writing about all the crazy freight he’s traveled with, all the geography he’s observed from above, all the ways time has warped for him as he’s jumped around the world.

One other significant point worth noting about the book: As a craftsman, Lopez stands out from other writers I’ve read so far in this project because of his vocabulary. Perhaps it seems pedestrian of me to even mention something like that. However, not a page went by that I didn’t find delight in an unusual word or a familiar word used in an unusual way. In the book, he threw maybe five curveballs at me that I actually had to look up (and I’m not ashamed to admit it), but what amazed me is the facility with which he used his impressive vocabulary.

I know there’s research out there about the difference between the vocabulary a person knows and the vocabulary a person regularly uses, which is much smaller. As someone who labored so long under the professional requirement to write for the eighth-grade reading level (hurray, journalism!), my own writing style comes across with a pretty conversational tone. It’s always requires conscious effort for me to stretch beyond my traditional stable of words into the deeper well I have at my disposal. I admired Lopez’s ability to that.

About This Life is a marvelously eclectic collection of pieces, journey after journey through landscape and memory with a writer thoughtful enough to appreciate where he’s going, what he’s seeing, and what it means to him—and, hopefully, to us, as well.