Barry Lopez, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1999), 273 pages.
This is a wonderful collection of essays. I listened to an abridged edition as well as read the essays. The Audible version of the book was wonderful because the late Lopez read his work.
The collection (in the book and on audible) begins with a memoir essay titled “A Voice.” In this wonderful piece, Barry tells the story of his young life, from his early years in New York, to moving and living much of his school years in California, and then back to New York for a few years before he headed off to Notre Dame. During this time, Barry experienced the world (often through his mother’s husbands and boyfriends). He even gets a first-hand view (although a somewhat skewed view) of what the writing life is about as he meets John Steinbeck at a summer camp. Steinbeck’s boys were at the same camp. I came away with the appreciation that Lopez never lost his childhood curiosity and these early experiences helped him develop a voice that has made him a beloved storyteller. This is the second book I’ve read of Lopez. Many years ago, I read River Notes.
One of the unifying themes running through these essays is the journey. While many of the essays highlight travels to faraway places (Hokkaido, the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos), others focus on the journey itself. In “Flight,” he jets around as a passenger on air freight planes while collecting information for a story. One day in Asia, the next Europe or South Africa, and then he’s back in the States. The whirlwind of travel informs the reader about modern commerce, but we also see how Lopez was intensely interested in everything, from walking the streets of Seoul in the early morning hours to learning from the pilots.
The essay “Apologia,” focuses on bits of travel around the United States as he stops to remove dead animals from the highway. This is not just a good deed as he has interest in each of the animals.
In “Speed,” he drives his brother’s Corvette from Chicago to the Amish Country of Northern Indiana, taking a friend who is scouting out locations to film a documentary. But the shooting location is a side-story. The main story centers on driving this muscle car on rural backroads. I found it intriguing that one known as an environmental writer would enjoy speeding in a Corvette, but then remembered stories of Edward Abbey tossing beer cans out of the window of this truck.
The essay, “Murder” finds Lopez driving from Sante Fe to a summer job in Wyoming. In Moab, Utah, he meets a woman who asks him to kill her husband. He quickly flees, racing through the sagebrush of the America West.
Another common theme About This Life are the skills displayed by others. Whether it is the building and flying of airplanes in “Flight,” or the firing of pottery in a dragon kiln in “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire,” or the gracious naturalist author in Hokkaido, Lopez appreciates talent. He also is constantly aware of his natural setting, whether it’s hearing the occasional “staccato cry of a pileated woodpecker” or the change in the air in the summer of ’76 in New York. As the nation celebrated the bicentennial, his mother was dying. Lopez always catches the details.
“The American Geographies” was my favorite essay in the collection. Part incitement of our lack of knowledge of geographies, Lopez acknowledges the “local nature” of geography. Few people have the time or opportunity to full appreciate the diversity of America’s landscape. He invites us to be more intimate with our surroundings, knowing the geology and the natural world from firsthand experience.
Now I want to pull River Notes off the bookcase and reread it along with other books by Lopez.