Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews

About This Life

Barry Lopez
Harvill, HarperCollins, 1998 275pp
ISBN: 1 86046 565 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Barry Lopez is a wanderer. He is also a quiet, meditative man who values solitude and expresses awe and reverence for the natural world. His solitude is never empty. It is full of the flux of energy: cloud patterns; the fall of light; the movement of an animal in a snowy waste. And Lopez is acutely observant, too, of the relationship between people and the land they inhabit, and of the effects of change on these relationships.

About This Life is a collection of essays which reveal the nature of the author. They range over a vast landscape, both literally and metaphorically. One essay returns Lopez to the Arctic setting he observed so closely in his award-winning _Arctic Dreams_ (republished this month). He calls the essay 'Learning to See' and, typically, it begins with Lopez meditating on the way painters and photographers interpret the world: the "composition of space and light" which "is as clarifying for me as an immersion in a beautifully made story". Looking as some of his own published photographs, he is disturbed by the "distance between what I saw and what I wanted to record". In the Beaufort Sea, an encounter with a polar bear convinces him that he can capture detail better in memory and in words than in photographs, especially because so much of the experience is missed "checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus" a camera. In any case, the sort of response Lopez has to wild-life could never be captured on film.

Lopez is acutely sensitive to his kinship with people of different races, and to his connection with the animal world. His reverence for animals can, at times, make his actions seem quite bizarre. Those who are close to nature will understand the slight, instinctive bow he finds himself making towards the bird-life he encounters in the Arctic tundra, but his urge to stop and tend the bodies of animals hit by vehicles on the roads (the subject of another essay) seems rather obsessive. He calls it "an act of respect, a technique of awareness".

Travelling around the world, enduring jet-lag, disorientation and flight after flight after flight, just to inspect the cargo in aircraft holds, is a strange occupation, too. But it is not without a certain curiosity value.

For me, the most absorbing essay in this book tells of the firing of a Dragon kiln in the Coastal Range of Oregon. Lopez calls this essay 'Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire', and the organic nature of this pottery-firing, the need for people to work with the elements - to stroke them gently to do their work - and the beautiful unpredictability of the whole process, says almost all that Lopez's needs to say about his own feeling for his place in the natural world.

This is a book full of interesting detail: a travel book that is as much concerned with the inner landscape as the outer. It is calm, thoughtful, precise and loving in mood. And it is a perfect reflection, one could believe, of the nature of its author.


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