In this epic travelogue, nature writer Barry Lopez’s slow but steady observations of a magnificent but damaged planet mirror the slow but steady exploitation of its resources and the extent of human suffering such a feat requires.

“Horizon” is a book with no central horizon, and for that we should be grateful. You could ask for no better travel guide as long as you are open to the possibilities of tangential paths and his “capacity for wonder.”

Lopez meanders, embarking on a “flâneur’s search for nothing in particular,” a Pausanias of the 21st century. Like that second-century Greek historian and explorer, Lopez is a thoughtful and careful curator, sweeping the planet to understand not only its topography but also the cultural geography of humans and the relationship between the two.

He looks beyond the physical to philosophical, poetical, scientific, artistic and even metaphysical explorations. Even when he goes afield, I’m right there with him, and there’s no place I’d rather be — Antarctica, the Oregon coast, the Galápagos, Kenya or on a riff about Capt. James Cook.

Lopez often encounters the world through things: artifacts, objects, the detritus the planet coughs up. These “talismanic reminders” that he scavenges or observes give testament to “the staggering diversity of life, the stony flesh of the ancient planet, the lethal violence of human behavior, the growing inutility of war in the modern era.”

Even at home Lopez can’t stop exploring and making connections to the larger world, as he gives readers a tour of the bits he’s chosen to remove from their original environments: The “water-tumbled seashells” from Tahiti, a “fist-sized piece of raven-black dolerite” from Antarctica, a silver harpoon tip that “is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life.” That question is one that underlies much of the book — how far are humans willing to go to preserve their own lives?

While in Australia, he sees an open-pit iron ore mine and its fence lines “declaring exclusive ownership.” About 600 miles later, he goes to a bar and observes and talks to the men there who work in the mines.

“I can easily imagine anyone here might say, out of hearing of the others, that they feel trapped by the circumstances they find themselves in,” he writes. “Love gone sour at home, mortgages to be paid, college for the kids … so the kids don’t have to invest in some version of the treadmill work their dads are indentured to. You work every day, then search out an anesthesia that will bury the anger and ennui the work fills you with.”

Lopez describes the story “El Fin” by Jorge Luis Borges. In the tale, two men embark on a footrace and “are both beheaded in the same instant.” But the competition was never about who won the race; it was about who ran the farthest headless before collapsing.

 

Kerri Arsenault serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board and is the book review editor at Orion magazine. Her book “What Remains” is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.

Horizon
By: Barry Lopez.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 544 pages, $30.