Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays
The Quest for the Holy Grail
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
The word “essay” comes from the French essayer, to try, and though Barry Lopez wrote book-length nonfiction and short stories, he was in some sense always an essayist, moving toward an apprehension of the natural world and our relation to it. To try is to explore the outer boundaries of one’s own capacity as well as the world beyond oneself, and the meeting of these two things drives much of his work. Every essay is a document of the writer’s endeavor and an invitation to the reader to pursue their own explorations.
This collection of his essays has, as well, scattered through it fragments of an autobiography, and in that autobiography are traces of a quest, another form of essaying. Though Barry chose in his writing to look outward more than inward, the two directions are never truly separate in his work. We learn from both what resembles and what differs from ourselves; we learn about being human from the nonhuman, though we may choose to learn about the nonhuman for its own sake and for the joy of enlarging our understanding and deepening our relationship to the world. Other essays are both windows that take you out of yourself and mirrors that show you back to yourself, and so a flight is also a return.
The autobiographical passages in this volume are themselves a guide to the work and its aspirations. From them you can glean a practical sense of who Barry Lopez was and why he was so passionate about place, travel, and the nonhuman world. Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World contains two accounts of his long childhood ordeal of sexual abuse by a family friend, “A Scary Abundance of Water” and “Sliver of Sky.” In the first, he makes it clear that the natural world itself—what he could ride to on his bike, the flight of his tumbler pigeons and their daily return, the light and space and water of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, where he then lived—was his sanctuary and his support when he otherwise so desperately lacked both.
The first essay, which came out in 2002, had a huge impact on me. The sheer generosity of recognizing how unexceptional his ordeal was, of weaving it into a broader recognition of the suffering of others and of what is redemptive and beautiful in the world around us, suggested to me more than any book-length memoir what memoir could be, and how the intensely personal and the larger world could be spoken of together in the same breath.
The act of widening one’s focus is itself an act of generosity in situations like this, not as a way of ignoring one’s own life but as a means for connecting it with others’ lives. If disconnection is the devastation that allows an abuser to abuse, a family to deny, a child to suffer in silence, connection is itself curative. We might need to go deep, the piece seems to say, but we might also need to go broad, and it does that as well. Even in the titles of the two essays about this abuse—referencing water and sky—Barry reaches beyond, not to avoid, but to reach out the way a drowning person might reach for flotsam in the waves.
In the earlier essay, rushing into the untrammeled space of the San Fernando Valley, when much of it was still undeveloped or agricultural, was running from something. It was also moving toward something, and journeying to that something would be what Barry would do for the rest of his life—to what he loved most steadily throughout two dozen books and more than half a century of writing.
The love of place can sustain a life, and we usually talk as though it’s an unreciprocated love, a one-way street. These essays show why that is wrong. The places love us back in how they steady and sustain us, teach us, shelter us, guide us, feed us, and that old image of the Earth itself as a mother is a reminder that we depend upon the unearned bounty of the biosphere. So, in a sense, in learning to love the Earth and particular places in it, we are learning to love back what loved us all along. Learning to love these places, by studying and understanding them, was one of Barry’s lifelong tasks.
Those of us who write about the natural world cherish some sense of being fed and cared for and protected by places and the living things in them, of a communion with the nonhuman world that matters on corporeal, ethical, emotional, imaginative, and spiritual terms. Which is why we have often tried to talk about both how these realms are being objectively threatened—by climate catastrophe, extinction, exploitation—and disappearing from our consciousness, as human beings become more indoor, urban creatures, and what kind of loss the latter is.
We have tried to provide readers with a sense of what it means to be connected this way, both to give them a chance to access this connection through our own recounted experiences and to encourage them to seek out their own experiences or to examine them in new ways. And in hopes that by encouraging attention to and finding value in the natural world, we might move people to recognize the many ways in which it is immeasurably important not only to our survival but also to our spirits and imaginations, to justice and hope. What gets called nature writing is sometimes about animals or encounters, but often as well about the land itself, about place itself, ultimately about the Earth itself.
There’s a passage in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel named after the country house at the heart of it, Howards End. That old house in the country gives the main characters refuge and a space in which to be themselves and to be connected to rural life and community. Forster wrote:
London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
By “Love,” Forster means the feelings between human beings, and he argues that we need more than that, and portrays with tenderness and power what “more” can mean. “Help from the earth” is how places love us back, but first we have to connect to them. In the essay here titled “Love in a Time of Terror,” Barry writes, “Whenever I’m asked what I love, I think of the aggregate of relationships in that place that summer.” Which is to say the subject of what is often called nature writing is, inevitably, nature, but also love, and the latter means that what the writing academics tried to herd into a corral of that name is often something else. It might be geography or sociology or history or anthropology, but it is often also the values, desires, emotions, and orientations that make us human, and in that sense, quite often, it is theology.
I often felt something intentionally priestly about Barry’s presence, when he spoke to audiences—a kind of formal way of presenting himself, but also an intention to bring us the way a priest might bring a congregation to something transcendent or immanent. He was unafraid of taking moral positions and stating principles, and he wasted no time on that chimera of neutrality that has bedeviled so many white American writers. This committed stance is present in his work. When his mother remarried, to a man who moved the family to New York City and away from his abuser, he was sent to a Jesuit prep school. There’s a lot about Barry that remained Jesuitical or perhaps priestly—and as a young man he considered a monastic or priestly vocation. As he narrates it in “Madre de Dios,” he did not end up pursuing that path, and the former altar boy moved on from regular attendance at Catholic church. But also, he writes:
In those many years of travel, long after I had lost touch with my Catholic practice, I continued to rely, anyway, on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence.
His writing celebrates that the “presence of the Divine” is to be found in many places and phenomena, here and now, not in some disembodied heaven. The work is in some sense a celebration of abundance, from the desert to the Arctic, and a warning about its erosion.
He finds this presence in and as places, mostly wild and remote ones where the natural order seems intact, and as specific moments of witness, particular encounters. Places not as passive stages that life moves across but as the lives as well, as all the presences, living and otherwise, in a place, its animals, plants, weather, geology, and hydrology, the lay of the land, the human presence, and how they all interact. Sometimes he also describes the disciplines and rites of being present and regularly the other humans there, who are often guides of one kind or another.
You could describe his as a lifelong quest for the Holy Grail in which the quest itself is the Grail. The Grail is the journey, the search for something, and the something is outside oneself—musk oxen in a blizzard or algae flourishing under Antarctic ice, or an image of a stone horse laid out in the desert long before white people came along, or the annual autumnal return of the salmon in front of his house on the McKenzie River. But in his writing, this cosmology, the Grail is not just the travel to these places but the stillness and patience after arrival.
It is also the act of paying attention to these things, of entering a state of concentration, of focus, a state of being open to epiphany and rapture and communion. It is a seeking, so to speak, of the capacity to seek, with a kind of devotion that steadies the concentration. You arrive at a place, then you arrive at an awareness, then perhaps arrive at an understanding, which opens up the world to you and opens you up to the world. Finally, perhaps, you arrive at a relationship.
One word appears over and over in these pages: “attention.” The word has the same roots as “attendance,” which means showing up, serving, and caring for, with roots in the French attendre, to wait. Waiting, attending to, and paying attention are in some sense the same thing, waiting to understand, waiting to know, staying until connection is formed, the taking-care-of that begins by taking notice of. Perhaps it’s all encompassed in the “continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine.” Attention is something Barry admires in others, exhorts his readers to practice, and describes in his own interactions.
One of the hallmarks of his writing is a sense of being unhurried, of the sheer luxury of time and the way that the old ways were the slow ways, and that this slowness is what it takes to know something, whether you wait for hours for the animal to appear or you return to a place over and over to know it under many conditions.[*1] In that sense, it’s an act of resistance to our hurried, harried, distracted era. In the essay on his friend Richard Nelson, the Alaskan writer and anthropologist, he notes, “To be patient, to pay attention to the world that is not yourself, is the first step in the neophyte’s discovery of the larger world outside the self, the landscape in which wisdom itself abides.” Elsewhere he writes, “I do not recall a single day of attentiveness outdoors, in fact, when something unknown, something new, hasn’t flared up before me.”
Often the word appears in the phrase “pay attention,” in which to pay might mean to give. You give your attention and you are paid back with whatever joy and knowledge you receive through that process. He portrayed learning as a holy and exhilarating mission. Perhaps attention is what we owe one another and the world first, and this writer wandered about, paying it out lavishly and writing down what he learned as an exhortation to others to likeways pay attention, not as a duty, not because we are in debt, though of course we are in debt to the great complex web of life in which we are situated, but because attention brings epiphanies, orientation, fellowship, insight. Sometimes he was seeking the places to which he himself desired to pay close attention, sometimes he was seeking the people who already did so. Thus scientists and Indigenous people loom large in his work as practitioners in two schools of epistemology, different but not opposed.[*2]
In this book he states a credo: “Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.” That state of paying full attention is both the prayer and the communion that is the prayer’s answer. He pursued it over and over, found it over and over, prayed it, praised it, and urged us all to do the same, over and over. We are his congregation; these are his sermons. In them, loneliness is transmuted into connection, in which some part of what was broken is made whole. He made contact with these rare and vanishing and remote phenomena, like a priest reaching toward the divine, and then sought to share this communion as a writer, to turn it into a communion for us and with us.
Barry often seemed serious, but he had a sly sense of humor in person and a capacity for delight. I met him for the first time when we were both staying in Galisteo, New Mexico, one summer around the turn of the twenty-first century, and an editor who knew both of us introduced us by email. When we met, I told him he should see the life-size bear petroglyph hidden in the hills beyond, and while I knew there were thunderstorms pretty much every afternoon, he insisted on writing mornings, so we set out as the white clouds gathered and began to darken into the color of a great blue heron’s wings in flight.
We talked, we walked, he often paused en route to examine a plant or a stone; we admired the bear petroglyph and the others surrounding it, including two great serpents zigzagging like lightning, and then the lightning itself came, and the thunder, and a heavy rain that quickly soaked us to the skin. We crouched under a ledge during the most torrential minutes of the downpour, but it was impossible to stay apart from the rain, and easy on that warm afternoon in an otherwise arid landscape to yield to the delight of being—“baptized” is the word that comes to mind—in the storm. We had walked there on sandy soil, but we walked back on mud that turned our boots into clods.
I wrote, afterward, about something that happened near the petroglyphs:
I looked down to see he had left one perfect footprint, and in it lay a small potsherd, striped red and black. That the footprint was not a minute old and the fragment in it might have been lying there five hundred years compressed two kinds of past into one dazzling encounter. The term “walking in someone’s footprints” instantly became literal, for this was a writer whose work had long ago suggested to me something of what I might dare to aim for with mine.
I have my own paths now, but Barry helped me find them. Which is what we always want writing to do, and so perhaps I’m just here to say he did it.
The footsteps that are these essays lead in many directions; all of them have older matter embedded in them. Some of you may want to follow them only as far as they go; others may find guidance for the paths you choose yourselves in exploring relationships to land and language, to the quest for meaning.
Introduction by Rebecca Solnit
Six Thousand Lessons
An Intimate Geography
An Era of Emergencies Is Upon Us and We Cannot Look Away
In Memoriam: Wallace Stegner
A True Naturalist
Landscapes of the Shamans
On the Border
Fourteen Aspects of Power
Love in a Time of Terror
Our Frail Planet in Cold, Clear View
State of Mind: Threshold
Madre de Dios
A Scary Abundance of Water
Sliver of Sky
The Near Woods
Lessons from the River
Also by Barry Lopez
About the Author
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