Founding Authors Series: Barry Lopez

“Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

Barry Lopez, About This Life

About this Life_Photos1.0In 1998 Barry Lopez published About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, a collection of intimate and immersive essays. While not his most well-known work, About This Life seems a fitting place to begin our discussion of Lopez; for, in these essays Lopez establishes his writing as part of a tradition and himself as part of a community in which a writer does not – indeed cannot – separate humanity and nature, and that inseparability is at the very heart of the Sowell Collection.

Introducing the collection with “The Voice,” Lopez traces his intellectual and emotional path toward writing, finding continuity in the disparity between the rural landscape of his California childhood and the urban privilege of his New York adolescence. His earliest memories, memories Lopez once dismissed – a garden with flowers as tall as his three-year-old self, “the glare of light on the harbor and the snap of white sails coming taut in a breeze,” (4) the urge to go somewhere, to do something – prove formative, his writing eventually driven by “a desire to describe what happened, what [he] saw, when [he] went outside” (10). Lopez tells us he has chosen the following essays “to give a sense of how one writer proceeds, and [that] they are reflective of [his] notion of what it means to travel” (14).

In light of Lopez’s stated purpose for these essays, I want to consider the closing essay of Part II, “The Whaleboat.” Here, Lopez moves between “two separate realities, inside and out” (176) – that is he moves between interior and exterior space using the model whaleboat as a sort of anchor. He connects the intricacy of the boat, the intelligence and skill required to create such a thing (both model and original), and the need to revisit the world around us, to rediscover something “too long unremembered, or [to] see it as if for the first time” (177).

The essay may at times seem a catalog of the objects in his writing room, of the plants and wildlife outside his window, of the whaleboat’s details. In his notes for this essay, you will find lists of the very same. You will also find a rough sketch of the space – where his desk sits in relation to the window, where the land slopes down toward the road, where trees and open fields lie. But, Lopez isn’t simply cataloguing his environment. He is writing place, evoking the inextricable connections between the physical and psychological spaces in which he writes:

“Here in the room, I suppose, is to be found the interior world of the book; but it opens upon a world beyond the windows, where no event has been collapsed into syntax, where vocabulary, it seems, is infinite. The indispensable connection for me lies with the open space that lets the breath of every winter storm, the ripping wind and its pelting rain, enter this room” (187).

About this Life_Photos2.0


Barry Lopez Papers, 1964-2001 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

Barry Lopez Photograph Collection, 1964-2001 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas

Lopez, Barry. About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

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Introduction: Founding Authors Series

For the rest of 2015, we will highlight each of the Sowell Collection’s founding authors: Barry Lopez, William Kittredge, Annick Smith, David Quammen, and Pattiann Rogers.

 Barry Lopez

Essayist, author, and short story writer, Barry Lopez was born in 1945 in Port Chester, New York; grew-up in southern California and New York City; and attended collegeBarry_smile-210 in the Midwest. He has lived in rural western Oregon since 1968.

Since leaving graduate school in 1970, Lopez has been a full-time writer. His work often explores the relationship between physical landscape and human culture, and issues of identity, ethics, and intimacy. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The Georgia Review, Orion, Outside, The Paris Review, Manoa, and in dozens of anthologies and “best of” collections. His major nonfiction works include Arctic Dreams, for which he received the National Book Award, and Of Wolves and Men, a National Book Award finalist. His most recent books are Home Ground: Language for the American Landscape (2006), a reader’s dictionary of regional landscape terms, and Outside (2014), a collection of six stories with engravings by Barry Moser.

Lopez has received fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the John Burroughs Society, the Orion Society, and other institutions. He travels widely and has collaborated with a number of artists on a variety of projects in theater, music, and the fine arts. He has a long relationship with Texas Tech University and has been a Distinguished Visiting University Scholar. Visit his website, and explore the collection.

 William Kittredge

William Kittredge was born in 1932 and grew up on a working ranch in the Warner Valley of southeastern Oregon. He graduated from Oregon State University in 1954 and from the William-KittredgeWriters’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1969. He taught in the English Department at the University of Montana from 1969 until his retirement in 1997.

He is the author of numerous essays, short stories and novels, including the Cord series of western novels written under the pseudonym Owen Rountree. His essay collections, Owning it All (1987) and Who Owns the West? (1995), map the emotional terrain of the modern West, pursuing and dismantling the accepted moral code of independence, private ownership and resource exploitation. His first novel, The Willow Field¸ published to wide critical acclaim in 2006.

Kittredge’s awards include a Stegner Fellowship to attend the writing program at Stanford University, two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships, two Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Awards, a National Governor’s Award for the Arts, the PEN West Award, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Charles Frankle Prize for service to the humanities, and the Neil Simon Award from American Playhouse. Explore the collection.

 Annick Smith

  Born in Paris in 1936 to Hungarian emigres, Annick Smith was raised in Chicago and lived briefly in Seattle. In 1964 Smith moved to Montana, eventually settling on a 163 acre ranch in the Blackfoot River valley. After her husband’s death in 1974, Smith remannick_smithained on the ranch to raise her sons. She still lives in Montana with her partner William Kittredge.

A filmmaker first, Smith was executive producer for the prize-winning independent film, Heartland (1979) based on the frontier diaries of Wyoming pioneer, Elinore Randall Stewart. She was co-producer, with William Kittredge, for Robert Redford’s film adaptation of Norman MacLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It (1992). She has produced several documentaries including a series about Indian tribes in the Inland Northwest, “The Real People,” for public television, and a portrait of poet Richard Hugo, “Kicking the Loose Gravel Home.” Smith was a founding member of the Sundance Film Institute and the Independent Features Project.

Her writing has appeared in Orion, Outside, Audubon, National Geo Traveler, Travel & Leisure, and the New York Times. Smith’s collection of essays, Homestead, was published by Milkweed Editions in 1995. Her book, Big Bluestem, Journey into the Tall Grass, which won the Oklahoma Book Award for nonfiction and the Denver Public Library’s Bancroft prize for western history, was published by Council Oak Books (Tulsa) and The Nature Conservancy in 1996. Smith’s latest book, Crossing the Plains with Bruno, is forthcoming from Trinity University Press in November 2015. Explore the collection.

 David Quammen

Science, nature and travel writer, David Quammen was born in 1948 in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1970 he graduated from Yale where he was a protégé of novelist and poet Robert Penn David_QuammenWarren. He has lived in Montana for the last 40 years.

Quammen began as an unsuccessful writer of spy novels, but by 1981 had switched to nonfiction with his column in Outside magazine. His work has since appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. His first full-length nonfiction book, The Song of the Dodo (1996) investigated the rate of species extinction in island ecosystems and won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing. Spillover (2012) was a finalist for seven awards and won two: the Science and Society Book Award, and the Society of Biology (UK) Book Award in General Biology. His most recent books, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus (2014) and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest (2015), continue his work on diseases that have spread from non-human animals to humans.

Quammen has received honorary doctorates from Montana State University and Colorado College, a Rhodes scholarship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction. Other awards include the National Magazine Award and the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. Visit his website, and browse the collection.

 Pattiann Rogers

Pattiann Rogers was born in Joplin, Missouri and graduated from the University of Missouri with a B.A. in Literature and a minor in Zoology in 1961. She received an M.A. in pattiann_rogersEnglish with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She has taught at the University of Texas, the University of Montana, the University of Arkansas, Washington University of St. Louis, and Mercer University. She lives in Colorado.

Rogers’s work combines scientific language and concepts with questions of cultural and spiritual values. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best Spiritual Writing, and in many anthologies and textbooks, including The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, Verse and Universe, Poets of the New Century, The Measured Word (On Poetry and Science), Stand-Up Poetry, The Made Thing, The Discovery of Poetry. Rogers’s latest collection Holy Heathen Rhapsody (2013) won the Helen C. Smith Award for Best Poetry Book of 2013 by the Texas Institute of Letters.

Rogers has received two NEA Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry, and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship. Her poems have been awarded the Tietjens Prize, the Hokin Prize, and the Bock prize from Poetry, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, the Strousse Award from Prairie Schooner, and five Pushcart Prizes. Visit her website, and explore the collection.

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New Collections and Current Projects

What’s new at Sowell? Here’s a quick rundown of the latest acquisitions and the upcoming conference and essay contest.


In late 2013 we acquired the Doug and Andrea Peacock Papers. Doug Peacock, a Vietnam veteran and grizzly bear expert, is a self-described “renegade naturalist.” His wife Andrea is a Montana-based journalist, covering Western environmental news and politics. The materials, currently in the manuscript processing stage, concern Doug’s books, Walking It Off (2005) and In the Shadow of the Sabertooth (2013); Andrea’s book, Libby, Montana (2003); and their joint effort, The Essential Grizzly (2006). The Peacock papers should become available for research in 2016.

In 2014 we acquired the papers of environmental writer and advocate Marc Reisner. He is best known for Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986), a book describing the role of water rights and water use in the history and development of the Western United States. Modern Library selected Cadillac Desert as one of thCadillac Deserte top 100 best nonfiction English-language books of the 20th century. The book was a National Book Critic’s Circle Award finalist (1986), and PBS aired it as a four part documentary (1997). Now open for research, the Marc Reisner Papers include published and unpublished drafts, research material, correspondence, photographs, audio and video recordings.

In August 2015 we acquired the papers of Orion magazine, a publication known for its grounding in literature, the arts, and a philosophical exploration of how we live with the natural world. Orion materials, now in the very early processing stages, include correspondence; previous issue drafts and editorial comments; and written, taped and filmed records of the Forgotten Language Tours, Fire and Grit, and the John Hay Awards. The Orion collection should become available for research in 2016.Blessed Unrest

We acquired our first primarily digital collection in 2015, the Paul Hawken Papers. Environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author, Hawken is perhaps best known for his 2007 book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, in which he explores the diversity of the environmental movement from billion-dollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes.

2016 Conference and Essay Contest

The 2016 Conference on the Sowell Collection will be held April 21-23, 2016. Featured writers and guests include John Lane, Barry Lopez, James Sowell, Toni Jensen, Kurt Caswell, and Lisa Couturier. We will post a CFP and conference schedule here and on our website. Stay tuned!

The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library has announced the 2016 Sowell Collection Award open to all Texas Tech University students. Essays must be about a writer or writers in the Sowell Collection. Submissions for the 2016 award are due April 20, 2016. Prizes will be awarded for undergraduate and graduate students. First prize $250; second prize $150.

Send submissions as e-mail attachments to, using Sowell Essay Award as the subject line. Please indicate your student status (undergraduate/graduate). Do not include any identifying information (your name) in the essay.

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The Sowell Collection: Then and Now

AJarticle2000 (2) The article that appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal on Dec. 17, 2000 was not news to me.  I worked at TTU Libraries and I’d already heard of this fantastic new collection–and as a librarian, poet, literary scholar, I wanted to be a part of it.

AJarticle2000 (3)I knew the names and work of two of the writers in the this new collection, Barry Lopez and Pattiann Rogers.  I’d read River Notes, an early Lopez book, and I identified him with the Northwest, my home country.  Pattiann Rogers.  Well, even in 2000, 15 years ago, I considered Pattiann Rogers to be one of the greatest American poets.  I really wanted to work with this collection.  I considered myself fortunate when a professional position opened up in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.   I was the successful applicant, I came to the SWC/SCL in Feb. 2001, and I’ve been happily working with and in the Sowell Collection ever since.

My first office area was an eclectic congregation of cast-off furniture and dusty wall dividers.  Sort of like those “forts” of chairs and tables we constructed as children. The boxes and boxes involved in manuscript processing sorely strained the boundaries of my area.  I was a solitary worker, with one student assistant in for a few hours a week to pull staples and remove paper clips.  I did most of the processing myself, music in the background keeping me entertained; I’m not complaining, I actually enjoyed the zen of processing, the mindfulness required.  I liked immersing myself into each new collection, learning its treasures and quirks.  I prided myself, still do, on having a very quick turn-around time between the arrival of the collection and its availability to researchers.  Making the treasures available to researchers, that’s always the goal.  Still, working as a solitary processor and a battalion of student assistants, it took me three years to finish processing the Gretel Ehrlich papers.  Now, a collection that large can be completed in about 12 months.

McKibben_boxes (2)

The Bill McKibben collection, in my previous office.

The Sowell Collection has grown, from four writers to over twenty.  We are in contact with writers and agents with the aim of acquiring three new and extremely interesting collections.  Can’t wait to announce these!  We have new offices, with windows and plenty of room for boxes and boxes.  Especially important, several years ago, I was able to hire a full-time assistant.  Sara Roberts held the position until this past summer, when she moved to Lincoln, Nebraska.  Kristin Loyd joined the staff in August.  In their different ways, they have both been perfect for this work and this collection.  Right now, we have three student assistants.  A mighty workforce processing some additional papers from Doug and Andrea Peacock and a new collection from Orion.

The adventure of the day: a box of books arrived, donated by Barry Lopez.  Can’t wait to open it!

For another, more complete, telling of the history of the Sowell Collection, please see this essay by Kurt Caswell (TTU Honors College) that appeared in Isle, Spring 2015:



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Class Portrait – Current Readings in Natural History


For the past five years, I have worked with Prof. Kurt Caswell and the students in his Spring Semester class. I teach them how to conduct research in a special collections library, select boxes of manuscript material from the Sowell Collection that will show them the wide range of materials we have from each writer–from photographs to drafts of major books to correspondence–and present short biographical talks on the writers, I focus each semester primarily on writers who will be presenting at the Sowell Collection Conference held near the end of the semester. This year the writers were Susan Brind Morrow and Gary Paul Nabhan. The students also read the work of Barry Lopez, and when he is on campus, he visits their class.  This photo shows some of the students from the class, visitor Barry Lopez, and Prof. Kurt Caswell.  Usually Barry attends the Conference, he has always been a special guest and participant, but this year his schedule did not permit him to be with us.  Nevertheless, he visited with the students earlier in April, speaking to them about the joys, trials, and responsibilities of being a writer.

Pictured: Kathryn May, Barry Lopez, Kurt Caswell; Garrett Dewbre, Emma Foster, Hunter Bullock

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To See the True Beauty in Nature is to be Thankful

The manner in which John Muir describes his surroundings made me realize how little I paid attention to mine. He saw wonder and life in the places I would have seen monotony. Muir saw an opportunity to be thankful for the wildlife surrounding him, where I sometimes saw a burden in it. The constant noting of the beauty of nature is the dominant trait in My First Summer in the Sierra, and the reason it has such a charm.

My First Summer in the Sierra is written in a style that gives a reader a sense of wanderlust for his or her own backyard. It is a book which made me realize I don’t need to go too far to find a reason to have my breath taken away by nature, because all I need is a change in perspective and an appreciation for every tree, leaf, flower and creature that I come across.

Liberty Cap, with Vernal and Nevada Falls MagnificentSilverFirs(Mr. Muir in foreground)  WhiteMariposaTulie(Calorchortus albus)

I also took a keen interest in Muir’s style of writing because it is unlike anyone else’s when it comes to describing nature. Muir does not care to describe his interaction with nature, nor does he take the time to explain what he learns from his surroundings. Instead Muir lets the environment speak for itself. The language Muir gives nature is the language of description. Muir gives the smallest of details–the pores of a plant, the shadow a rock creates, the sound of the stream rushing by, the height of the trees—to depict to the reader what it truly means to find beauty in everything. It is the manner of the description and his constant gratefulness that allows for a relationship to form between the reader and what Muir is describing.

Muir does not only have an avid passion and gratitude towards nature, but he is also a devoted scientist. The curiosity of a scientist parallels his harmony and unity with nature, evidently seen when he writes, “One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of nature, – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.” Muir molds science and nature so effortlessly it is difficult to note where one of his passions ends and the other begins. I found this to be incredibly interesting, since it is not common for many scientists to think of nature in that manner.


My First Summer in the Sierra impacted me in a way that made me take a step back and realize that I was not living with nature, but rather I was merely living in it.  I took for granted the sound of a bird’s song, never thinking about what it would be like if I woke up and day and didn’t hear nature outside. I took for granted the opened acorns, not realizing that it did not matter if I stand still or move, life still goes on around me. It was this realization that led me to see that I should slow down and take my surroundings in. I must sometimes stop and admire the creations around me. I must also stop and realize how small I am compared to a tree, and how much I take for granted. Muir also taught me that I cannot understand nature’s beauty until I can fully appreciate its splendor.

Ana Navarrete is a senior Environment and the Humanities student who plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015, with the aim of  pursuing a career in environmental law.  She is a member of Texas Tech’s Honors College from Houston, Texas.

Plates from My First Summer in the Sierra: Liberty Cap, with Vernal and Nevada Falls; Magnificent Silver Firs (Mr. Muir in foreground); White Mariposa Tulip (Calorchortus albus).

My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir.  Boston: Houghthon Mifflin, 1911.  This book can be read in the Holden Reading Room of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University.  A digital copy of this book, and others by John Muir, is available in the SWC/SCL’s digital collection ( in the Natural History and Science Collection.

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Among Giants: Interning at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

I am lucky enough to be one of the first Texas Tech University undergraduate students to present an essay at the Sowell Collection Conference.  Presenting at the conference entailed researching, editing multiple drafts, and practicing the essay over and over.  Our essays were about a writer whose manuscripts are housed in the James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World.  It was such a nerve-racking experience, knowing that I would be giving an essay about a book whose author was sitting right in front of me.

Prof. Kurt Caswell and students researching in the Holden Reading Room

I prepared for the conference for an entire semester.  It was a class that turned into something so much bigger than in-class lessons.  It became an experience only I and 15 or so other students shared out of the 30,000 students at the university.  It started as an assignment in which we learned about some of the authors in the collection — Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, and David Quammen — looked through their boxes, which contained of drafts of their works, photographs, journals, and other personal items and picked something that interested us.

Some boxes from the Bill McKibben collection before they were processed and ready for researchers.

Some boxes from the Bill McKibben collection before they were processed and ready for researchers.

The next step was writing an essay, and we had complete writing freedom.  We could choose what to write, the only guideline was that the essay must adhere to something or someone in the collection.  It was a daunting task, looking through a plethora of boxes to find one thing that interested me.  I thought it would be impossible.

It turned out to be one of the most exciting and fulfilling things that I have done in all my classes.  I wrote my essay over Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven.  In it she describes how the Inuit people of Greenland interact with others — family, friends, significant others — and how the cold is the driving force behind their way of interacting. I focused on the Inuit people’s relationships and how they differ from Western culture’s relationships. I read my essay in front of the authors Barry Lopez, John Lane, and David Quammen, whom I had come to admire and respect. They made up part of the audience and were listening to my words, not because they had to, but rather because they cared about what I had to say. It was really empowering, and a feeling that I have strived to get again since then.

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

This feeling was the reason I was so excited to work at the Sowell Collection again and why I wanted to put together some type of collection that would have all of the past conference papers from past undergraduate presenters. It was important to me that people who would visit the collection in the future would know about the conference and its presenters for years to come. The feeling presenting at the Sowell Conference gives a student matters, the conference matters and a record of it must be made.

Student panel at the Sowell Collection Conference 2013

Student panel at the Sowell Collection Conference 2013

I began to intern in the collection in the fall semester of 2014. I took a tour of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, which is bigger than I ever imagined, so I could get to know my learning space more intimately. I read books by different authors whose work resides there. I had conversations about the authors’ books as well as about how they affected me. I dove into the collection, but I didn’t expect for it to appeal so much to me.

I will be putting the papers from the former TTU student presenters in order, from the first year and the first presenter, to the present year and last presenter. It will reside in the Sowell Collection, accessible to anyone who wants to know about the conference and read the essays written by the students who were affected by the authors and their writing. The essays will all be in one place, permanently part of the collection, because when we presented the essays during the conferences, we also became writers in the collection.

Ana Navarrete is a senior Environment and the Humanities student who plans to attend law school in the fall of 2015, with the aim of  pursuing a career in environmental law.  She is a member of Texas Tech’s Honors College from Houston, Texas.

The Next Sowell Collection Conference will be held April 16-17-18, 2015, and will feature Susan Brind Morrow, Gary Paul Nabhan, John Lane, and Toni Jensen.


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