“Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
— Barry Lopez, About This Life
In 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).
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.