Reflexions: Reading in the Present Tense (Series 2)

The Chanting Goshawk

By Julia Martin 4 May 2021

Horizon by Barry Lopez. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period. What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online?

In this, the second series of Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood continue to invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Julia Martin who considers Horizon by Barry Lopez. In the following two weeks our reviewers will be Jacob Dlamini and Angelo Fick.

***

One moment from Horizon, the final work by Barry Lopez, has kept returning to me since the lockdown. It’s 1987 and Barry, my friend for many years, is travelling through Namibia. Somewhere in the Kgalagadi, then the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, he notices a pale chanting goshawk, a predator whose hunting depends on depth perception, in the top of a dead tree:

The bird had its back to me as I approached. I imagined it gazing intensely at the expanse of savannah grass before it, searching for a creature upon which to swoop. As I drew closer, the bird rotated its head and stared down at me. Its right eye had been torn out of its socket. The hole was rimmed with blood-matted feathers.

It turned back to its survey of the savannah, ignoring me.

Often, when I want to give up, I think of that bird. How many other such severely wounded birds are there in the world, still hunting?

The description is characteristic: precise and unsentimental attention to a specific animal or bird, a nonhuman person whose sentience is unquestioned. This being may be at once both real and metaphoric, and their behaviour is likely to be instructive for our own.

The goshawk, who continues hunting even though the eye has been ripped out, comes to mind when Barry is camped in the Canadian High Arctic. He’s joined an archaeological team on Skraeling Island and they’re investigating a site that was seasonally occupied by a small group of Paleo-Inuit people known today as the Thule. Eight hundred years later, much of their domestic stuff was still lying where they left it, frozen under the collapsed sod roofs of their winter houses: bone implements, stone tools, wood carvings, harpoon tips, scraps of skin clothing.

These remnants of the indomitable Thule who made a human life in the midst of unimaginable darkness and bitter cold remind him of the goshawk. And when he includes the story of this particular Arctic expedition as one of the many journey tales in Horizon, he finds courage in the memory of both. Published just before Covid, and prescient in its witness to a world in crisis, the book ponders what qualities of mind and heart are now required of us to face the environmental and social catastrophe of our present condition.

When I visited Barry and his wife Debra Gwartney for the last time in 2018, the manuscript of Horizon was just complete. Three decades in the making, it was a massive tome of a thing, a printout wrapped in a glossy beaver pelt. Propped up beside the text was a cover design that Barry had imagined from the beginning, a rippling sea of blue that extends into a luminous blue sky. He began work on the book soon after publishing Arctic Dreams, and the travels and meditations that it brings together tracked alongside all his other writing ever since.

It was that interstitial moment between the completion of a big project and its publication, a space of release and quietness before the babble of book tours and reviews. The manuscript lay in a room whose big windows let the forest in: deep ferns and deep moss, deep tall Douglas Firs clothed in Old Man’s Beard, deep silence. From 1970, this place was the home to which Barry would return from the travels of a lifetime of unassuageable wanderlust, a refuge of 36 acres of Oregon forest tracked through by elk and bear and fox and all the others, in which was planted a human house, a cottage for guests, a little outbuilding stacked with the notebooks and accumulated documents of his writing archive, and a lumber shed neatly packed with wood.

Once, years back, he drove me in his truck for hours on a small road through nearby old-growth forest, running the engine so slowly that we could get out and walk to look at the leaves of a particular plant, the movement of an insect, the bark of four-hundred-year-old trees. Now walking had become difficult for him, cancer having spread to his limbs, and when Debra and I took the elk path down to the river, a reach of the McKenzie below the house, he remained at home. It used to be his daily practice to contemplate the river – it’s a kind of animal, you know, he told me – but now his bench at the edge of the water was decaying back into the soil. It was early Fall. The ground was splashed with bright leaves. In California, Oregon, and Washington, the world was on fire as never before. Just a few miles away, tens of thousands of acres of forest were alight, with hundreds of people working the fire lines. At night you could see the red flash of the fire trucks flying past. Climate fires, 2018.

The realisation that one is living in the midst of a local-global emergency of apocalyptic scale pervades Horizon at all levels. It’s a massive and capacious work in which the segue from the hunting goshawk to the Thule to the present moment of our early 21st-century predicament is a typical gesture. The meandering effect of this way of writing makes it difficult to pin down exactly what the book is ‘about’, except perhaps to say that its particular invitation to the reader is to enter a mind keenly attuned to a sense of how things connect, a mind which seems incapable of turning away. If one of the unreturnable gifts of the present moment — this moment of the pandemic, of the so-called Anthropocene — is an insight into interconnectedness, then the narrative is a fierce and unrelenting witness: the suffering and the beauty. All of it, inextricable.

The story of the expedition to Skraeling Island is one of a mesh of journey tales told with an acute awareness of the potentially negative impacts of international travel, and a strong desire to bring something back that will be of value to others. The encyclopedic range of this is impossible to summarise, but… In Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, Barry researches the horror of the conquistadores, is chased by feral dogs, and dives among brilliantly coloured blue-eyed damselfish. At Jackal Camp, in the East African region of the Great Rift Valley, he joins an archaeological dig searching for hominid fossils, ponders the origin of our species, and gets malaria. In Tasmania he visits the 19th-century penal settlement at Port Arthur where boys as young as eight, brought in on the transportation ships and subsequently hounded, beaten, and sexually abused, jumped to their death off the cliffs, holding hands. In Antarctica, he joins a group of scientists looking for meteorites on the Northern edge of the Polar Plateau…

I first read Horizon when it was published in 2019. Returning to it during 2020, Barry’s steady attention to what is precious and pernicious in human culture, his witness to the resilience and fragility of the living planet, the sense the book gives of writing in response to a world on the brink, the intimate reach of its compassion, the hopefulness and curiosity and wonder … all seemed apposite during that deeply strange year. But beneath all that, I think the main reason I came back to its interwoven stories was to do with craft: how to do this thing, to write an extended narrative essay about something you find really difficult, and to keep on doing it.

It was, I knew, a project that demanded everything of him. It had become a lifetime’s habit to put himself physically ‘out there’ in remote and very challenging parts of the planet. Now in recent years, he was less mobile, but still working right at the limit of what felt possible to him as a writer: a vast book of narrative essays about the state of the earth, written in prose that embodies a non-linear sense of interconnectedness, and completed while terminally ill and in pain, with a deep sense of his own inadequacy for the task.

In 2020, this perseverance in the craft became something of an inspiration to me. As other distractions shut down because of Covid, and I no longer had to commute to work, I began making a small space in the day to work on a new book manuscript. The practice was a consolation of sorts, but I tended to work slowly and to feel that I’d taken on more than I could manage. In this context, Barry’s example was supportive, and I kept recalling something he said in a conversation some years before. He spoke then about how… when he felt lost in the midst of a writing project, and reached a point where he felt convinced that maybe this time he wouldn’t get through it… That when he reached that point he now knew that he was in the right place: “if I’m in over my head, that’s where I’m supposed to be.” He didn’t like to talk about a work in progress, and at the time I had only the vaguest sense of what Horizon involved. But I knew it was his main project at the time, and I found this sense of his process in writing the book was somehow very comforting.

We were in touch sporadically over the course of the year, and then in late August he wrote that he was at work on a new collection of essays and hoped to be finished within a few months. “My health is a bit shaky,” he said, “but my attitude about it is the same as it’s always been: onward.” It was, he said, a glorious summer afternoon.

A few days later, the fire came.

In the middle of the night Barry, Debra, and the cat were woken from sleep, and given five minutes to drive out from their home through corridors of burning. When at last they were able to return,  they found the house and cottage miraculously intact – the only home still standing, for miles around. But all of the forest was gone, acres and acres of burnt trees. His truck and the lumber shed were gone. And the entire archive building, fifty years of a writer’s life, had been burnt to ash.

Not long after this devastation, on Christmas day, Barry himself slipped away.

A few months on now, his voice comes back to me from years ago when he was still well and fit. We were sitting under the old trees at the edge of the river, and he said, “I want to make a pattern in a story that allows a person to say, ‘I remember what I forgot about what I meant my life to be. And I’m going to go do that now’.” DM/MC

Julia Martin teaches English and Creative Non-fiction at the University of the Western Cape. She is the author of Writing Home (Cape Town: Carapace, 2002),  A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2008), and The Blackridge House: A Memoir (Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2019). She collaborated with Gary Snyder on the publication of Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places (San Antonio: Trinity  University Press, 2014), a collection of their conversations and letters. She lives in Muizenberg with her family.

Note: The goshawk story is from Horizon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) page 161. The two comments from Barry about his writing are from an unpublished conversation in 2010. 

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