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Sep 27

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World – A Touching the Earth Book Review by Christine Heming - comment

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Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World

by Barry Lopez

A Touching the Earth Review by Christine Heming

It is a daunting task to attempt a review of anything written by Barry Lopez, unquestionably one of the most brilliant writers of our time. When I read this collection of essays, it was like sitting down with an old friend listening to his stories. There is nothing pretentious about Barry Lopez. He is a true warrior – gentle, attentive, discerning, compassionate, and brave. His stories invite you to come along as a partner on a journey that he is encountering as he goes. Together we learn about the profundity of vast spaces, the perils of navigation in Antarctic waters, the existence of killer walrus, the ecology of high-arctic polar wolves, the Native American slaughter grounds, and the unsettling overwhelm of Auschwitz to name a few of the themes in this entrancing book.

Shambhala Reviewer, Heming

Lopez has traveled the globe seeking remote landscapes and cultures, often unsure of just why he chose to be there. He seeks intimacy with a particular place and he relies heavily on local knowledge. In his words, “…how dangerous it could be to rely on my own way of knowing the world, especially when far from home.” Having lived and spoken with many indigenous people during his sojourns, he has come to understand and rely on their ways of knowing. This means not only paying close attention to what is going on around you, but also being able to suspend mental analysis and the urge to define and summarize and to step away from the familiar compulsion to understand.

In the essay, “The Invitation,” Lopez outlines the lessons he has learned in his attempt to see more deeply into a landscape: to be continuously attentive, “to stifle the urge to stand outside the event,” to be patient, and “to be attentive to what the body knows.” Lopez knows how often our body defers to the dictates of the mind, but the body, he writes, has extraordinary abilities to discern textures, perfumes, tones, and colours in the world outside itself.

These simple techniques of awareness are his way of opening a conversation with an unfamiliar landscape, “Who are you?  I would ask.  How do you say your name?  May I sit down?  Should I go now?” He cautions, “You must, at the very least, establish a truce with realities not your own.” In writing about his intimacy with the MacKenzie river running beside his Oregon home he writes,  “Much of what I know about integrity, constancy, power, and nobility I’ve learned from this river.”

In many of the essays in this book, Lopez acknowledges how fast change is upon us. There are places once remote and cut off from civilization that now welcome adventure-seeking tourists. In the essay titled “On Location” he writes:

Change is coming fast, though, on multiple fronts… To survive what’s headed our way – global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments – to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it’s as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.

The title of this book is found at the end of the essay, “Love in a Time of Terror.”  It is the story of Lopez’s time in an Aboriginal settlement of the Warlpiri people in Australia’s Northern Territory. His goal, as always, was an intimacy with what most people in the West would consider a wasteland. Walking off into what was for him anonymous territory, he sought to divest himself of the familiar categories and hierarchies that might otherwise guide his thoughts and impressions. He wanted to open up to the possibility of loving this place.

Walking out into the landscape of the Warlpiri, with memories of his “incomprehensible privilege” and with the story of nomad lovers who refused to leave their traditional life, illuminated for him a world generated by the failure to love.  In conclusion he writes:

In this trembling moment, with light armor under several flags rolling across Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the back of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the ocean from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?

These pages are full of integrity, insight, compassion, and love. Lopez exemplifies what he sees as a writer’s obligation to society – to make clear our shared humanity and to expose the notion of entitlement, in whatever form it takes, to recognize our failings as real and to help create the circumstances to ensure each life endures less cruelty and less pain.

If you want to have your eyes and your heart opened, this book will do it. It is an intimate journey through the landscape of Barry Lopez. I am reminded of Maezumi Roshi’s instruction to his students, “Be intimate with your life.” Lopez’s book is a fine example of just what that means.

Photo by John Clark

Note:  Barry Lopez died of cancer on December 25, 2020. He was 75 years old. His publications, both fiction and nonfiction, are numerous. In 1986 he won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Arctic Dreams, a treatise on his five years with Inuit people in the Canadian North. Three and a half months before Barry died, a wildfire, driven by high winds and exacerbated by climate change, burned 173,000 acres of forest near Barry’s home. His home and a guest cottage were spared, but an outbuilding containing his personal journals that he had been keeping religiously for 50 years, was destroyed. You can learn more about Barry Lopez and his foundation for art and the environment at: https://barrylopezfoundation.org.

Christine Heming is a writer and educator. She has been a student of the buddhadharma for over 45 years, and a senior teacher and meditation instructor in Shambhala. She lives in Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

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