His Life Helped: In Memory of Barry Lopez, 1945-2020
By Kurt Caswell
Barry Lopez was forever searching for a way to better understand and articulate why he did what he did.
When I was 12 years old and living on the McKenzie River in Oregon where Barry Lopez made his home for some 50 years, my father, who was then district ranger at Blue River (U.S. Forest Service), gave me a copy of River Notes. He said, “Here, read this. It’s a book written by some guy who lives here on the river.” I did read it because it seemed to be about the McKenzie River, and the McKenzie River was my river. What I found in those pages startled and awakened me, and while I did not have words for it at the time, I began to consider what I might mean in the world, and what I could do to realize it. In reading River Notes, I had stumbled upon a personal, and at that time, private truth: I wanted to be a writer.
Years later, I came to know the writer Debra Gwartney, and she introduced me to her husband, Barry Lopez. A little more than a year after that, I accepted a professorship in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. It was one of the great accidents of my life, because Barry happened to be serving there as the university’s first distinguished visiting scholar.
Barry’s relationship with Texas Tech began sometime in 1998, when a group of forward-thinking people asked after his papers to build an archive of American writers, an archive many now know as the Sowell Collection. In his role, Barry spent a couple of weeks on campus every semester working with students (especially in the Honors College), faculty, and with administrators on various university initiatives. He began this work as an outside voice looking in, and then fast became an inside voice with an outside view, a man the university community trusted for the way he helped us understand what we did not yet know, reminded us of what we had forgotten, and asked us to do better, to be better, and to be better to each other.
Over the last 16 years of Barry’s life, he and I worked together in my classroom each spring and fall semester, and also led students on field experiences to places like Palo Duro Canyon; the killing grounds in Tule Canyon, where the U.S. Army slaughtered some 1,100 Comanche horses in 1874; Adobe Walls, the site of at least two major gun battles pitting U.S. Cavalry and private operators against alliances of Comanche, Kiowa, and plains Apache warriors for control of the southern plains; the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge; and to Medicine Mounds near Quanah, Texas. We worked together to support librarian Diane Warner and the Sowell Collection, and to help her host an annual Sowell Conference. Our relationship grew and deepened over the years as Barry and I shared meals together, slept side-by-side on the ground under Texas stars, and caught evening movies at the theater. During all those years, Barry quietly tutored and supported me as a writer and teacher, and as a friend.
In his public life, Barry Lopez was best known as a writer and traveler. As a writer, we know him as one of the very best American authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in both fiction and nonfiction, with wide international appeal and acclaim. His work centers on the relationship between the physical landscape and human cultures. While many class him as a nature writer, he rejected that term because like so many nature writers, Barry wrote a great deal about humanity. His most recent book is Horizon (2019), a work of autobiography based on a lifetime of astonishing journeys. Reviewers have called it glorious, wise, seductive, honest, sorrowful, unmatched. Among many honors and awards, Barry received the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, one of the highest honors for an American writer.
In conversation with me, and in front of audiences, Barry talked a lot about writing. He instructed me to consider the difference between imposing and proposing. To impose too forcefully is a form of trespass, and a writer who proposes gives the reader room enough to listen. He said a writer might distinguish between a world of surfaces and a world of dimensions. Computer and cellphone screens are part of the world of surfaces, while sandhill cranes rising off an alkaline lake at first light is part of the world of dimensions. A writer’s responsibility, he told me, is to come into a companionable relationship with the reader. A writer holds no authority of their own. It’s the reader who extends authority to a writer. And once a writer establishes a companionable relationship, he can then lead the reader into unfamiliar territory while shielding and protecting them. Once there, the writer must step aside to expose the reader, even urge them forward, and then say: Look at this!
While he always had a ready answer when asked publicly, Barry was forever searching for a way to better understand and articulate why he did what he did. Over lunch one day, Barry and I were talking casually about this and that, when he said, “I have a question for you, Caswell. Why do we write?” I thought that he was testing me, and I conjured a list of reasons: to communicate, to document our time in history, to inform and help, because it feels good, and on and on. Barry gave me a pained look, and said: “Yeah, I don’t know either, and I’ve been asking myself that question for over 40 years.”
As a traveler, Barry’s work took him to more than 70 countries, and he was especially drawn to the planet’s most remote and challenging landscapes: Antarctica and the High Arctic; Australia’s Western Deserts; occupied Palestine; Banda Aceh, Sumatra after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. He lived for such journeys and talked incessantly about them. He once told me that to travel in remote landscapes, you have to go all-in on the experience, and that means accepting whatever risks are at hand: cold, heat, bullets, “a nightmare of injustice,” as he once wrote in a letter. And once you establish some comfort with being unplugged from the world, Barry said, you can go farther and farther.
Barry Lopez died of cancer on Christmas day, 2020. When he first told me he had cancer, he said that he did not want whatever time he had left to be mostly about cancer. He said that cancer was a teacher, that he wanted to live and work, and that when he came to Texas, that’s what we should do.
Even as Barry declined physically, he continued to talk with me about making big trips. We tossed around the idea of making a trip into Alaska together because, he said, “I have to accept that I can’t do it alone anymore.” He told me that as a young man, he had traveled all the Forest Service and logging roads in the mountains around his home on the McKenzie, and he was thinking now that international travel was mostly behind him, he wanted to travel those roads again. Then one morning sitting at my kitchen table at breakfast, sunlight falling onto the wood floor, Barry said, “Cancer is a noose, and it just keeps getting tighter.”
In the spring of 2016, I gave a reading at the Sowell Conference. After I finished, Barry wrapped his arms around me and held me for a long time. He said, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, but it’s okay because you’re still here.” Then he opened a space between us to look me in the eye. “Do you understand what I mean?” he asked. I told him that I did. And what I understand him to have meant is not really about me, but about all of us. After he is gone, it’s up to us to carry on, that we will still be here to hold things together.
The Sowell Collection at Texas Tech houses 130 archival boxes of Barry’s papers. Diane had worked out the details for acquiring Barry’s remaining papers, which he kept in an archive shed next to his home in Oregon. He spoke often about making a road trip to Texas Tech, and driving the boxes down himself. In June 2019, a courier service picked up some 30 boxes for transport, but much more remained.
Then on the night of September 7, 2020, a wildfire started on the McKenzie and burned downriver pushed by high winds, part of a complex of multiple fires devastating much of western Oregon. Barry and Debra evacuated to the city of Eugene. Firefighters saved their home and guest cottage, but the archive shed burned, along with everything in it.
I had always imagined Barry living out his days comfortably at home, writing, walking in his woods, watching spring Chinook come upriver, maybe traveling those roads again. But that future was lost in the fire, and three and a half months later, so was Barry.
In his final months, I was part of a small group of friends who shared information about Barry’s health. If one of us spoke to Barry on the phone, we all got an update. If Barry wrote a text, an email, or a letter to one of us, we all got an update. When the fire came through, one in our company, Jim Warren, arranged for the group to pitch in and buy Barry a new typewriter. He worked on an IBM Selectric III, and there are not too many of those left out there. Jim found one in Florida that had been restored by a man who specializes in IBM typewriters. We wanted to replace something Barry had lost, I think, to tell him we loved him, and to honor something he kept saying to us about his writing life: “I’m not done.”
And something else our small group talked about often is that the quality of Barry’s life in his last years was dependent on his wife Debra. We were all convinced that without Debra, Barry would not have finished writing Horizon, he would not have continued to make trips to Texas and elsewhere, and he would have left us a lot sooner. And it was Debra, along with the extended family, who helped Barry die. His passing was gentle, Debra wrote to a wide circle of friends, and he was surrounded by photographs, music, art, and people who loved him. Barry Lopez lived an extraordinary life, and Debra gave him a beautiful death.
I know that Barry Lopez was not without flaw, that there was a man behind the public figure, that a writer on the page is a curated person—but on the page, Barry is also his authentic self. He believed very deeply that as a writer, as a storyteller, his responsibility was to help all of us to understand who we are, what we mean, and how to take care of each other. He understood his life and work as in service to human communities and human cultures, and to the earth on which we all depend. Barry often said that what he wanted most was to help, and after he was gone, if anyone decided to think or speak or write about his life, he hoped they would conclude that his life helped.
Your life did help, Barry, and like so many people, I will miss you deeply.