Main Horizon


Taking us nearly from pole to pole – from modern megacities to some of the earth’s most remote regions – and across decades of lived experience, Barry Lopez gives us his most far-ranging yet personal work to date, in a book that describes his travels to six regions of the world: from Western Oregon to the High Arctic; from the Galápagos to the Kenyan desert; from Botany Bay in Australia to finally, unforgettably, the ice shelves of Antarctica.

Lopez also probes the long history of humanity's quests and explorations, including the prehistoric peoples who trekked across Skraeling Island in northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered Central Africa, an enlightenment-era Englishman who sailed the Pacific, a Native American emissary who found his way into isolationist Japan, and today's ecotourists in the tropics.

Throughout his journeys – to some of the hottest, coldest, and most desolate places on the globe – and via friendships with scientists, archaeologists, artists and local residents, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world.

Horizon is a revelatory, epic work that voices concern but also hope – a book that makes you see the world differently, and that is the crowning achievement by one of America's great voices.

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About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (1998) Apologia (1998) The Rediscovery of North America (1990) Crossing Open Ground (1988) Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986) Of Wolves and Men (1978)


Outside (2014)

with engravings by Barry Moser Resistance (2004)

with monoprints by Alan Magee Light Action in the Caribbean (2000) Lessons from the Wolverine (1997)

with illustrations by Tom Pohrt Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren (1994) Crow and Weasel (1990)

with illustrations by Tom Pohrt Winter Count (1981) River Notes: The Dance of Herons (1979) Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1978) Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven (1976)


Vintage Lopez (2004)



Copyright © 2019 by Barry Lopez

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Far Corner Books for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Reprinted by permission of Far Corner Books.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Lopez, Barry Holstun, 1945– author.

Title: Horizon / by Barry Lopez.

Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018033323 | ISBN 9780394585826 (hardcover) Subjects: LCSH: Lopez, Barry Holstun, 1945—Travel. | Authors, American—20th century—Biography. | Travel—Social aspects.

Classification: LCC PS3562.O67 H67 2019 | DDC 813/.54 [B] —dc23 LC record available at

Ebook ISBN 9780525656210

Maps and globe illustrations copyright © 2019 by David Lindroth Inc.

Cover photograph by

Cover design by Carol Devine Carson

This page: Remember, by Nicholas Roerich



For Debra

and for

Peter Matson and Robin Desser,

with profound gratitude for the years of support

To travel, above all, is to change one’s skin.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,

in Southern Mail

Site Maps

1 Johan Peninsula Area

2 Alexandra Fjord Lowland

3 Skraeling Island

4 Great Rift Valley

5 Ross Ice Shelf Region

6 Ross Island

7 The Dry Valleys

8 Brunswick Peninsula and the Strait of Magellan



Also by Barry Lopez

Title Page




Site Maps

Remember, by Nicholas Roerich

Author’s Note


Introduction: Looking for a Ship

1. Mamaroneck

2. To Go/To See

3. Remember

4. Talismans

Cape Foulweather

Coast of Oregon

Eastern Shore of the North Pacific Ocean

Western North America

Skraeling Island

Mouth of Alexandra Fjord

East Coast of Ellesmere Island



Puerto Ayora

Isla Santa Cruz

Archipiélago de Colón

Eastern Equatorial Pacific

Jackal Camp

Turkwel River Basin

Western Lake Turkana Uplands

Eastern Equatorial Africa

Port Arthur to Botany Bay

State of Tasmania

Northern Shore of the Southern Ocean

Southeastern Australia

State of New South Wales

Western Shore of the South Pacific

Graves Nunataks to Port Famine Road

Queen Maud Mountains

Central Transantarctic Mountains

Northern Edge of the Polar Plateau


Brunswick Peninsula

Shore of the Strait of Magellan

Southern Chile


Selected Bibliography

Scientific Binomials

Overview Maps


A Note About the Author

Author’s Note

Horizon is an autobiographical reflection on many years of travel and research, in Antarctica and in more than seventy countries. Some of these travels I financed myself, others I sought grants for or received fellowships to fund. I made several trips on assignment for magazines, and with others I was simply invited to come along. The details, and my expressions of gratitude for those who assisted me over the years, are included in the Acknowledgments.

Most of the journeys described here I made in my forties and fifties. I traveled to the Galápagos Islands, however, and to Australia and Antarctica, on several occasions and at different points in my life. The least complicated way to chronicle these experiences, it seemed, was simply to tell the story, not to try to explain any juxtapositions in time. It might help to know, however, that when I traveled to Cape Foulweather in order to encounter the winter storm I was forty-nine; that I was in my early forties and had just published a book about the North American far north, Arctic Dreams, when I flew into the archeological camp on Skraeling Island; and that I was fifty-four when I made the trip to Graves Nunataks in the Transantarctic Mountains.

As Horizon is meant to be an autobiographical work, I should emphasize that there was a long learning curve inherent in all this sojourning. I’ve not tried to be explicit about what was learned (or unlearned) or when, in part because it hasn’t always been clear to me what changes might have occurred. The young man visiting the archeological site on Skraeling Island is the same fellow who at the end of the book encounters a stranger on the road to Port Famine, but also not.


The boy and I are leaning over a steel railing, staring into the sea. The sun is bright, but shade from a roof above us makes it possible to see clearly into the depths, to observe, quivering there, what’s left of the superstructure of a battleship sunk seventy-two years before.

My grandson is nine. I am in my sixty-eighth year.

The memorial terrace on which we are standing, alongside my wife, has been erected above the remains of the USS Arizona, a 608-foot Pennsylvania-class battleship overwhelmed at its moorings on the morning of December 7, 1941, by Japanese dive bombers. It sank in minutes. The flooded hulk, a necropolis ever since, holds the remains of many of the 1,177 sailors and marines killed or drowned on the ship that morning. I’m explaining to the boy that sometimes we do this to each other, harm each other on this scale. He knows about September 11, 2001, but he has not yet heard, I think, of Dresden or the Western Front, perhaps not even of Antietam or Hiroshima. I won’t tell him today about those other hellfire days. He’s too young. It would be inconsiderate—cruel, actually—pointedly to fill him in.

Later that morning the three of us snorkel together on a coral reef. We watch schools of tropical fish bolt, furl, and unfurl before us, colored banners in a breeze. Then we have lunch by a pool at the hotel where we are guests. The boy swims tirelessly in the pool’s glittering aqua-tinted water until his grandmother takes him down to the beach. He runs to jump into the Pacific.

He can’t get enough of swimming.

I watch him for a few minutes, flinging himself into the face of wave after wave. His grandmother, knee-deep in the surf, scrutinizes him without letup. Eventually I sit down in a poolside chair with a glass of iced lemonade and begin to read a book I’ve started, a biography of the American writer John Steinbeck. I glance up once in a while to gaze at sunlight shuddering on the surface of the ocean, or to follow flocks of sparrows as they flee the tables of the hotel’s open-air restaurant, where they’ve been gleaning crumbs. For prolonged uninterrupted minutes I also watch, with a mixture of curiosity and affection, the hotel’s other guests, sunning on lounges around the pool or ambling past, completely at ease. The clement air and the benign nature of the light dispose me toward an accommodation with everything here different from myself. When I breathe, I’m aware of a dense, perfume-like scent—tropical flowers blooming in a nearby hedge. Is it bougainvillea?

The exuberance of my grandson has also enhanced this sense of tranquility I feel.

Most of the guests here are Asian. I recognize in particular the distinctive cast of Japanese and Chinese faces. Strolling through the poolside restaurant in expensive clothes, discreetly signaling a pool attendant for a towel, snapping copies of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser to straighten the pages, they all seem to have the bearing of people familiar with luxury, as I imagine that state.

I return to the biography. In the paragraph I’m reading, the writer is describing a meeting Steinbeck once had at his home in Pacific Grove, California, with the historian of mythology Joseph Campbell. The night before this, Steinbeck, the composer John Cage, Campbell, Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, and a few others had all enjoyed dinner together in the Steinbeck home. Campbell has now come out onto the patio to inform his host that he has fallen in love with Carol. He accuses Steinbeck of treating her shabbily, and says that if he won’t change his ways then he, Campbell, is prepared to ask Carol to marry him and to return with him to New York.

I look up abruptly from the book, recalling that I’d been in summer camp in 1956 with both of Steinbeck’s sons, Thom and John. It had been a memorable encounter for me. I was eleven and I met their father at the same time. I marveled at the burly reification of this person who’d written The Red Pony. (I was introduced to his third wife, Elaine, then, too. She was cool. Dismissive.)

I pick up again where I’ve left off, keen to follow this unanticipated triumvirate—Steinbeck, John Cage, Joseph Campbell.

Pages later, I am feeling the westering sun burning hot on my right cheek. Another tight flock of sparrows hurtles by my head and suddenly I wonder whether I’d done absolutely the wrong thing that morning at Pearl Harbor, before we’d all gone to see the Arizona. I’d walked my grandson through the interior of a World War II American submarine, explaining the architecture, the periscope in the conning tower, the forward torpedo tubes. He had touched the sleek torpedoes gingerly, a lingering caress, his small hands cupping the warheads.

Just then a handsome Japanese woman striding along the pool’s edge makes a graceful, arcing dive into the water. An impulsive act. A scrim of water rises around her like the flair of a flamenco dancer’s skirt. The pool water shatters into translucent gems.

In the beauty of this moment, I suddenly feel the question: What will happen to us?

I stand up, a finger marking my place in the book, and search the breaking surf beyond a hedge of sea grape for my grandson. He waves hysterically at me, smiling from the slope of a wave. Here, Grandpa!

What is going to happen to all of us now, in a time of militant factions, of daily violence?

I want to thank the woman for her exquisite dive. The abandon and grace of her movement.

I want to wish each stranger I see in the chairs and lounges around me, every one of them, an untroubled life. I want everyone here to survive what is coming.


Looking for a Ship



A history, one purporting to depict the life trajectory of the grandfather reading by the pool, could easily begin sixty-five years before that moment in Hawai‘i, in an embayment of Long Island Sound called Mamaroneck Harbor. Here is a stretch of sheltered water, a surface barely roughened that day by a wind blowing westward from the direction of Crane Island. A boy who cannot yet swim wades steadily farther out into the salt water, under the shepherding gaze of his mother. She’s hardly fifty feet away, a dark-haired woman in her middle thirties, her legs tucked beneath her, her belly round with a second child. She’s sitting on a wool blanket, embroidering a needlepoint image of field flowers erect in a vase. It’s 1948. She’s conversing with a friend underneath a large white oak tree on Orienta Point, on the Westchester County coast of New York.1

The boy halts when he reaches water up to his chin. She watches him steadily now. He wants to go farther, to swim out past Turkey Rock, out farther even, out beyond the Scotch Caps, two islets on the distant rim of the sound. Past that lies a horizon of water. A blank page.

He turns for shore, scuttling sideways like a crab in ripples that break over his small shoulders.

A few months later, with the approach of a New England winter and following the birth of his only sibling, the boy moves with his family to a valley in Southern California, an irrigated expanse of farmland. Groves of oranges and walnuts, fields of alfalfa. Peach orchards. The irrigated San Fernando Valley. This Mediterranean plain is bounded to the south by the Santa Monica Mountains, to the north by the snowcapped San Gabriels. A different life for him now. A different geography. An unfamiliar climate. Different races of people.

One day, a couple of years after the family arrives, the father leaves. He returns to his first wife, living in Florida with their son, and the boy and his mother and younger brother begin together another sort of existence. His mother teaches home economics at a junior high school in Northridge and, at night, dressmaking at Pierce Junior College, near Calabasas. Other evenings she works at home, creating couture clothing for her clients. The father writes from Florida. He promises to send money but never does. The three of them, anyway, seem to have all they need. The boy is curious but wary. A suburban crow. He makes friends with other boys in his neighborhood and with his classmates at Our Lady of Grace, a Catholic grade school in Encino. He gets to know a few of his mother’s students, the sons of braceros working in the vegetable fields north and west of their house in Reseda.

He learns to ride a bicycle. He rides and rides, as far north in the valley as Granada Hills and west all the way to Chatsworth.

Their mother takes the boys out into the western Mojave Desert, to the eastern Mojave and the Grand Canyon, and south to the San Diego Zoo and across the border into Mexico.

One afternoon the boy stands on the shore of Topanga Beach, fronting the great Pacific just east of Malibu. He watches comber after comber crash the strand, stepping clear of the waves’ retreating sweeps each time, as his mother has asked. He understands that this foaming storm surf has arrived on the beach from someplace else. Here, temperate air embraces him; an onshore breeze softens the burn of the sun’s rays on his white skin. Its light splinters on bits of quartz in the sand at his feet.

This, too, is new to him, a feeling of being cradled in harmless breezes and caressed by light. Years later, walking alone in faraway places, he will remember and long for this sensation.

A friend of his mother, a man the boy hopes will one day become his father, is accompanying the family that day at Topanga Beach. He tells the boy that far off across the water, farther away even than the storm that makes these waves, is the extremely ancient country of China. The boy has no image of China. The tall, long-fingered, long-legged, soft-spoken man in khaki trousers moves through the boy’s mind with the hesitating grace of a flamingo. The boy imagines that the man knows many things. He works at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and some days takes the boy with him to work. His name is Dara. He points out differences among the plants; he pots with the boy in the greenhouses. He explains how a large flowering plant like a jacaranda grows from a small seed.

The boy’s most favorite trees now are eucalypts, the tall river red gums and blue gums that flank Calvert Street in Reseda where he lives. He likes the royal towering of them; the shedding boles, slick beneath his hands; the fragrance of the hard gumnuts. He carries a few of these buttons in his pockets wherever he goes. He likes the defiant reach of these trees, how they crowd and rake the blue sky, and how the wind chitters in their leaf clusters. He feels safe hiding in their shadows. Dara tells him that around Los Angeles they’re called “skyline trees.” He likes that. Originally from Australia, he says, but they grow all over the world, wherever the right conditions can be found. It’s the same for the frangipani trees and bougainvillea vines growing at the botanic garden. Those two, along with the eucalypts, says Dara, are now found everywhere “in the colonial subtropics.”

The boy can’t picture Australia, but he is transfixed by the idea that some trees are carried off from their first country and then grow happily in other places.

When he lies in bed at night, imagining the future he wants, a strategy he uses to probe the vague precincts of his dreams, the boy envisions the botanic garden and thinks about Dara, how gently Dara’s hands handle plants. By now, though, he has also learned about some things less comforting. More threatening. He circumspectly regards the lives of poisonous black widow spiders living in the garage alongside his house, red hourglasses gleaming on the females’ tummies. When he talks to adults about the rattlesnake that startled him and his friend Thair while they were walking in the Santa Monica Mountains one morning, hunting for alligator lizards, he enjoys the way adults attend closely to his story.

The snake had snapped at them when they teased it. He doesn’t tell his listeners that he and Thair beat it with a stick until it was dead.

One weekend at Zuma Beach the boy is stung by a wounded Portuguese man-of-war, a large jellyfish, foundering in the surf. An ambulance comes to take him, vomiting and shivering, to the hospital.

He trusts the shelter of the towering gum trees and wonders about the power of Portuguese man-of-wars. The two things are now entwined in his mind.

He is ashamed of having killed the snake and of his silence about it.

* * *


MOST EVERY SATURDAY the boy goes with his mother and brother to the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, at Third and Fairfax, driving over from the valley in his mother’s dark green Ford coupe. He loves the shine and heft of the fruit. He has to reach higher than his head in order to feel within the tilted boxes for greengage plums, for kumquats and nectarines. He likes to heft the Belgian endives, to feel the brush of wetted carrot tops across his forehead, to grip a cassava melon in both his hands. They’re like his first pets.

A friend of his mother owns an avocado ranch near Fallbrook. Her husband, a DC-6 pilot who flies every week to Honolulu and on to Tokyo for American Airlines, is not much interested in answering the boy, who wants to know how this actually occurs, Los Angeles to Honolulu, then to Tokyo. The boy has considered that he will one day have a ranch something like the one this couple operates. He’ll raise avocados and perhaps Asian pears, which break as sharply against his teeth as McIntosh apples. This life appeals to him. He’ll truck his produce and buckets of cut flowers—snapdragons, carnations, irises—to the market. He’ll keep bees to pollinate his flowers and fruit trees, possibly offer their honey for sale, along with fresh eggs, asparagus, and pomegranates at a stand by the side of the road, like the fruit and vegetable stands his mother shops at on the drive home from school every day.

Most nights the boy consoles himself as he falls asleep with the certainty of the destination he has chosen. He will operate a tractor, dragging a harrow to break up the clods of dirt left behind after he discs the field where he will grow annuals. He’ll determine exactly how to set out the sprinklers to irrigate the varieties of roses in his gardens. He’ll light smudge pots on cold winter nights to keep the orchards from freezing.

The more he imagines a truck farm, the less anxious he feels about the strange man who has come into his life, a man who is not like Dara.2

* * *


ONE WINTER AFTERNOON the boy follows his mother into the post office at Canoga Park. While she waits in line he studies a fourteen-by-seven-foot mural on the east wall, Palomino Ponies. He’s mesmerized. Years later he will misremember the image when he discovers more work by the same painter, Maynard Dixon. He will think of it, wrongly, as a tableau of American Indian faces in profile, high cheekbones, the burnt sienna and ocher tones of their skin. But there are no Indians in this mural of a California vaquero of the 1840s, racing across a golden grassland behind seven palomino horses. The boy will have conflated the image in the post office with the memory of a better-known painting by Dixon, Earth Knower, and he will have further confused the misremembered image with a childhood recollection of having once encountered Indians on a train platform in Needles, late one ninety-degree summer night in the eastern Mojave. He was eight. He and his brother had boarded an overnight train in Los Angeles with a friend of their mother, bound for the Grand Canyon. The boy had stepped out onto the platform in this small California town on the west bank of the Colorado River after midnight, later than he’d ever been up. He saw a dozen Mohaves milling around, or maybe they were Havasupais from the canyon, waiting for family members to board or disembark. Despite the heat, they’d all pulled shawls forward over their heads or they were peering out from the cowls of trade blankets. He couldn’t decipher the nearly inaudible sounds of the words they spoke.

He never forgets the austerity of this scene. The foreignness of these figures.

In the post office that day, after he takes in the poise of the rider, the fleet jeté of his mount, the muscular exuberance of the palominos, he remarks to his mother that one day he intends to become a painter.

In the moment, perhaps all he really wants is to become a dashing vaquero.

* * *


AND THEN SUDDENLY his mother is married again, to a businessman from New York. California is over. The boy moves with his new family to Manhattan. Louder, taller, faster country than his home ground. A different color to its winter sky. Colder weather, fall leaves turning pale yellow on London planetrees, which he initially confuses with California sycamores. When his stepfather points out “Indians,” dining across from them in a restaurant, he means people from another continent, not this one.

That first summer in New York he’s sent with his brother to Camp St. Regis on Long Island’s South Fork, near East Hampton. There he meets John, a boy he believes is from California. They share a cabin with four other eleven-year-olds. John’s father, the boy learns, has written some books about California, set in the Central Valley, a place much like the San Fernando Valley in the boy’s mind. He’s actually read one of these books, a collection of pieces called The Long Valley. On Parents’ Day, the California author arrives by cabin cruiser to visit his children. He anchors the boat just off the beach where he won’t have to encounter the other parents. He rows a pale green dinghy ashore to fetch his sons. They spend the afternoon together with their parents on the cabin cruiser. After his own parents leave, the boy sits on the beach and watches the boat.

He waits.

The boy who waded in Mamaroneck Harbor and then moved to Southern California, and once thought he wanted to grow avocados or become a painter, now lives in a brownstone in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. In the fall he will enter the seventh grade at a private Jesuit school on East 83rd Street and begin serving Mass as an altar boy at the Church of Our Saviour on East 38th Street, around the corner from his home.

It will take him a while to fit himself to the place.

On that July afternoon at St. Regis he waits, staring at the white vessel. It seems mute to him, with its curtained windows and no one visible on the flying bridge or at the stern. Young John has informed him that his parents have motored over from their home in nearby Sag Harbor, an old whaling town. The boy remembers the name, Sag Harbor. An image of it anchors his growing awareness of the immensity and quietude of whales, and of the enormity and violence of their slaughter.

It bothers the boy, years later, that he cannot pry loose a single memorable detail from the opaqueness of the Steinbeck boat, even after having scrutinized it for an hour. Only the pale green dinghy, hanging crookedly from davits at the stern, stands out. The boat sits almost broadside to him that afternoon on a slowly rising tide. Nothing stirs. He wants to go on reminiscing with John about days in California, but just then, he wants to swim out to the boat and tell the older John that he has read “The Red Pony,” that he thinks it very good. He wants to be a part of the family having a conversation on that boat.

Suddenly the writer, with his large, balding head, is in the stern of the cabin cruiser, lowering the dinghy to bring the boys back to shore. In the diffused light that penetrates a late afternoon fog, the dinghy and its passengers appear wraith-like as they approach. The boy has yet to hear of the River Styx or of Charon, but in the years afterward, it is these images that will rise up in his memory when he recalls the moment.

That evening in their bunks the boy asks John how he thinks his father has been doing here, in New York City, having moved all the way across the country from California to East 72nd Street. He listens closely, hoping to hear what his bunkmate might have gleaned, having himself already made this adjustment. He hopes to make this same change successfully himself, but senses large undefined obstacles. He feels a potential for disappointment in his expectations.

He is unaware that his bunkmate John did not grow up in California.

In the years following, in the silence before sleep comes, the boy sometimes recalls the anonymous cabin cruiser and the afternoon mist obscuring the horizon beyond. He thinks about the California beaches, Zuma and Point Dume on Santa Monica Bay, west of Los Angeles, and about the man his mother decided not to marry, who told him about China, and about jacarandas and eucalypts. He believes there is something he must see one day in China. Or in Japan. Or somewhere far off. This repeated sensation elicits in him a now familiar yearning. Once it came from looking at avocados motionless in his hands, or from hearing the eucalypts on Calvert Street clattering in the wind. Now it comes more often from a desire simply to go away. To find what the skyline has cordoned off.

* * *


THE BOY IN Mamaroneck Harbor is myself, and I am the grandfather speaking with his grandson in Hawai‘i about catastrophe. I have been thinking for a while about the time between those two moments, wondering what transpired in the years in between, during which I saw senseless death and became a witness to the breaking of every commandment I’d learned as a boy, and during which I beheld things so beautiful I couldn’t breathe.

A few scenes like the ones I’ve recounted above, broken off from an early life—Mamaroneck Harbor, Zuma Beach, a railroad platform in Needles—are but one way to embark on a larger story about someone who afterward would go off repeatedly to look at the rest of the world. Only a sketch, then, this, but one I feel makes reasonably good sense. No life, of course, unfolds quite this neatly and comprehensibly around any such rosary of memories. A long life might be understood, however, as a kind of cataract of imperfectly recollected intentions. Some of one’s early intentions fade. Others endure through the inevitable detours of amnesia, betrayal, and loss of belief. Some persist over the years, slightly revised. Unanticipated trauma and other wounds certainly might force the car off the road at any moment, maybe forever, one’s final destination lost. But, too, the unfathomable sublimity of a random moment, like the touch of a beloved’s hand on one’s burning face, might revive the determination to carry on, and, at least for a time, rid one of life’s weight of self-doubt and regret. Or a moment of staggering beauty might reignite the intention one once had to lead a life of great meaning, to live up to one’s own expectations.

My driven life has been one of occasional ecstasy and occasional sorrow, little different, in that, from the lives of many others except perhaps for the compelling desire I’ve had to travel to far-off places, and for what acting on that yearning with such determination has meant for me and for those close to me.

I became, almost unintentionally, an international traveler, though not a true wanderer.3

* * *


MANY YEARS AFTER my adolescence in New York, embarking on this autobiography, I wrote to the manager of the Orienta Apartments in Mamaroneck. I wanted to know something more about where I came from and trusted that the building was still standing and that such a person might exist. I described how, as a three-year-old, I had walked a certain path from the elevator to our apartment on the second floor. Could he or she determine the apartment number, having only this information? The manager wrote back right away, including with his letter a few drawings of the building’s grounds and some photographs. On one of the drawings he’d marked out the small garden plot where, I’d told him, my mother had grown roses, tulips, and irises.

The apartment number, he said, was 2C.


To Go/To See

After the move east to New York in 1956, and after I’d graduated from a prep school on the Upper East Side, I went away to college in the Midwest. The boy who once thought he wanted to operate a truck farm had decided to major instead in aeronautical engineering, a career about which he knew next to nothing. The part of Southern California I’d grown up in, however, had been at that time, right after the end of the Second World War, a burgeoning center for aircraft design, and for the testing and assembly of airplanes. That way of being in the world was in the air I breathed as a child, and the nature of that work had been vividly represented for me by my mother’s first husband, Sidney van Sheck, whom I met for the first time in California, years after they divorced.4

Sidney was a Czech immigrant. He married my mother in Alabama in 1934, I believe, and shortly after they divorced he moved to Southern California. In the 1950s he was living only a few miles from us, in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu with his second wife, Grace. During the financially strained years when my mother was supporting us with several jobs, Sidney was employed as an aeronautical engineer at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City. He was designing satellites then, some of the earliest ones, after several years of work on planes like Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose. He and Grace befriended the three of us in myriad ways. I’m sure he gave Mother money, and he would often invite me to sit quietly on a stool in his home workshop and watch while he fashioned metal and wood parts for the model aircraft he always seemed to be building.

I was attracted to Sidney’s intensity, to his confidence with hand tools, and I was fascinated by the improbability of “aeroplanes,” around which he was so at ease. Also, he drove a very quick-on-its-feet British sports car, an Austin-Healey convertible. A two-seater. When he drove me very fast along the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down, I heard the smooth clicking of the gearbox as he shifted flawlessly in the turns and accelerated out of them, the hood of the car rising slightly each time. A lunging animal. With the wind full in my hair, glancing at his nimble feet double-clutching as he shifted, I felt he was inviting me into the visceral experiences of his world.

Sidney, like Dara, was the image of the father I wanted. He finished a degree in painting in the 1920s at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Later he completed a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before divorcing my mother and moving to California with Grace, he was employed by Bechtel-McCone-Parsons, a construction company with a military aircraft division in Birmingham, Alabama. His work there included refining the wing designs of two bombers, the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Superfortress, and designing the armament system for a fighter plane, the P-38 Lightning. (It was a P-38 that the legendary pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was flying when he disappeared over the Mediterranean in 1944, a fact I would learn much later, after I became enamored with the persona of Saint-Exupéry as it emerged for me, in particular, in Southern Mail and Night Flight.)

During the First World War, Sidney piloted a SPAD S.VII, an early fighter plane, for the French. He was shot down in 1919 over the French Alps (by the Red Baron, Baron von Richthofen, according to my mother). The crash left him with fused cervical vertebrae and other injuries, but he went on flying single-seat aircraft until he crashed again, this time in North Carolina in the 1920s, an accident he also managed to walk away from. After gaining American citizenship, finishing his engineering degree, and securing employment with Bechtel-McCone, Sidney engaged his second passion more fully by teaching art at Auburn University. My mother, a junior at nearby Montevallo College, met him there in 1933 and soon began studying painting with him. They married shortly after she graduated. The following year, Sidney was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in Washington to design what would become the largest WPA mural in the American South, a championing of the dignity of manual labor and a warning about the ruthlessness of corporate exploitation. It covered the legs and extensive lintel of a proscenium arch in the auditorium at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham.5

* * *


IT WAS WITH the unconscious idea of emulating the cosmopolitan artist and engineer Sidney van Sheck, probably, that I entered college believing I had a calling to become an aeronautical engineer. My enthusiasm for airborne flight, for the adventure of it—Mary S. Lovell’s Straight on Till Morning, about Beryl Markham; Markham’s own West with the Night; Amelia Earhart’s life, as reported in newspaper accounts; and magazine stories about Alaska’s bush pilots—had no doubt also canted me in that direction. In the middle of my freshman year, however, awakening from this misapprehension about a career in engineering, I embarked instead on a liberal arts curriculum—literature, philosophy, anthropology, history, theater—and quickly grew more comfortable there.

As I look back, I can see how determined I was as a college freshman to immerse myself in any one of several artistic pursuits. I felt the desire acutely as a fledgling actor, responding to complicated blocking directions from a director. (In theater classes, I marveled at how the emotional underpinning of a play could be made visually apparent by establishing certain patterns in an actor’s movements.) I felt this same affinity with patterns in my initial efforts to write fiction, and with photography, as I began making images of landscapes in the countryside around me in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. I pored over the black-and-white images of Minor White and Harry Callahan, of Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock, struck by their completeness, by the cleanness of the compositions. I hoped to emulate them, and also to embrace the compassion of photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, though I could not imagine intruding on people in order to reveal human suffering the way they did.

I can appreciate now, fifty years on, of course, that several other things were also in play when I decided not to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering. When I was nine, a friend of the family gave me eight tumbler pigeons. I spent hours out of mind with those birds, mesmerized by their arrowing and wheeling across the sky, by the way they deliberately lost aerodynamic lift and fell through the air, tumbling end over end for hundreds of feet, falling as though felled by birdshot, only to swoop out of it acrobatically just before they hit the ground. I remember the way tiny pressure gradients in the atmosphere caused flocks of them to teeter in flight, making transparent air masses visible. Watching them, I felt incredulous, gleeful.

In those same years I also put together dozens of model planes. I suspended them from the ceiling of my bedroom with sewing thread, fighter planes and bombers like the P-38 and the B-24, but, too, “flying boats” like the PBY Catalina, the Martin PBM Mariner, and the Martin M-130. These large planes could reach destinations in the world where no runways had yet been built, by putting down instead on bays and lagoons. When I woke in the night and looked up, these planes were arrayed above me like constellations. They were as alluring as any arrangement of stars I knew.

Some nights I would imagine myself in the cockpit of one of these airplanes, an aircraft without armament, without bombs. I’d roll out over the moonlit San Fernando Valley and head inland over the mountains, bearing off over Mount Whitney and heading south into Mexico. I’d push on through the night like Beryl Markham, just a few thousand feet above the skin of the earth. Coming home over the western Caribbean and then the Gulf of Mexico, I’d see the first rays of the sun in the east, an hour before they crossed the Sierra Nevada and lit up the crowns of eucalyptus trees in the San Fernando Valley.

* * *


THE AESTHETICS OF airborne flight I reveled in collided, in my freshman year, with instruction in the tensile strength of aluminum, with wind tunnel mathematics, and with the empiricisms of aeronautical engineering. I could not locate, either in chemistry or in physics, anything like the tachycardia, the pounding heart, that rose up in me whenever I turned my pigeons out against the tropical blues and cloud banks of a California sky, or saw thirty or forty of them bursting from the crown of a gum tree, triggered by some signal not apparent to me. I could not find anywhere in my coursework in calculus the headlong spirit of Saint-Exupéry, scudding over dune crests in Western Sahara beneath a bejeweled sky. The meaning of Icarus’s defiant and incautious bravado was never addressed in my physics seminar.

As a seventeen-year-old, I longed for direct experience with the world. Most of my impulses, however, were purely metaphorical, without shape or purpose. Like so many immature boys, desperate to achieve some kind of standing, I floundered—inarticulate, selfconscious, and defensive.

* * *


I LEFT THE UNIVERSITY itself regularly during those years to explore landscapes in the upper and lower Midwest, driving a 1951 Buick Roadmaster, my first car, which I kept illegally off campus. I drove hundreds of miles to see whatever might be there in northern Michigan or in trans-Mississippi Iowa. Traveling, I came to understand, assuaged something in me. After graduating from prep school in 1962, I’d spent two months being driven through western Europe in a compact Fiat bus with fifteen of my male classmates and a couple of tutors. We drove eastward from Portugal across Spain and France, over the maritime Alps into Italy, and south as far as Rome, then came back north through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, and West Germany, arriving again in France, in Lorraine, and going on to Paris. We crossed the Channel to Dover from Calais and took a train to London. On our last day in Ireland, I rowed a stretch of the River Shannon in a punt, alone, not wanting this luminous journey—from the art galleries of the Prado in Madrid to the bleakness of the Brenner Pass; from the fields of crosses and Stars of David in cemeteries across Artois and Picardy to the austere Cliffs of Moher in County Clare—ever to be finished.

The stimulation of that journey—the geographies, the art, the food, the conversations with tradespeople—was intoxicating. I wanted this stimulation somehow to frame my way in the world.

* * *


BY THE TIME I was in my early twenties, I’d spent one summer wrangling horses in Wyoming and another in summer stock theater in Helena, Montana. I’d driven across all but one or two of the lower forty-eight. I’d returned to Europe, to England and to my stepfather’s ancestral land in Asturias, in Spain, and I’d published my first stories. I was still deeply uncertain, however, about what to do. Before I married, I visited a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, thinking this might be my life’s destination. It wasn’t. (The monk Thomas Merton was living there at the time. His autobiography and other of his books had been inspirational for me in prep school and college.) In 1968, married now and in possession of a master’s degree, I moved to Oregon to begin work on a second graduate degree, a master of fine arts in creative writing, thinking I would do best to follow a career in teaching. I was quickly disillusioned by the program but matriculated at the University of Oregon for several more semesters, studying folklore, journalism, and Native American culture. By that time, however, life in a university had come to represent, for me, mostly domestic comforts and unconscious detachment from the workaday world. Life in classrooms began to seem intolerably hermetic, an unsafe place in which to remain, I thought, in spite of the intense stimulation that far-ranging, learned conversations there always seemed to provide.

I began to travel more after that, to travel specifically, almost incessantly, throughout the American West. I left behind any lingering aspirations I still had to work in the theater, and after some modest success as a landscape photographer, I put my cameras down as well. I wanted to see and write about landscapes I thought I could have an informing conversation with, and about the compelling otherness of wild animals.

These trips away from home in the early seventies—home by then was the west slope of the Cascade Mountains in western Oregon, a two-story house on a white-water river, where I still live—would eventually encompass traveling with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in Australia and working with a group of Kamba men in Kenya searching for hominid fossils. I would travel up the Orinoco River in Venezuela, through the Queen Maud Mountains in Antarctica, and down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Wuhan. I’d explore the cliff walls at Bamyan in Afghanistan, where two massive Buddhas, a husband and wife, once stood for 1,500 years as genii loci before being destroyed by cultural extremists. I’d travel in northern Japan, the Middle East, and the South Pacific.

Initially I thought of myself on these journeys as a reporter, traveling outward from a more privileged world. I believed—as well as I could grasp the idea back then—that I had an ethical obligation as a writer, in addition to an aesthetic one. It was to experience the world intensely and then to put into words as well as I could what I’d seen. I was aware others could see better than I, and also that other people were not able to travel in the way I had begun to, going away habitually. And whatever a reader might make of what I tried to describe, I already understood that their conclusions might not match my own. I saw myself, then, as a sort of courier, a kind of runner come home from another land after some exchange with it and its denizens, carrying, by way of a story, some incomplete bit of news about how different, how marvelous and incomprehensible, really, life was, out beyond the pale of the village in which I had grown up.

Looking back, I see that this ideal—to imagine myself in service to the reader—had me balanced on the edge of self-delusion. But it was at the time my way of working. It didn’t occur to me that taking life so seriously might cause a loss of perspective. How else, I would ask, could you take it?

* * *


IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN the artist Saul Steinberg who once described himself as a writer who draws. For a while, after I put my cameras down in 1981, I thought of myself, pretentiously, certainly, as an artist who wrote. I was someone alert to visual imagery and drawn to movement through, and to arrangements made within, different volumes of space. I attended to this kind of thing in my written work much as I had done in my early photographs. I juxtaposed, emphasized, and hoped delicately to balance in these written compositions whatever the components happened to be.

Somewhere along this path, writing essays and stories, and many years into my work, I began to sense the ways in which I had changed as a writer over time. I wondered then whether it would be instructive to return to some of the places I’d visited earlier, to see how much could be learned from what would now, obviously, be different circumstances. I believed I’d reported carefully and accurately on what I’d first encountered; but I wanted to experience these places all over again, to go back, for example, to the High Arctic, to return to Galápagos, to make another trip to Antarctica. (In fiction, too, I’d developed scenarios set in specific landscapes—the agricultural California of my boyhood, the streets of Manhattan, the temperate rain forest that became my home in 1970, the Jimbocho district of Tokyo, but the imperative here, to revisit, was not so strong.)

I’d missed a lot, I knew, on my first passes through these places. On a second pass, whatever I might take in, I had faith the overall experience would affect me differently. I’d overnight in different spots; the weather would not be the same; and there would be the influence of books I’d read in the interim. And the illuminations and failures of my own life that had come along since would certainly reshape earlier perceptions.

One can never, even by paying the strictest attention at multiple levels, entirely comprehend a single place, no matter how many times one might travel there. This is not only because the place itself is constantly changing but because the deep nature of every place is not transparency. It’s obscurity. I’ve never been drawn to the idea of writing definitively about anything, especially the Heraclitean nature of cultural geographies. In revisiting these places, then, I was more interested in how, in reviewing my previous experience of that location, I might find another truth, one different from the one I first wrote about. I was also interested in how my memory of a place might trigger new emotions, and in how the truth of such emotions might differently inform the facts I had once so carefully gathered. The anthropologist Carl Schuster, speaking about comparing cultural epistemologies, people’s ways of knowing, once wrote, “Nobody has the vaguest notion of what this world is really like; the only thing that can be safely predicted is that it is very different from what anybody supposes.” Schuster was raising an objection to the sometimes condescending positions scientists and academics take in speaking about reality and human fate. He was advocating for the sort of emotional and spiritual relationships all cultures experience in their encounters with their places, and which many of these cultures still enshrine alongside their more empirical, or analytical, responses to those same places, finding those perceptions equally valid in furthering an understanding of what is, finally, beyond understanding.

As the years went on, I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.

* * *


MY INTENTION IN rereading my field notebooks and drafting Horizon was to walk the distance between that moment in 1948, standing in the harbor shallows as a boy amid the sailboats of wealthy residents living at the Orienta, and a winter day in 1994 when I visited, for perhaps the tenth time, Cape Foulweather, a headland on the Pacific coast of Oregon, the locale of Captain James Cook’s first landfall in North America. What does the man who made camp that day on the flank of Cape Foulweather, to wait for a late winter storm, hope to find, recalling some scenes from his boyhood while at the same time trying to imagine Cook’s Resolution there in front of him, approaching on a shoreward tack, the ship having emerged first as a pindot on the horizon and then grown in a few hours into a full-blown three-masted square-rigger, half its sails reefed, rust stains bleeding from its scuppers and staining the black sides of its hull?

On that long-ago morning in March of 1778, the forest-shrouded mountains of Oregon’s Coast Range had loomed dark beneath lowlying clouds. The wind was whipping layers of rain through the rioting air and Cook’s ship, close-hauled a few miles offshore, was plunging and yawing through cross seas. Over the course of several days, the storm would bully the Resolution off miles to the southwest before its crew could bring it about and begin beating northward again. By then the Resolution had been shoved so far offshore the lookouts would miss seeing the mouth of the Columbia River, two days later. That wouldn’t happen—for Europeans—for another fourteen years.

How far had I traveled between a boyhood longing to go and this reflective time on the flanks of the cape, having gone? And having seen so many parts of the world, what had I learned about human menace, human triumph, and human failure? Or about my own failings and fallibility? I tumbled these questions through my fingers regularly on Cape Foulweather, like familiar coinage.

There is no originality in this, of course. We, all of us, look back over our lives, trying to make sense of what happened, to see what enduring threads might be there. My further desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives. At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.

* * *


I SPENT MANY DAYS over a period of about ten years camped on the heights of Cape Foulweather—the name Cook gave it that day, the seventh of March, 1778—absorbing the moods of the Pacific as they changed. From the shoulder of the cape, the ocean’s broad back is a vastness not to be had in a single view, any more than a sidelong view of the beloved’s cheek can carry anything like the full impact of the lover’s straight-on gaze. Could I, I asked myself once, within the protean and stage-like expanse of that sea, imagine, in the same moment of looking, another vastness—a sere sand plain in the Namib Desert in Africa, say, trembling there over the water’s opaque surface and carrying a barely discernible herd of six oryx traveling? Or could I conjure, in that same volume of oceanic space, a boyhood memory—an afternoon in the Mojave Desert, searching for coyotes, disoriented in a vastness of creosote bush—without losing either image, the real one before me or the remembered one? Or, watching a fresh wind raise the hackles of the sea, could I hold simultaneously in my memory a night of breezes easing occasionally through a hotel-room window in Mindanao, soft as a horse’s sigh, and then the screeching, predatory wind that for hours thrashed the tent wall by my head one subzero night in Antarctica?

What had changed for that boy in Mamaroneck Harbor, whose mother, seated in the shade of an oak, looked up regularly from her needlepoint to find him once more in sunlight coruscating on the water?

* * *


WHEN I BEGAN to visit Cape Foulweather in the early nineties, it was for no particular reason beyond my admiration for James Cook. The cape wasn’t far from my home and I loved watching the birds, the fishing boats, the changing weather. The view of the ocean alone, seen from the rise of the cape, high above a rampart of sea cliffs, was often dramatic. Some days the sea was so sidelit, so serene, that for dozens of square miles the water seemed to be a pane of ribboned glass, the light reflecting from its surface so molten the pupil of my eye could not close down tightly enough to produce any texture. On certain summer nights, the air was transparent enough for me to make out detail in the opposite direction, twenty miles to the east, an inland mountain range bathed in lunar light. At the same time, I was able to see off to the north, opposite the arc of the moon’s course, an immeasurable, glittering field of undimmed stars.

I periodically spent a sequence of mostly idle days on the cape, camped each time in the same recovering clearcut. Apprenticeship was what this had turned into. Occasionally, sitting amid young trees in the clearcut, I’d pick up some small thing, a Sitka spruce cone or the translucent wing of a dragonfly, and attempt to sketch it. I failed repeatedly to create with my pencil anything worth a second look; but in that hour of drawing I would gain insight, not only into the shape of the object but into its overall form, its third dimension. I’d grasp the temporality of it, or on occasion, the fractal scaling of its parts, or in some other way be drawn into intimacy with it.

These innocuous palm-sized bits of life were as provoking of thought and emotion for me as the sudden appearance of a mountain lion might have been. I reached for small objects to feel their contours, to get the heft or the texture of them. Or I’d rotate and hold them in such a way as to get sunlight to refract through their crystals, as you might with a feather, or so the sunlight would illuminate deep shadows in a bit of bone.

Embedded in the system of belief that over the years came to replace (or perhaps augment) religion for me is a conviction that the numinous dimension of certain inanimate objects is substantial, as real as their texture or color. This is not, I think, an illusion. One might not be able to “squeeze meaning” from a stone, but a stone, presented with an opportunity, with a certain kind of welcoming stillness, might reveal, easily and naturally, some part of its meaning.

I spent hours on the cape emptying my mind of analysis, suspending its incessant quest for essence, and regularly encountered in doing so William Blake’s enduring metaphor, that the entire world is rendered for us in a single grain of sand.

As I drove again and again up the little-used cape roads to reach the old log landing where I made my camp, I came to feel, incidentally but pertinently, an admiration for the aging vehicle I was always driving. On some steep sections of the narrow roads, I crept along in first gear in four-wheel drive, so as not to gouge the roadbed and so invite erosion. I was able to push through wet snow and deep mud in winter, at spots where heavy equipment, long gone now, had cratered the ground. When large trees fell across the road, I had to cut them into sections and pull them aside with tow chains to get past. And every time I did these things, a question arose about the propriety of doing what I was doing. Shouldn’t I have just allowed this healing land to heal? Was my infatuation with my speculations, my own agenda, more important?

Was there no end to the going and the seeing?



One rainy autumn day in 2009, I went to visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum, a five-story brownstone at 319 West 107th Street in New York City. Roerich was a cultured Russian painter (1874–1947), a set designer for the Moscow Art Theatre, a philosopher with deep, wide-ranging interests in archeology, religion, and language, and also a gifted colorist, an artist who used color in a skillful or distinctive way. He fled Russia for America at the age of forty-six, and after a few years in New York City, left in 1923 to sojourn and paint in the Himalayas, India, and Mongolia. He returned to New York in 1929 with 500-some paintings. He and his wife of many years, Helena, eventually moved to the Kullu Valley, at the foot of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, in northern India, where they pursued their mutual and individual interests in art, religion, music, and science. He died there at the age of seventy-nine.

Many of Roerich’s Himalaya paintings are hanging in the Roerich museum, and I was headed there to see them mostly because I knew so little about him and felt compelled to learn (as had once been the case for me with an American painter that Roerich’s life and work reminds me of, Rockwell Kent). I had seen paintings of his over the years in books and magazines and had sensed there was something in his work that would speak to me if I could see the paintings full size in a museum setting. And there was. It emerged from a vivid, 34×46-inch tempera-on-canvas painting entitled Remember.

The painting stopped me abruptly. Not because it was more impressive than the other paintings hanging nearby, but because it riveted me like a vision. On the far left is a lone male in dark clothes wearing a yellow vest and astride a white horse. He has risen up in his stirrups to look back while the horse waits. A traveler. On the far right of the painting is a large dwelling—the rider’s home, one might assume. Prayer flags flutter on thin poles above these quarters, and two women, one bearing a water jar on her head, stand before the house looking toward the rider, perhaps a wife and daughter. All else is space—the bare ground between the rider and the women and the spectacular, rising blue walls of the Himalaya, a backdrop of vertical land, its jagged peaks white with snow. The painting is about space as much as it is about departure, and few pieces I’ve ever seen say so poignantly how one’s memory is activated by leave-taking. The rider has turned to gaze back at the women and the dwelling. The waiting horse faces in the direction of the rider’s destination. The middle ground of the painting is rendered imprecisely, almost abstractly. The serigraphed foothills suggest the great depth of this particular landscape, which finally towers in the distance.

Whether Roerich intended for us to reflect on how memory fixes upon those elements of home the departing traveler will most keenly, or most emotionally, recall, or whether his title is an admonition to the rider not to forget those he is leaving behind, I don’t know. It’s enough for me to sense, when I look at this image, that I am being brought immediately into the predicament of departure—the desire so strong to head out, yet at the same time feeling a breach opening, the breaking of a bond that can be repaired only by returning.

What experience might be discovered on the far side of that breach to somehow justify the leaving?

When in 1979 I encountered a traditional group of people for the first time on their home ground, at a small Nunamiut Eskimo village called Anaktuvuk Pass, in Alaska’s Brooks Range, I had among my first thoughts an obvious question: Why did I know so little about these people? I didn’t mean knowledge about their material culture or their hunting techniques or the way they were able to survive in the harsh landscape they’d chosen to live in, but about the way they understood the world. What did they find mysterious but still worthy of their full attention? And whatever that was, did they leave it be or did they pursue it analytically? Were the difficulties and paradoxes of leading a just life the same for them as they were for me? Why was it never mentioned in the good schools I attended that such people saw as deeply into the physical world as the Greek philosophers we were asked to read?

Did they possess attitudes and approaches necessary for survival, which my own culture might have unknowingly thrown away with the onset of modernity—or not even considered to begin with? Why weren’t their insights into life’s predicaments a larger part of the growing international discussion about human fate? Why were their metaphors considered less empirical, less sophisticated, by most people in the cultural West?

My anxiety about this gradually created a sense of urgency. Wherever I have traveled since those first days at Anaktuvuk Pass, I’ve wondered, What is going to happen to us? What is our fate if we do not learn to speak with each other over our cultural divides, with an indifferent natural world bearing down on us?

In writing this book, and in recalling the Roerich painting, I had in mind recounting my experience in five separate places, and believed that this journey through recollection would start at Cape Foulweather. As I began work, however, I felt the insistence of three other places, in each one of which I’d felt an identical and peculiar sense of urgency about humanity’s fate.

It was the same sense of urgency that I imagined the rider in the Roerich painting to be feeling.

* * *


IN THE SPRING of 1987 I was traveling down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Wuhan with a delegation of American writers. The ferry stopped late one night at Yueyang, and most of the passengers—several hundred people—disembarked to purchase food and other items at a public market that had remained open to receive the travelers. The route to the market from the riverbank proceeded up a large, brightly lit cement staircase with dozens of steps. I’d noticed another staircase on disembarking, however, hardly lit at all, but which appeared to lead to the same place. I took that route. The newer staircase must have been constructed to replace the crumbling one I began ascending, and down which a stream of foul water was meandering. I’d gone only a short way before I realized I was climbing through a stream of sewage.

About halfway up the hill I paused before a framed opening larger than a doorway in the wall of a building. On the far side, in a room lit with large candles, a group of six or seven naked men were readying themselves for bed. One man was standing upright in a washtub while another poured rinse water over his head from a metal pitcher. Others were smoking cigarettes and mending clothes. It was a humid night and the bodies of all these men—sinewy, lean, hard—glistened in the candlelight. Bunk beds were arranged on the walls in tiers of three, and several men had already retired. Stevedores, I thought. I could hear water splashing in the tub, the trickle of sewage by my shoes, spilling softly down the steps, and the murmur of conversation coming from the room. It was a scene of human laborers at day’s end, but one that originated in another century. The candlelight in the room did not spill far, and the men, I knew, could not see me standing in darkness on the staircase.

At the top of the stairs I entered the night market. Passengers were haggling over root vegetables—turnips, onions, potatoes—and merchants were shouldering their way through with plastic buckets of butchered meat. Others were carrying strings of ulcerated fish from the Yangtze, water in which I had seen all manner of waste floating (and to my astonishment two endangered Yangtze river dolphins). Live monkeys and other small mammals, hedgehogs among them, stared out from the confines of screened metal cages. In one booth, wicker trays of dead crickets and heaps of caterpillars were on display, beneath a kind of clothesline from which dozens of sparrow-like birds hung by their feet. This was more than the atavistic scenes of medieval meat markets that Pieter Aertsen painted in the sixteenth century. It was the future, the years to come, when we would begin killing and consuming every last living thing.

* * *


IN AUGUST 2012, I was serving as a guide and lecturer aboard a Canadian ecotourism vessel in the High Arctic. My habit each day was to get up at five and to take a cup of coffee up to an open deck above the bridge where I could watch birds. I regularly met a couple there who had the same habit, but who were much better birders than I was. The morning I’m thinking about, the ship had turned out of the Parry Channel a few hours before and was heading south into Peel Sound. We were bound for Bellot Strait, a narrow waterway that marks the northernmost shore of the North American mainland. We’d told the passengers that we had a good chance of seeing polar bears there. For some reason it had not yet registered with me how really unusual the scene before me was—entering Peel Sound without an icebreaker escort. In the historical literature of the Arctic, explorers have repeatedly emphasized that Peel Sound is simply not navigable for an unescorted ship, even in summer. It’s always heavily jammed with multiyear ice.

I joined my companions. Neither of them spoke a word of greeting. Nor were they scanning with their binoculars. They were staring blankly into the sound. Three cups of coffee steamed on the small shelf in front of us. I knew this older man and woman had read as much Arctic history as I had, and now I realized what had made them silent. There was not a single ice floe in the waters ahead. Not a scrap of ice. We saw numerous ringed seals and bearded seals swimming there, but the polar bears we’d been certain we’d find hunting those seals were nowhere to be seen. Their hunting platforms were gone.

I thought of the passengers below, who had been asking from the start of our journey in west Greenland whether we were going to see any evidence of global climate change, about which the Greenlandic Eskimos had expressed such consternation.

* * *


IN THE SUMMER of 2007, I was traveling in Afghanistan. I’d gone to Kabul to visit a woman I’d met at a conference in Ubud, Bali, the year before. She was the head of the Red Crescent there and had invited me to stay with her family if I ever came through. One day she took me to her offices at the edge of the city. I visited with some of the people being cared for there, many of them victims of the war. At some point she introduced me to a man about my own age and then returned to her office. He and I continued to walk around the grounds of the compound, talking about the plight of the people there and about his work. We had no particular destination, we were just walking. I assumed we would end up back at his office, where my friend might be waiting for us.

At one point he opened the door to a large building and we entered. Perhaps a corridor here provided a shortcut back to his office. It was quiet in the building’s lofty hallways, which were lit by sunlight from the clerestory windows. As we entered, I saw a woman standing by herself in a broad corridor off to the left. She was wrapped in a bedsheet and leaning against the wall. When she saw us, she began running toward us, the sheet floating behind her like a luffing sail. She was naked, a woman in her fifties, her face one of incomprehension, of both disbelief and wonder. Her mouth worked soundlessly, like a fish out of water. Suddenly she halted. She and I stared at each other without moving. Then she turned and ran back down the corridor.

The man and I walked on. He said those who lived here had been driven mad by the war, mostly women who’d lost children and husbands. Occasionally they manage to get out of their rooms, he said. He seemed to be ashamed and embarrassed, grieved by what we had seen. He hadn’t wanted me to see it.

But I did, and I remember her face to this day.



Over the years I’ve carried home a handful of mementos that signify for me, each one taken from a moment or an event that might have seemed innocuous at the time to someone else looking on. A dozen or so of these sit atop a tall Japanese tansu in my home. I’ve arranged them there to make intuitive sense together, the way you might arrange scenes in a short story. In this matrix they suggest for me some deeper truth about life, one that always lies just beyond my reach.

Over time the mementos on the tansu have come to include a set of four shells of Cardita megastropha, a clam-shaped mollusk with no popular name I am aware of in English (in Spanish it’s referred to as concha corazón). The shell is commonly found in cool inshore waters in the eastern South Pacific. The surface of each shell is ribbed, a radiating pattern that suggests the structure of a folding fan. Each is different in size (meaning it differs in age from the others), and each carries a different version of a predominant graphic design, one composed of medium-brown chevrons. The saturation of the hues and the spacing of the chevrons in the design vary from shell to shell, a phenomenon systematists call phenotypic variation. Cardita megastropha makes its unheralded way in the world by constantly evolving in response to physical and chemical changes in its intertidal saltwater environment. The distinctive nature of each shell is a reminder of the astonishing and unpredictable range of individual expression within a species—the many “phenotypic expressions of a genotype,” as an evolutionary biologist might put it. Within any given set of animals that at first glance might all appear to be identical—a herd of grazing impala, a school of mackerel, a flock of doves—are numerous individuals, each with a different history, a different potential. To assume otherwise would be to foreclose on evolution, and to limit one’s appreciation of the moment in which aggregations like these are seen.

One morning in April 1987, at an archeological site in Xi’an, in Shaanxi Province, China, I stared through my binoculars into a series of parallel archeological trenches. Arrayed in these excavations, in strictly ordered military ranks, were hundreds of terra-cotta foot soldiers, preceded and followed by dozens of terra-cotta cavalry horses and chariot horses. All these figures, discovered by well diggers in 1974, were slightly larger than life size. Studying each human face, one by one, I saw that no two were exactly alike. The same was true for the horses. The presence of such slight variations suggested to me something about the place of tolerance within the otherwise rigid social organization of contemporary Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s palace guard, in Qin Dynasty China (221–206 BCE). Also, perhaps, that the Chinese of this early period already recognized that diversity is an ineluctable component of every successful attempt to establish order.

This lesson is reiterated for me in the four Cardita shells resting on the tansu.

* * *


ALONGSIDE THE SHELLS on the tansu’s polished paulownia wood top lies a thin sheet of greenschist, a volcanic rock about the size and shape of a thin slice of bread cut from the middle of a baguette. Over a long period of exposure, the rock has weathered to a red-orange hue, its surface brindled with streaks of black from iron deposits. I picked it up one day in a dry watercourse in the Jack Hills of Western Australia, an isolated section of semiarid country with no permanent roads. I had carried a hand-drawn map with me that day as I searched for a site where geologists had recently located the oldest intact geological objects on the planet, minute zircon crystals embedded in a chert-pebble conglomerate, a coarse-grained type of sedimentary rock. Some of the crystals, formed shortly after the planet solidified into a sphere, are 4.27 billion years old.

The reason I’d traveled to that part of the Jack Hills was to see these zircon crystals undisturbed in their native place. What did the landscape around them have to say? I wanted to know what its colors were and what forbs, species of grasses, and trees were nearby. How did the soil here respond beneath the press of my foot? Which birds were flying through? In which trees might they alight, and what tones comprised their calls? Any of these things might clarify the nature of the zircon crystals in a way different from the articles I had read in Nature and Special Publication/Geological Society of Australia, which had first tripped my desire to search them out. To have walked away with a piece of the conglomerate containing the zircon crystals would have been unethical, a betrayal of a place deliberately left vague in the scientific journals; and a betrayal, too, of the geologist who’d drawn the map that showed me how to get there. Instead, I took this piece of greenschist, fragments of which lay all around, a common piece of the strata of rock that underlies the zircon-bearing conglomerate.

A date of 4.27 billion years for the crystals places them in the early Archeozoic period of the Precambrian era, more than four billion years before the emergence of the first dinosaurs.

* * *


ALONGSIDE THE PIECE of greenschist are two eucalypt buttons. I picked them up from the ground at the top of what some refer to as “the suicide cliff” at Point Puer, in southeastern Tasmania. Early in the nineteenth century a few buildings were erected here to provide housing for adolescent male prisoners incarcerated at a British transport prison called Port Arthur. Building the dormitories was part of a plan the resident commandant developed to protect the boys from sexual predation by adult males living around them in the prison compound.

Like other transport prisons in Australia during the nineteenth century, Port Arthur boarded the psychopathic and the deranged indiscriminately with the innocent and the unlucky, and jailers made little effort to keep the former from preying on the latter. Some of the Port Arthur boys, it is said, desperate to escape the daily rounds of sexual abuse and physical punishment, came to these cliffs at night, held hands, and jumped, falling more than a hundred feet into the frigid waters of Carnarvon Bay.

Standing there that day at the crest of the cliffs, rotating two eucalypt buttons in my hand like a pair of dice, I imagined that the boys were driven to this fatal act by the certain knowledge that they were trapped in circumstances beyond their control, and that they would be snared like this, caught in some pedophile’s net, for years to come. The emotions on which they chose to act were emotions I once knew and which I can readily recall. But I was not entangled as a boy as hopelessly, as fatally, as they were.

* * *


NEXT TO the eucalypt buttons sits a small water-polished stone, a dark piece of basalt. I found it on a pocket beach among thousands of nearly identical rocks at Cape Horn, on a chilly, fog-drenched, austral summer morning in January 2002. I took three of these stones, each about the size and shape of a Brazil nut. One I sent to my younger brother, living on the coast of Maine, who had an affinity for the sea; the other went to my half brother in Northern California, a retired naval officer who had become a traditional healer.

The full nature of the stone that I kept for myself is not immediately apparent. Beneath the black patina on its surface is a dark gray, fine-grained volcanic rock called andesite, named for a chain of mountains, the Andes, which, as the Darwin Cordillera, plunges into the Southern Ocean at the tip of South America. The black coating, an encrustation of iron-manganese oxides, was created by a community of diatoms and other microorganisms, which millions of years before had lived on the surface of the stone.

Perhaps, over time, my brothers lost track of their companion stones, but the one I keep recalls these two men for me, and the thousands of sailors I’d read about who lost their lives trying to double that cape in sailing ships.

* * *


ON THE OTHER SIDE of the cinnamon-colored greenschist is a spent 7.62mm NATO cartridge casing I retrieved on the grounds of a cemetery at a decommissioned Norwegian whaling station called Grytviken, on the island of South Georgia. South Georgia is one of several large, sub-Antarctic islands in the Southern Ocean that James Cook claimed for England during his second around-the-world voyage, in 1772–75. South Georgia, along with the South Sandwich Islands, both former Falkland Islands Dependencies, are today British Overseas Territories. Great Britain’s claim to the Falklands is founded on an opinion most historians share, that the English navigator John Davis was the first European to see these islands, in 1592. At various times Spain, France, Chile, and Argentina have also claimed them. When Argentina, off whose coast the Falklands lie, decided to press its own claim by occupying them in 1982, Britain responded with military force, swiftly ending the so-called Malvinas, or Falkland Islands, War. And the occupying British troops stationed on South Georgia went home.

I picked the empty brass casing up a few paces from the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, on the shore of a harbor that once served this now-long-abandoned whale processing site and Southern Ocean entrepôt. Dozens of 7.62mm casings gleamed around me that day in the pale sunlight. They were scattered like grain across a graveyard of explorers and whaling men, and they shone like spilled bits of mica along footpaths that wound through the partially collapsed, bullet-riddled structures of the whaling station. The casings told a provocative story, for me, about pro patria mori emotions, about persistent colonial claims to such remote bits of bleak, virtually unoccupied land in the modern era, and about humanity’s enthusiasm for the violent enforcement of strongly held political beliefs.

The once enormous populations of large whales in the nearby waters—blues, southern rights, seis—have yet to recover from a spree of killing that lasted well into the twentieth century, the expression of another related persistent human desire—to take possession. To put whatever was discovered in a new place to “better use.”

* * *


THESE MEMENTOS OF travel sit apart from one another on the tansu. The generous space I’ve left around each is meant to leave each room for its aura. As I pass them by, year after year, going back and forth to a room where I work, each object remains piquant for me, eloquent in its silence. The staggering diversity of life, the stony flesh of the ancient planet, the lethal violence of human behavior, the growing inutility of war in the modern era.

I glance at them because I know I am prone to forget.

* * *


I’VE CLEARED SMALL SPACES around our house for other talismans. I engage with these, too, as if they were votive candles I’d lit. Here are bits of volcanic scoria and water-tumbled seashell from Point Venus in French Polynesia, the spot on Tahiti’s northern shore where Cook tried, successfully, to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, in 1769. Beside these, a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite, its sheer surfaces intersecting as neatly as the sides of a pyramid. A ventifact, a thing made by the wind, brought home from the Wright Valley in Antarctica’s southern Victoria Land.

Two other objects hold a particular place in this olla podrida. I keep one by my bedside, wherever that happens to be, and the other on my writing desk. Next to my bed is a sand-cast silver harpoon tip, a stylized replica of a toggling implement that Eskimo hunters have used for centuries to secure and retrieve seals. A gift from my wife. To provide food for one’s family, whether it is seal meat or a sack of grain or the flesh of an avocado, is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life. To act here is to face one’s own complicity, to choose to take life in order that one’s own kin might continue to live. When I lie down to sleep far from home, I place this small work of art close by on a folded scarf. It was crafted by a man named Jimmy Naguogugalik, an Inuit artist and hunter from Baker Lake, in Nunavut, Canada. It reminds me of the centrality of the symbolic in human life, and of both the consequence of providing and of the obligation to provide.

The object on my writing desk is a stark reminder of a connection I feel, though a tenuous one, with a murderous period in Western history. A real de a ocho, an eight-real silver coin, crudely minted in Mexico City sometime between 1630 and 1641, during the reign of Philip IV of Spain. It comes from a large cargo of bullion and coinage carried by the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción when it set sail from Veracruz, Mexico, on July 23, 1641. Later that summer, probably after making a port call at Havana, the galleon encountered a hurricane and was dismasted, somewhere south of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the western Atlantic. The crew, it is thought, were trying to reach the harbor at San Juan, Puerto Rico, when their ship, heavily laden with gold and silver ingots and with bags of silver coins, ran aground on Abrojos Reef, about eighty miles northeast of Cabo Isabela, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic today). The shipwreck was located during a search in 1687 and a portion of its cargo salvaged. The position of the Nuestra Señora, however, was not accurately fixed at the time and its whereabouts remained unknown for another three hundred years, until November 28, 1978. The coin on my desk comes from this second salvage.

For me, and for some members of my stepfamily, the story behind this coin has a discomfiting personal dimension.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered four brigantines built on Lake Xochimilco for the invasion of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). In 1524, his shipbuilder, Marín (or Martín) López, received a land grant in Pinar del Río, a region of western Cuba, from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V as a reward for his having built the brigantines. Members of the López family took possession of the land in Cuba at the time but continued, for the most part, to occupy and maintain their former lands in northern Spain, in a region of the Iberian peninsula called Asturias. (Asturias is still referred to today by politically conservative Spaniards as “the principality of the kings,” partly because it was the homeland of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the man more widely known as El Cid. Asturias is also the only region of Spain not subjugated historically by “foreigners”—that is to say, by Rome or by the Moors. It’s regarded today as a citadel of Spanish pur sang.)

Pinar del Río eventually became the region of Cuba most preferred by tobacco growers. In the 1850s, after Spain relaxed its onerous export tariffs on tobacco, the López family emerged as one of the three or four most important cigar-manufacturing families in the country. Later my stepfather’s branch of the family, with money from their tobacco interests, purchased a walled estate overlooking the Asturian coastal village of Cudillero. The compound was a “casa del Indio,” an estate built on wealth from the New World.

According to my stepfather, male members of his branch of the López family are best viewed historically as hidalgos, as “near royalty.” In 1900 my stepfather’s father, Don Eugénio López Tréllez y Albierne de Asturias y Vivar, was appointed the Spanish first secretary to the Court of St. James’s by Alfonso XIII. In 1908, two years after my stepfather was born in Southampton, Hampshire, Don Eugénio resigned his appointment and returned to America. He had departed the States for Asturias at the start of the Spanish-Cuban War (Spanish-American, to most Americans), in 1898. Once back in New York City, he again took up representing the family’s tobacco interests in the United States.

I sought out the silver ocho-real from the Nuestra Señora in 1997 on a visit to Christiansted, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, not so much because of its link to the early activities of my stepfamily in the New World but because I wanted this manifest symbol of unrelenting pathological exploitation around me while I wrote, a thing smaller than, say, a bale of rubber from Prince Leopold’s Congo. It recalls for me the extent of international indifference to catastrophic human suffering, then and now, a worldwide indifference to the fate of human beings that has persisted through numerous slaughters, including in my own lifetime those in Siberia, in Cambodia, in Iran under the Shah, in Liberia under Charles Taylor, and in Chile under Pinochet.6

The temptation for someone like me with this silver coin, someone with an active objection to the mistreatment of indigenous people, is to consider myself apart from the mistreatment, not implicated in these subjugations and exploitations, beginning, say, with the Black Legend of the Spanish conquistadores, and with the English financial investment in, and development of, the Atlantic slave trade. I’d be on secure moral ground absolving myself of direct responsibility in all this, but for me—and for many others, I must think—taking this position would leave unaddressed the ethical responsibility to object. It would be to hear resonating within oneself the shouting of the Mothers of the Disappeared in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, and to turn instead to other things.

Sometimes I’ve been able to rise to these ethical challenges and craft what I hope will be an eloquent objection. Other times, I am ashamed to admit, I step into the next room. I shut the door. Who can change this? I say to myself. The horrors—ethnic cleansing, industrial rapine, political corruption, racist lynching, extrajudicial execution—once identified and then denounced, always return, wearing different clothes but with the same obsessive face of indifference. We denounce those who order it, we condemn the people who carry out the policies, calling them inhumane. But the behavior is fully human.

We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light.

* * *


OF THE TALISMANIC REMINDERS set about in nearly every room of our house over nearly five decades, like pages from a psalter, I want to describe one final piece, an object that still unsettles me because it reminds me when I write to trust the reader to apprehend the injustice in what I try to describe. I do not need always to parse it.

Historians mostly agree that Christopher Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas was at a Bahamian isle called Samana (or Atwood) Cay, located northeast of Acklins Island, about forty miles north of the Plana, or French, Cays. For most of the twentieth century, however, it was generally believed that his first landfall was at San Salvador, eighty miles north-northwest of Samana Cay. (In 1926, the British name for this isle, Watling Island, was changed back to San Salvador, the name Columbus originally gave it on October 12, 1492. Local Lucayan people, according to Columbus, referred to the place as “guanahani.”)

In the spring of 1989—I was forty-four at the time—I traveled to San Salvador with a friend, Tony Beasley. I wanted to dive the island’s reefs and also to see a monument honoring Columbus, erected on the bottom of Fernandez Bay. One very hot afternoon on a walk along the island’s shore, Tony and I found ourselves at Fernandez Bay but unprepared. We had no snorkeling equipment with us. On an impulse I stripped off my clothes and bolted, naked, for the water. (We were alone at siesta time on an otherwise deserted beach, out of public view.) I swam furiously toward the place I anticipated the monument would be, swam until I was so winded I felt in danger of drowning. Anger had suddenly flooded my senses on the beach. Unresolved anger over the behavior of my stepfather’s ancestors, and of the other hidalgos—Pizarro, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Diego Velázquez, Andrés de Tapia—the second-son conquistadores; anger about the loss of so many unchronicled cultures, the consequence of colonial genocide and exploitation; frustration with imperial incursions of all sorts, in nearly every freshly discovered place in the world, over the centuries; fury over licentious behavior forcing its way into the hinterlands of every political empire, perpetrated by people imbued with a sense of divine right as they redesigned societies, burned out spiritual practices, and restructured economies to serve their own ends. At that particular time this was, for me, Shell Oil operating in Nigeria, Rio Tinto mining in Western Australia, the Chinese boot heel crushing Buddhist culture on the Tibetan Plateau. I was furious about the impoverishment and hopelessness of people I’d seen eking out an existence in places like São Paulo, about those separated from their homes and living in refugee camps all over the world and dying in war zones in Angola, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The Japanese use a word, hibakusha, to describe those who physically survived the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but who subsequently lost their minds. These individuals are “explosion-affected people”—uncomprehending, disoriented, catatonic with grief. They’re everywhere now, from the Lakota Indian reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps in Eritrea and South Sudan. They are people capable only of existence, not recovery. For them, the damage has gone too deep.

In that moment that afternoon on San Salvador, all such genocidal horror—in Tenochtitlán, in the American West, in Sarajevo—seemed rooted for me in the same insane and seemingly ineradicable desire: to eliminate strangers and take possession of whatever they had.

I burned up my anger in the long, exhausting swim. Treading water, I could see below me the pale monument to Columbus rising distorted through a lens of clear tropical water. Voiceless. Adamant.

I swam back to shore, standing up when my toes finally touched bottom. Tony was watching from the beach, a hesitating, quizzical look on his face. Some moments passed while I stood in the shallows, catching my breath. As I waded toward the beach I began to speak aloud in disconnected sentences, enunciating the familiar principles of justice, proclaiming sorrow and regret, asking the pardon of every animate thing before me—the trees, the clouds, the broken shells washed up on the beach. Stepping clear of the water, I knelt on the beach and bent forward to rest on my palms, stupefied by the heat, squinting into glare off the sand, startled by my own outburst. Just in front of me, inches away, was a piece of chalk-white sandstone, exactly the shape and precisely the size of a human tongue.

I picked it up.

Tony and I walked together back to Cockburn Town, to our air-conditioned hotel room. He didn’t say anything about what I had declaimed, words I was too selfconscious to try to recall. I lay on my bed wondering if the fury I’d felt had actually been ignited not by history but by the reawakening of my own feelings of impotence.

* * *


TAKEN TOGETHER, the objects I’ve described represent a kind of strategy I’ve used to remain connected to the disorderly world, with its numerous paradoxes and inconsistencies. Further, they point me toward an overriding and fundamental issue—the importance of preserving the human capacity to love. These objects are, too, reminders of my own unconscious presumptions and impositions, according to which I occasionally organize the world I encounter in such a way as to feel safe in it. I read daily about the many threats to human life—chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world, or by people’s attempts to overrun, streamline, or dismiss that world as simply a warehouse for materials, or mere scenery.

It is here, with these attempts to separate the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world that we come face-to-face with a biological reality that halts us in our tracks: nature will be fine without us. Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.

What cataclysm, I often wonder, or better, what act of imagination will it finally require, for us to be able to speak meaningfully with one another about our cultural fate and about our shared biological fate?

As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative. As I’ve encountered other human cultures over time, especially those radically different from my own, each one has seemed to me both deep and difficult to comprehend, not “exotic” or “primitive.” Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as they enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetites.

It is nearly impossible for wise people in any culture to plumb the depths of their own metaphysical assumptions, out of which they have fashioned a world view. It is also difficult to listen closely while some other people’s guiding stories unfold, or to separate successfully the literal from the figurative in those stories, the fact from the metaphor. And yet if we persist in believing that we alone, living in whatever culture we’re from, are right, and that we therefore have no need to listen to anyone else’s stories, stories that we often can’t quite understand and so are unwilling to discuss, we endanger ourselves. If we remain fearful of human diversity, our potential to evolve into the very thing we most fear—to become our own fatal nemesis—only increases.

The desire to know ourselves better, to understand especially the source and the nature of our dread, looms before us now like a specter in a half-lit world, a weird dawn breaking over a scene of carnage: unbreathable air, human diasporas, the Sixth Extinction, ungovernable political mobs.

* * *


IN THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, considering the moral obtuseness of the conquistadores, writes, “In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.” If this colonizing impulse in our heritage is still with us, a need to dominate, must we continue to support it? Must we go on deferring to tyrants, oligarchs, and sociopathic narcissists? The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate Alexis Léger, in his epic poem Anabase, asks where the troubled world is to find its real protectors, warriors so dedicated to protecting the welfare of their communities that they can be depended upon “to watch the rivers for the approach of enemies, even on their wedding nights.”

Where, today, can the voices of such guardians be heard over the raucous din in support of economic growth?

In her poem “Kindness,” the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that to learn the kindness required to ameliorate the cruelty and injustice the real world presents us with,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans…

In which national parliaments and legislatures today can we find deliberations characterized by such a measure of humility? In which congresses might questions of ethical irresponsibility be successfully raised for discussion? In which Western nations does a determination to address the mental, spiritual, and physical health of children override indifference toward their fate? Or are these questions now thought to be anachronistic, questions no longer relevant to our situation?

* * *


IT IS NOT POSSIBLE, of course, to live up to one’s own standard of good behavior every day. Distraction and indifference always offer us a way out of dilemmas otherwise too exhausting or harrowing to face. Still many, in every corner of the world in my experience, press on through such discouragement and defeat, bind up their wounds, and tend to the needs of others, like the Aparajitas of Bangladesh, the “women who never accept defeat.” Most anyone today can imagine the biblical horsemen of the Apocalypse deployed on the horizon, pick out each one and characterize him. Anyone, too, facing this frightening horizon, might opt to turn away, decide instead to become lost in beauty, or choose to remain walled off from the world in electronic distraction, or select catatonic isolation within the fortress of the self. But one can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there to be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working still to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every quarter.

For many years the need for this kind of heroic effort—essentially to learn to cooperate with strangers—has been calling to modern people. I’ve wondered, watching economically powerful nations scrambling in the world’s remote corners for the last large deposits of copper, iron, bauxite, and other ores, or reading about the failure of once-dependable ocean fisheries, or about cynical corporate maneuvering to secure the last large reservoirs of potable water, whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity’s only life raft. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail.

* * *


I LOOK BACK at an unsuspecting boy, a child beside himself with his desire to know the world, to swim out farther than he can see. The boy, I know, will live his life like this, always searching, even though he doesn’t really know what to look for. It will be many years before he understands that this continuous search for meaning is most everyone’s calling. Facing chaos, we’re sometimes prone to insist that we’re only ardently searching for coherence, for a way to fit all the pieces of our life experience together into a meaningful whole, to find a direction in which to continue. Gaining that, we say, we can expect to find relief from some of our pursuing anxieties.

It has long seemed to me that what most of us are looking for is the opportunity to express, without embarrassment or judgment or retaliation, our capacity to love. That means, too, embracing the opportunity to be loved, to ferret out and nurture the reciprocated relationships that unite people, that bring people and their chosen places, both the raw and the built Earth, together into one agreement, without coercion or sentimentality. If someone was to suggest that the evidence for how things can and do go wrong is only evidence of the repeated failure to love, even the boy, I believe, would agree. He would lean into the belief, as he grew older, that the failure to love or to be loved explains most of the mental pain people endure. The failure to love explains the burden of human loneliness, which each person prays or hopes or works hard to be rid of.

The boy who wanted to go and see, and then to return home with a story, came to see that he’d never be able to carry a story forward very far by himself. He believed, though, that others might, those who were able to see, with a different clarity of mind than his own, the things that are now at stake for everyone.

Cape Foulweather

Coast of Oregon

Eastern Shore of the North Pacific Ocean

Western North America

44°47'00" N 124°02'38" W

A light winter rain descends in weak pulses over the ocean, is buffeted across a flattened tide-built beach by a fresh wind, and rolls up into the mountains. A female rain. A swirling mist. Farther north a heavier rain, what the Navajo call a male rain, is falling hard and trundling this way, southward out of the Gulf of Alaska.

I start off searching along the high tide line.

I’d learned about the storm last night, as it was starting to build below the arc of the Aleutian Islands, bringing wind-slanted sleet and fifty-foot seas to the gulf. A few hours ahead of it, trawlers were hauling their nets and battening hatches. The next morning, as it was bearing off farther to the south, I’d put a few things in my truck and driven to the coast, 150 miles through the mountains west of my home. I wanted to be in it, to feel it thrashing Cape Foulweather, to know the punch of it against my back, to inhale the ionized air, infused with the smells of fish and trees.

I’m straddling a serpentine wrack line of kelp fronds just now, which binds together broken bits of razor clamshell, scraps of salt-encrusted, sunburnt plastic, gull feathers, empty water bottles, kelp bladders, and the vacant carapaces of shore crabs. I hope one day to discover a glass float from a Japanese fishing net in these wrack lines, but it won’t be today.

Another hundred yards farther along, ducking down from the humid air accumulating like dew on my face, I retrieve a ball cap. In script across the plastron are the words Calico Enterprises. My mother taught me to recognize calico cloth when I was young, a plain, serviceable cotton the British once exported from India. Before that, I’d assumed the word referred only to the patterned color of a horse or a cat.

I recall her instructing me about the many fabrics she used: worsted wool, chambray, complicated Jacquard weaves like damask and brocade. She spoke of what she called the “hands” of these cloths, the fine, silky feeling of batiste, the stiffness of organdy, the coolness of linen. I saw these textures everywhere in nature later—a la