Expand Your Reading List: Barry Lopez


Get to Know Barry Lopez

Henry David Thoreau. 

Rachel Carson. 

Most people with a passing interest in environmental writing would know these names.

To Thoreau we credit the dream of retreating from society to get in touch with ourselves.

To Rachel Carson we grant the awareness that our daily chemical use can have profound effects on the natural world and our own health.

What about Barry Lopez?

Though not as widely known as Thoreau and Carson, Lopez, who died of cancer in 2020, remains a powerhouse among modern nature writers, and yet many people have never heard of him.

Read on for some background on Barry Lopez and a few snippets of his most frequent themes. If you’re intrigued, check out some recommended reads at the bottom.

Science, Culture, and Wanderlust

Frequently, American nature writers focus on loving their homeplace (think Wendell Berry, here) and using it as an entry into nature. 

Or, they trend towards the scientific, intertwining research with personal insight (Rachel Carson is an early notable example).

Lopez was well-versed in science, but he was no dry academic content with lab work; nor was he a thrill seeker chasing adrenaline highs. He was an international traveler whose worked blended themes of adventure, cultural analysis, nature appreciation, and science. This groundbreaking approach caught people’s attention in his widely celebrated book, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986), which received the National Book Award for nonfiction.


His work would continue to take him to extreme environments where he earned the trust of scientific research teams and indigenous peoples. In fact, he was so well-read in scientific disciplines that researchers often accepted him as a colleague and invited him to work “in some of the most remote and challenging landscapes on the planet, including the High Arctic, Antarctica, Sumatra after the 2004 tsunami, Afghanistan, and Australia’s Western Desert.”

Seeking scientific and indigenous perspectives lends his writing a dualistic quality; he was always looking for how one culture could strengthen another. He questioned the limitations of Western science, which so often ignored firsthand indigenous knowledge, and his work frequently urges academic scientists to learn from those who live on, rather than simply study, the land and its inhabitants.

This willingness to understand other cultures made him one of the first white authors to advocate for the inclusion of indigenous voices in environmental discussions. Nowadays, this idea might seem obvious, but for many years, Lopez worked on the fringe and helped to broaden mainstream America’s cultural awareness.

No small feat.

In the way that Rachel Carson made Americans see the dangers of DDT, Barry Lopez made readers see the danger of being locked into one cultural perspective. 

On Why We Need Each Other

While writers like Thoreau popularized the solitary nature wanderer, Lopez focused on the value of community, suggesting that the era of the lone wolf is over and to survive our current climate challenges, we need to learn from our diversity of cultures and to bring all voices to the table.

And believe me: it would have been easy for him to shun the world: Barry Lopez was sexually molested as a child. 

In his final essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, Lopez included some essays that describe this experience and how it marked him. Though he questions his family’s blindness to his abuse, he avoids sinking into anger and resentment. Somehow, Lopez manages to embrace humanity without diminishing the horror that befell him. 

Few writers can believably express this type of generosity, but as we see Lopez grow from his experience, we gain empathy both for abuse victims, and perhaps, for ourselves.

It’s this expansive view that marks much of Lopez’s work. For him, withdrawal into your own trauma is not a viable option. Neither is building a cultural bunker. 

He believed that humans need each other.

In his essay, “On Location,” he ends with the notion that “[w]e will need to trust each other.” Working together will be the only way for humanity to survive our mounting challenges, both those human- and nature-induced.

A New Way of Seeing

Since he spent so much time among indigenous peoples, Lopez realized that our ways of seeing and experiencing the world are culturally embedded, and in his later work, he reflects on his own perceptual limitations.

As he admits in “Invitation,” Lopez realized he could never experience nature without immediately analyzing it, and this habit limited his bodily experience. Indigenous peoples taught him to “remain in a state of suspended mental analysis” as he observed, and also, to pay attention to patterns. These lessons changed his mindset and propelled his art in directions that would have been impossible without cross-cultural experience.

If there’s a theme in Lopez’s work, it’s this: Pay attention. 

The natural world is always sending messages. If we, as a species, want to survive, we must start listening.

Recommended Reading

If you’re intrigued by Barry Lopez and his writing, check out a few of these books:

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning Worldhis final essay collection offers an entry into his thinking.

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscapea fascinating, but lengthy and challenging, read. This was Lopez’s seminal work.

Of Wolves and Men: A classic study of humankind’s relationship with wolves.