What Happens: A Tribute to Barry Lopez

The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called. The door that leads to the cathedral is marked by a hesitancy to speak at all, rather to encourage by example a sharpness of the senses. If one speaks it should only be to say, as well as one can, how wonderfully all this fits together, to indicate what a long, fierce peace can derive from this knowledge.

“Children in the Woods,” from Crossing Open Ground

When you’re out there. Head. Thoughts. Observations. Hidden rocks the size of a golfball take you down, all stone of you. My experience is mine. Yours yours.

Here’s something of mine, what happens during and after, and also before the hunt. Not the hunt, but a hunt, and I’d be surprised if most chukar hunters don’t do this, too: things I’ve read that week or that stuck in my graycraw wash into the footsteps and missteps and breathing and hearing. When you’re climbing you’ve got the goal you can see — the ridge, the outcrop, the abutment, the hawthorn vein — but it’s never a straight line, especially with a pointing dog who, after all, is your partner. You repeat that, sometimes out loud and sometimes not, as if some or even you won’t really believe it. The fact of gravity resented. The failure to lose the weight you promised yourself you’d shed. Math. The sharp pain in the back of your throat. Is it Covid? It can’t be. I’ve been careful. Or have I? During a short rest a sound.

Howling. I hope it’s a wolf. We’ve seen prints nearby in the snow years ago. Suddenly I’m transported back 15 years to a solo elk hunting trip. The two nights I was camped featured nightlong wolfpack serenades. Ecstasy. Prescient or not I’d brought Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men to read. On the second day of the hunt a tall wolf — one of the singers? — and I met at 15 feet on undulating ground. It vanished before my eyes while I marveled. Lopez’s book added to my admiration of these dogs, deepening the irony of living in a state seemingly committed to committing the sins Lopez documents in Of Wolves: extermination without cause. Worse: the science shows wolves improve elk numbers and genepool, but if only the politicians and ranchers would read and think they’d make a place for this predator. But that’s asking too much.

Reading while listening to wolf music

Caught up in this thoughtmemory, I’m a little further up the hill. Peat’s on point. I get over to him. Because they’re in the rocks they spot me miles away and bust wild. I reorient to the climb and return to the thought which now is more like a dream, triggered by another howl. I appreciate Lopez again and think of some of his other work, writing that — in part — led me to Idaho because I wanted to be like him, or at least write a little bit like he did, or at least about the kinds of things he wrote about. River Notes, Arctic Dreams, Crossing Open Ground. I had this romantic idea about the land and trying to fit into it and onto it and let it get through me and through to me. I still do. Without work like his, and others of his ilk (David Quammen, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Edward O. Wilson, Farley Mowat, John McPhee, Robin Kimmerer, Rachel Carson, Diane Ackerman, and Annie Dillard, just to name a few), what happens when I’m outside would be, I’m certain, much different. Worse, I think.

And then, nearing the ridgetop, I remember my favorite piece of Lopez’s, “Children in the Woods.” My mom, an art teacher, tricked my brother and me into competing to become the bird identifying champion of the Back Bay. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why my dad, a poet, built a cabin in the woods of Idaho but it set us free to explore and learn so many names of things in the forest that we didn’t even need to speak them anymore because we’d prefer to pay close attention to what we sensed and think about relationships between those things and us. When I think about it, as I did on this hunt, this, this is really the only peace I have. It’s as good an explanation as I have for why I keep wanting to hunt.

While recovering yesterday from this momentous Christmas Day hunt (momentous in so many ways, not least of which was the wolf howl and what it conjured), Leslie told me Barry Lopez had died. May he rest in fierce peace.

9 Replies to “What Happens: A Tribute to Barry Lopez”

  1. Have you read one of my favorite books…perfect for those of us that love the West…When the Bluebird Sings at the Lemonade Springs by Wallace Stegner? Such a wonderful tribute to the West. The stories are magical. Then again, I’m one who fantasizes about living in the middle of the sagebrush.

  2. I too had a wolf encounter hunting elk, but in Montana. Tracking a bachelor herd while stumbling through the timber, I came out into a small meadow the elk had just vacated. The beds were still warm. As I followed the tracks, large canid footprints merged into the elks’ track. I took a deep breath. I could smell the elk, but wanted to detect the wolf, which I imagined would smell like wet dog. I never found that group of elk again that day, or saw the wolves. But I hoped they had more success than I did.

    Barry dd some good for the critters of the world, and our souls.

  3. I had not heard of Barry’s passing…. sad to hear.
    Thank you for a story of yours- in his honor.
    I spent some time with him in the early 90’s when he was on the new US research icebreaker that was picking me up from a US-Russian drifting ice station in Antarctica.
    I too find my Chuckar chasing time enriched due to his works, and now yours.
    Thank you

  4. Our bookshelves sound pretty similar. I’d echo the comment above about Stegner. I mostly read non-fiction, so would recommend “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” about John Wesley Powell and the water in the West. A read that still resonates was Ellen Meloy’s “The Anthropology of Turquoise.” And Terry Tempest Williams “Refuge.” Finally, as an antidote to this moment in time and our relationship to that dimension, I’m re-reading McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World.” Once again, thanks for another year of thoughtful ramblings about these birds and our pursuit of them.

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