few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Barry Lopez read from
his book, Crow and Weasel,
that had just been published.
The audience consisted mainly of schoolchildren, one of whom asked
the author what his favorite animal was. Without missing a beat,
Lopez answered, People..
At the time I considered
his answer a little too pat. But looking back now, and considering
the work he has done since that time, I think his answer was at
least sincere and at most revealing.
Barry Lopez is
often considered one of Americas premier nature writers. But
where other authors of that genre focus on the natural world as
their subject, Mr. Lopez more often chooses to examine the place
of human beings within the natural world.
That is certainly
true of his new collection of short fiction, Light Action in
In it, Mr. Lopez explores themes of landscape
and how it shapes character and memory, the debilitating effect
of violence, and the transcendent power of imagination. Whatever
the theme or subject matter of each story, its importance resides
in its relationship to the lives of individuals..
The idea of landscape
and its relation to memory and individual attitudes is a common
one in Mr. Lopezs work. It recurs in various ways in this
collection. In Remembering Orchards, a man recalls his
stepfather and how he had a deep and instinctive understanding of
the filbert orchards he tended. In his youth, the man has no esteem
for his stepfathers wisdom. But as he grows older, he comes
regret the differences between them that were never resolved. He
learns to admire his stepfather not only because he worked with
the land but also because he acquired wisdom from that work.
This idea appears
in a slightly different way in The Mappist. In this
story, a man encounters a book about Bogata, Colombia that is so
perfectly written it captures the soul of that city. The narrator
seeks out the author and finds that he, like the stepfather in Remembering
Orchards, understands the physical world in a very profound
One of the most
revealing illustrations of Mr. Lopezs view of mans place
in the world appears in The Bend in the Souris River.
One day, while on horseback exploring his familys ranch, the
narrator encounters a Native American man, also on horseback. In
describing this encounter, the narrator refers to the four
of us, meaning himself, the other man and the horses on which
they were mounted. Once again, we are presented with the view that
people are not at the center of the landscape. They are merely a
part of it.
Two of the stories
in this collection deal with violence, both as a consequence and
as a force in peoples lives. In The Deaf Girl,
a young woman who has already lost her hearing in an accidental
shooting encounters a young man who has a strange fascination with
her wound. Ultimately, this fascination leads him to shoot her a
second time. In Light Action in the Caribbean, a young
couples vacation to the Caribbean ends horribly with the rape
and murder of both husband and wife.
prose style serves these stories well. His descriptions of violence
are very matter-of-fact, almost reportorial. By avoiding heavily
graphic language, he allows the true horror of these events to present
themselves to the reader.
about the depths of human nature are two stories that revel in the
heights. In Emory Bear Hands Birds, a prison inmate
recalls a day when a flock of birds gathered in the prison yard
and eventually flew away as one. In the end, the prisoners are afforded
a kind of vicarious, and perhaps even real, escape.
of the Rachel
continues the theme of imagination, transcendence
and escape. In this story, a man recovering from a painful divorce
joins a monastery to find order in his life. He begins to build
a model of a nineteenth century sailing vessel called the Rachel.
Little by little, his model comes closer to being a perfect replica
of the ship. In the end, it becomes so perfect that it ceases to
be a mere model.
Barry Lopez once
said that it is possible for a writer to create a character that
knows far more than he or she does. Many of the characters and situations
in these stories are far removed from any experience the author
could have had but their voices ring true nevertheless. As a result,
we are left with stories that can speak to us again and again, always
changing as we change, and always growing deeper and more meaningful
with each reading.