As It Happens

Horizon author Barry Lopez describes 'emotional blow' of witnessing melting Canadian Arctic

Horizon is an examination of life on this planet, what it means to be human and what we can do to prevent our own extinction.

Globe-trotting writer searches for meaning and empathy in his travels

Author Barry Lopez spent more than 50 years travelling, observing and writing about the natural world and humanity. His new book Horizons is about what he's learned. (Penguin Random House )

This story was originally published on April 22, 2019.

Read Story Transcript

One of Barry Lopez's earliest memories is of wading into the ocean, right up to his chin. He was three-years-old, and he couldn't swim. But he remembers longing to go further beyond the rocks and the islands all the way to the horizon.

That desire never left Barry Lopez, and he turned it into a career. For more than 50 years, he's explored more than 70 countries and has written about the people, places, thoughts and history he's encountered on his travels.

His new book, Horizon, is an examination of life on this planet, what it means to be human, and with the effects of climate change already upon us, what we can do to prevent our own extinction in our uncertain future.

Lopez joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio to talk about his new book. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

You describe this moment, you're three years old, you're up to your neck in the ocean and there's something about that moment that tells you that you are going to be pursuing that horizon. What is it at that moment, do you think, that connects with you?

I think it's accurate to say that I felt a profound yearning when I was a child to get out of my own given place in the culture to which I was born.

I didn't wake up to it, though, until I'd finished university and I thought, "Well now, wait a minute. I am thinking of myself as a well-educated man in 20th-century America, but clearly I'm not." Why? Because I went to school only with men. And I went to school with people, almost all of whom were white and Christian and raised with a certain set of middle-class values.

So when I graduated from university I thought, "I really need an education."

And so that's what I did. A lot of my motivation for travel was to see the bigger world and understand why I wanted to periodically bury myself in it.

Let's take you to 2012. This is the Canadian Arctic. You've visited many times before and you wrote about it in Arctic Dreams. But here you are in a boat, and you are about to enter Peel Sound.  And you're with a couple, another couple, very early in the morning. You have steaming mugs of coffee and you're about to enter, and you suddenly — with absolutely ice in your veins — realize that there's something seriously wrong here. What did you see?

I wanted to start my day and my imagination right by having my coffee and looking for birds. And this older couple that was there with me that I saw every morning weren't sipping their coffee, and they didn't have their binoculars up. And I thought, "Well, why is that?"

And then I looked.

I thought, "Oh my God, there is no history of going into Peel Sound without an icebreaker escort, because there's no open water here." And all I could see was open water.

Ice is seen in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

You're very aware of the effects of climate change. You are seeing the environment everywhere in the world you're traveling. You know this is happening. And so why was this particular moment so astonishing for you?

It's a difference between being intellectually aware of a condition and then feeling it as an emotional blow. Oh my God, is it ever real, and it's right here in front of me.

I think that's one reason I travel as much as I do. I want to feel it in my body. If you don't travel or regularly look at newspapers from other countries, you can fall into this trap of thinking, "It's going to be OK, we'll be all right."

I don't think any of us can appreciate the scale on which humanity is running away from home, for ecological reasons, for economic reasons, to avoid war. There are millions of people running to some place else to be safe.

And look at the situation — which, of course, [U.S. President Donald] Trump has turned into something of an idiot's joke — but there is plight in Central America, and their people are looking for some place they've been led to believe is going to be safe for them. And not only can they not get there, but they are greeted by xenophobes and racists.

So how are they going to explain that to their children? They can't. So if you get away from the comfort zone, you at least have a chance to see what the bigger thing looks like.

And I think what I was trying to do in Horizon is say things are not really good for humanity in this moment, and then supply the things that allow you to escape the confrontation for long enough to make up your own mind about what you can face and how you're going to take care of your family.

And I think at one point you say that we are "past the point of adapt or die," and now it's become "absolutely imperative that we must co-operate with one another or die." ... And that's the hope you're offering? That's the possibility of getting out of the mess we're in?

Yes, and I say that because too many of us think of the mess that we're in is something that can be solved by industrial science or by elected governments. And now we see that that is not the case and will never be the case. The only way people will survive is by taking care of each other.

And you can say, "Well, Barry that's really naive. You know, the forms of government we have are all we have."

And my answer to that is, no, it is not to turn your back on your own country or your own culture. It's to realize that the indifference of methane gas pouring out of the Tundra now is not interested in nation states and these other things that we look to for survival. It's absolutely indifferent to human survival.

And everything I look at when I travel says, "Take care of those you are with. And if you can, take care of people you've never met."

Written by Sarah Cooper and Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Cooper. For more, listen to the complete interview in the player at the top of this page. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?