As he roams from place to place, Lopez’s lyricism and his questioning are always grounded by his scientist’s precision. We can spend pages with him on our hands and knees in the Antarctic, say, chipping fragments of meteorite from a glacier, or diving beneath the ice to observe nemertean worms. And then, in the next breath, he will digress to Scott’s motivation for his attempt on the South Pole, or to how it feels to be climbing peaks where no one may have trod before. His interdisciplinary approach ranges across zoology, anthropology, archaeology, history and sociology, all of it shot through with anecdote. The effect of this is to immerse the reader completely in a place, yet also remind us that however much one learns, the world will remain always just out of reach, never knowable in its entirety...There could be no more essential guide than Lopez for navigating the time that remains.
Appropriately, encounters with nature assume priority in Lopez’s account. They provide moments of connection which broaden his perspective. He writes that, when swimming, he “turned over to look back up at the fish from below … an experience my body as well as my mind continued to remember. Here, for me, was the edge of the miraculous”. Elsewhere he writes that when we star-gaze, “the galaxies we see … are like tiny fish suspended in a vast ocean of unlit water”. Moments spent staring at the horizon prompt similar reflections on the vastness and interconnectedness of the natural world: we learn that it was standing on the shore of Topanga Beach near Malibu as a boy, observing the crashing Pacific waves, that Lopez had his first experience of being “caressed by light”, a sensation that he will always “remember and long for”. The horizon also, at times, serves as a metaphor for humanity’s future, one in which a definitive ending is not yet in sight. Horizon is not, therefore, without hope. There is still time for us to alter our behaviour.
Lopez packs his pages like the hold of a cargo plane, with everything strapped down, aisles between, and labelled. The argument is sometimes fleeting, and Horizon is a less focused book than [his previous work] Arctic Dreams, but it has a definite design – like that of a garden... The book’s style acts out its therapeutic aim: a battle against despair.
Don’t get me wrong: there are superb essays that reveal the author’s remarkable technical mastery of very diverse subjects, and these are rewarding. More-over, the examples of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin are on hand as historical proxies and inspirations for Lopez’s own quest for global inclusivity. Finally there is, as distraction almost on every page, the sonorous cadence of his prose. But despite such consolations, I could not avoid a nagging sensation of some fundamental incoherence — and the conclusion thatthe whole was somehow less than the sum of its parts.
This far-reaching memoir provides a powerful restorative in a time of environmental crisis. Lopez guides us through varied landscapes, from the Oregon coast and Canadian Arctic to the East African Turkana Uplands and beyond, contemplating the troubled futures of the places we populate and how to manage and mitigate change.
In common with John Steinbeck (whose own excursions into travel writing and natural history included The Log from the Sea of Cortez), Lopez is a serious student of marine biology. Unlike Steinbeck, he doesn’t – on paper, anyway – see much in life to laugh at. (Perhaps understandably: he suffered traumatic sexual abuse as a child, an experience he alludes to in Horizon). However, if this book is often sombre, it’s hopeful too. Lopez reminds himself that, “no matter how steep the spiral of despair might become, beauty without design, without restraint, [is] everywhere”. He celebrates it regularly: in a school of orange-eyed mullet, thousands moving above him “like a single thunderhead” as he snorkels; in a colony of emperor penguins in the Antarctic; in a pod of six dolphins, blooming with bioluminescence.
What this history adds up to is not the predictable (and futile) polemic we might expect from a lesser writer. True, Lopez is a keen and uncompromising critic of the continuing colonialism that plagues the so-called developing world, but he is too nuanced an observer not to present that world as the complex, mysterious and self-renewing system that it undoubtedly is. The planet is not in danger; we are. At the same time, hope may be drawn from the fact that more of us are finally beginning to notice our predicament. That hope, Lopez suggests, is built on a new sensibility that seeks not signs and wonders, not miracles, and not some easy validation of our preconceptions, but a surer appreciation and reverence of the world that we inhabit.
It’s the record of a life spent at the dangerous edge of things, and gives the sense of a man driven by a seemingly unquenchable, although largely unexplained, thirst to explore and record the world’s most rugged and inhospitable corners... He speaks of having “beheld things so beautiful I couldn’t breathe” and yet recognises that these stunning landscapes are passively hostile to him both physically and epistemologically. “One can never,” he writes, “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.” The same might be said of the author of this strangely tight-lipped memoir.
That Horizon is a beautiful book there is no questioning. That it is also apocalyptic should be evident from the earliest pages. But it holds out hope, too. It calls for an urgent moratorium, not on carbon emissions, waste disposals and toxicities of one sort or another, but simply for a moratorium on our greatest pollutant of all: philosophical certainty.
Horizon is magnificent; a contemporary epic, at once pained and urgent, personal and oracular. It is being described as Lopez’s “crowning achievement”, but I prefer to see it less teleologically as a partner to Arctic Dreams, and the late enrichment of an already remarkable body of work... Horizon is long, challenging and symphonic. Its patterns only disclose themselves over the course of a full, slow reading. Rhythms rise and surge across 500 pages; recursions and echoes start to weave. This is a book to which one must learn to listen. If one does, then – to borrow phrases from Lopez – “it arrives as a cantus, tying the faraway place to the thing living deep inside us”.
I can't wait to read this book "of enormous ambition combining memoir, history, travel writing and philosophy" by the revered author of 1986 travel classic Arctic Dreams, often cited as seminal by Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and many others for its environmental concerns. Horizon contains Lopez's recollections of his travels to six regions of the world: from Oregon to the high Arctic, and from the Galpagos to the Kenyan desert and beyond, and the encounters that have shaped his work as he "searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world".