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Nonfiction in Brief

February 14, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

CROSSING OPEN GROUND by Barry Lopez (Charles Scribner's Sons: $17.95) The mysterious truths hidden in nature--say in a sunset casting shadows on the ripples of a wilderness river--elude description by even the most eloquent nature writers. Words seem lumbering when they try to chase after the ineffable. Barry Lopez, winner of the 1986 American Book Award for "Arctic Dreams," works around this limitation by minimizing straightforward description, showing us unspoiled and vanishing landscapes only after they have been enriched and interpreted by his mind's eye. For Lopez, nature is a religion, a source of orientation and inspiration. By debasing wild landscapes, we stand to lose more than genetic diversity, he writes: "We stand to lose the focus of our ideals. We stand to lose our dignity, our compassion, even our sense of what we call God." In this collection of previously published but substantially revised essays from the last decade, Lopez alternates homages to pristine landscapes with cautionary tales from the past.

Particularly disturbing to him is the time Hernando Cortes set fire to Mexico City, burning fruit orchards, flowers and aviaries, after Montezuma balked at colonization. Cortes' destruction symbolizes "the long-term failure of Western Civilization to recognize the intrinsic worth of the American landscape," Lopez writes, "and its potential value to human societies that have since come to be at odds with the natural world." Lopez' two practical solutions--reprint classic nature books and create a position for a university naturalist in every American college--are unlikely to reach those still at odds with nature. His philosophy for living, however, is sophisticated in its sensitivity, recognizing that science can be "as strong and reliable in its way as the collective wisdom of a hunting people actively involved with the land." For reasons more pragmatic than sentimental, Lopez wants to set our feet back on the vast plains of the American West, the pine barrens of the American forests and the prairies of Texas. "Human beings belong in these landscapes," Lopez writes, "they too are part of Earth's natural history."

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