Explorations in Nature: Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground

In an intimate collection of short stories, Lopez creates narratives that are as rich and thriving with life as the environmental landscapes he is portraying. Featuring 14 previously-released short stories from a variety of publications, Crossing Open Ground explores Lopez’s effortless introspection of and relationship with the environment.

Barry Lopez, one of America’s “premier nature writers,”  has fostered a career in which he examines the relationship between humans and their environments, studying both the ethics and identity that we have fostered with the world around us.

While not as cohesive in its story or the environmental figures within his other works, Crossing Open Ground allows Lopez to piece the relevance of each story into the other – focusing on the beauty and solace of nature, treating it with respect, as an equal, if not greater than the self. However, as he calls into question, when humans interfere with nature – treating it with disrespect, harming animals and the landscape for monetary gain – they cause a pain that echoes throughout both space and time, disrespecting both the planet, our ancestors of the past, and our children of the future.

Lopez, with a keen sense for prose and pragmatic revision, writes as a means of representing human’s relationship with the environmental world – how our actions in nature are both experiences of perception and physical senses:

“I think of two landscapes- one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see-not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology… If you walk up, say, a dry arroyo in the Sonoran Desert you will feel a mounding and rolling of sand and silt beneath your foot that is distinctive. You will anticipate the crumbling of the sedimentary earth in the arroyo bank as your hand reaches out, and in that tangible evidence you will sense the history of water in the region. Perhaps a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush… the smell of the creosote bush….all elements of the land, and what I mean by “the landscape.”

The second landscape I think of is an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. Relationships in the exterior landscape include those that are named and discernible, such as the nitrogen cycle, or a vertical sequence of Ordovician limestone, and others that are uncodified or ineffable, such as winter light falling on a particular kind of granite, or the effect of humidity on the frequency of a blackpoll warbler’s burst of song….the shape and character of these relationships in a person’s thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes in nature- the intricate history of one’s life in the land, even a life in the city, where wind, the chirp of birds, the line of a falling leaf, are known. These thoughts are arranged, further, according to the thread of one’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual development. The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by the land as it is by genes. 

Often, Lopez is humbled by the environment, especially in the story A Reflection on White Geese, commenting on the vast bird populations merging and mating on Tule Lake in Northern California. Other times, he is saddened by the ignorance of man, in such stories as A Presentation of Whales, the account of the 1979 mass beaching of sperm whales on Oregon’s coast, and The Passing Wisdom of Birds, recounting Cortés’ pointless execution of the aviation populations of Tenochtitlan.

In other works, and reminiscent of his past works, Lopez explores the allure and history intertwined within the Grand Canyon and Colorado River – whether the breathtaking views that lay down canyon or the historical force that comes with the natural landscapes and the cultures that once thrived there.

“Occasionally we glimpse the South Rim, four or five thousand feet above. From the rims the canyon seems oceanic; at the surface of the river the feeling is intimate. To someone up there with binoculars we seem utterly remote down here. It is this know dimension if distance and time and the perplexing question posed by the canyon itself- What is consequential? (in one’s life, in the life of human beings, in the life of a planet)- that reverberate constantly, and make the human inclination to judge (another person, another kind of thought) seem so eerie… Two kinds of time pass here: sitting at the edge of a sun-warmed pool watching blue dragonflies and black tadpoles. And the rapids: down the glassy-smooth tongue into a yawing trench, climb a ten-foot wall of standing water and fall into boiling, ferocious hydraulics…”

The theme that Lopez consistently returns to is the humbling, humanizing characteristics that nature possesses. When removed from the city, media, technology, and the simple worries of everyday life, and when you placed deep within the recesses of the natural lands and monuments, personal existence becomes insignificant. Whether caressing your fingertips along the creases of Arches National Park, sitting beneath the giant sequoias of Yosemite, or stepping foot deep into the wilderness of Alaska’s Arctic tundra, you are removed from the machinations of modernized life and return to the natural country.

“I do not know, really, how we will survive without places like the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon to visit. Once in a lifetime, even, is enough. To feel the stripping down, an ebb of the press of conventional time, a radical change of proportion, an unspoken respect for others that elicits keen emotional pleasure, a quick intimate pounding of the heart.

The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to; that comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.”


Each essay has individual strength within its narrative, but these works collectively create a simple message – get outside, explore and respect nature, experience its immensity, and find peace within its solace.


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