Crossing Open Ground

When Barry Lopez writes about mammals, he writes as a fellow mammal, at one with his material. Never sentimental, he is, nevertheless, a sensitive observer who quickly reveals his delicate bond with nature, his understanding of it, and mankind’s tenuous tie to it. Lopez writes reverently and appreciatively about all that surrounds him.

Because it gives subtle intimations of civilizations, this book is like the Native American artifact, the stone horse, that is the subject of its first essay. In it Lopez tells of finding the ancient remains of a stone horse, three times life size, crafted on the floor of the Mojave by the Quenchan. Tight-chested with excitement, Lopez wonders how old the horse might be, first thinking three hundred years, then four hundred, then more. His mind races to Syrian horses 3,500 years old and to the terra cotta horses stashed in Ch’in Shih Huang’s tomb in 210 B.C. Historical connections flood his consciousness.

Lopez stalks the labyrinthine corridors of history as though they are familiar footpaths on his own land. A mastery of history enables him to make far-reaching associations and to place the subjects of his essays in a perspective that encompasses not merely history but also archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology. Lopez embraces the universe, sees historical totalities no matter how focused upon a single subject are his sights.

One may think that Lopez is writing about whales, seals, rodeos, cowboys, Eskimos, children, places. More significantly, however, he writes about all nature, about humankind as part of a vast natural scheme. “Borders,” more than any of these essays, offers the clue to what the book is about both metaphorically and philosophically.