Barry Lopez, Acclaimed Author Of 'Arctic Dreams,' Dies At 75 Lopez — who won a National Book Award in 1986 for Arctic Dreams — wrote about his travels to far places. But his writings aren't just travelogues, they remind us of how precious life on Earth is.
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Barry Lopez, Acclaimed Author And Traveler Beyond Many Horizons, Dies At 75

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Barry Lopez, Acclaimed Author And Traveler Beyond Many Horizons, Dies At 75

Barry Lopez, Acclaimed Author And Traveler Beyond Many Horizons, Dies At 75

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

National Book Award winner Barry Lopez was famous for chronicling his travels to remote places and the landscapes he found there. But his writings weren't simply accounts of his journeys - they were reminders of how precious life on earth is and our responsibility to care for it. He died after a long battle with prostate cancer just months after a wildfire forced him from his Oregon home. He was 75 years old. NPR's Dave Blanchard has this remembrance.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Barry Lopez spent more than 30 years writing his last book, "Horizon." And you don't spend that much time on a project without going through periods of self-doubt. When I met him at his home last year, he told me when he was feeling defeated by the work, he'd walk along the nearby McKenzie River.

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BARRY LOPEZ: Every time I did, there was a beaver stick in the water at my feet. And they're - of course, they're workers. So I imagine the beaver were saying, what the hell's wrong with you? You get back in there and do your work.

BLANCHARD: Up in his studio, he had a collection of the sticks.

LOPEZ: So little tooth marks.

BLANCHARD: It was a lesson for Lopez.

LOPEZ: Every day I walked in that room, I saw the signs of, don't lose faith in yourself.

BLANCHARD: This was the world of Barry Lopez - a world where beaver could teach you the most valuable lessons.

Lopez was born in New York, but his father moved the family to California when he was a child. He would eventually settle in Oregon, where he gained notice for his writing about the natural world. He won the 1986 National Book Award for his nonfiction work "Arctic Dreams." At the time, he told NPR how he approached the seemingly empty Arctic environment.

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LOPEZ: I made myself pay attention to places where I thought nothing was going on. And then, after a while, the landscape materialized in a fuller way than I had first imagined at first glance.

BLANCHARD: In Lopez's books, a cloudy sky contains grays of pigeon feathers, of slate and pearls. Packs of hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos move like swans milling on a city park pond.

Composer John Luther Adams was a friend and collaborator of Lopez for nearly four decades. He says Lopez is writing serves as a wake-up call.

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: He surveys the beauty of the world and at the same time the cruelty and violence that we humans inflict on the Earth and on one another. And he does it with deep compassion.

BLANCHARD: Lopez experienced that cruelty firsthand. As a child, he was sexually abused by a family friend. He first wrote about it in 2013. He later told NPR the experience made him feel afraid and shameful around other people. The animals he encountered in the California wilderness offered something different.

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LOPEZ: They didn't say, oh, we know what you went through. I felt accepted by the animate world.

BLANCHARD: Lopez would spend his life writing about that world, in particular the damage done to it by climate change. That hit home for Lopez this past September. Much of his property was burned in wildfires that tore through Oregon, partly due to abnormally dry conditions. His wife, Debra Gwartney, says he lost decades of notes and correspondence and much of the forest around the home where Lopez had lived for 50 years.

DEBRA GWARTNEY: He talked a lot about climate change and how it's so easy to think that it's going to happen to other people and not to you. But it happened to us. It happened to him personally. And I think that the fire was just a blow that he just couldn't quite ever get back from.

BLANCHARD: When I spoke to Lopez last year, he said he always sought to find grace in the middle of devastation.

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LOPEZ: It is so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up, to retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that. And I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable.

BLANCHARD: In his last days, his family brought objects from home to him in hospice. Among the items, the beaver sticks from his studio.

Dave Blanchard, NPR News.

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