Death came four months after Lopez lost home of 50 years to wildfire
Barry Lopez, 75, died on Christmas Day 2020 in Eugene, Oregon, after a years-long battle with prostate cancer.
Sometimes described as a “literary naturalist,” Lopez wrote often about animals, but hardly exclusively, and as often about the animals of Native American myth and legend as about the real animals he spent much of his life observing.
Obituaries for Lopez and posthumously published remembrances of Lopez tended to focus on his writing style, influenced by Latin American “magical realism,” and made frequent mention of his many literary awards.
Influence crossed generations
Most obituarists made transient mention of Lopez’s role as a cultural influence on the late 20th century environmental movement. Some also noted Lopez’s advocacy for wolves and for endangered species, and his longtime concern about global warming.
Few, however, offered specifics as to just how Lopez influenced several generations of activists, from Action for Animals founder Eric Mills, of Oakland, California, who is among the senior voices in animal rights advocacy, to Cheryl Alexander, of Vancouver, British Columbia, known for her documentation of the life and death of the “sea wolf” Takaya just within the past few years.
While Lopez himself appears to have been more a fellow traveler and sympathizer with animal causes than an active participant, choosing the role of story-teller over that of cause leader, nine of his first 10 books centered on animals, and the frequency with which he is quoted indicates the extent to which his insights inspired others.
Spent 30 years writing last book, inspired by beavers
Remembered Dave Blanchard, a producer/editor for the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, “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, Lopez told me that when he was feeling defeated by the work, he’d walk along the nearby McKenzie River.”
Explained Lopez, “Every time I did, there was a beaver stick in the water at my feet. And they’re workers. So I imagined the beaver were saying ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? You get back in there and do your work.’
“Up in his studio, he had a collection of the sticks,” Blanchard continued, “and he showed me how they bore the marks of little teeth. It was a lesson for Lopez.
“Every day I saw the signs of ‘don’t lose faith in yourself,’” he told me.”
Holiday Farm Fire confirmed Lopez’s warnings about climate change
Lopez had a very difficult last several months, not only because of his cancer, but perhaps even more because he and his wife Debra Gwartney lost their home near Finn Rock, Oregon, and most of his personal library, awards, notes and correspondence, to the 175,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire that ravaged the Willamette National Forest in September 2020.
Lopez, who once described his personal philosophy as “Write until your heart is nothing but ashes,” had “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,” Gwartney told Blanchard.
“But it happened to us. It happened to him personally. The fire was a blow he never could recover from,” Gwartney said.
Died with beaver sticks
Observed Lopez, to Blanchard, “It’s 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. I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable.”
Finished Blanchard, “In his last days, Lopez’s family brought objects from his home to him in hospice. Among the items: the beaver sticks from his studio.”
Born Barry Holstun Brennan, in Port Chester, New York, Lopez was the son of Mary Frances Holstun, a dressmaker who later taught home economics, and John “Jack” Brennan, a billboard advertising executive.
The family initially lived in Mamaroneck, including a brother, Dennis, born three years after Barry, relocated to a rural area near Reseda, California in 1948.
Following a divorce in 1950, Lopez later recalled, his mother often took the two boys to explore the nearby countryside, then a patchwork of desert and working small farms.
Mary Holstun remarried in 1955 to Adrian Bernard Lopez, who adopted Barry and his brother. A year after that, when Barry was 11, the family moved back to New York, this time to Manhattan.
Graduating from a Jesuit high school in 1962, Barry Lopez earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Notre Dame in 1966 and 1968, studying English, history, and drama.
Between semesters Lopez worked on a ranch in Wyoming.
By 1966 Lopez was already writing often for publication. He married his first wife, Sandra Landers, in 1967, describing her in 1986 as a “bookwright,” a term which might either indicate a writer or books.
Soon after their marriage, Lopez and Landers moved to the Eugene area, where Lopez began work on a master’s degree in folklore and journalism at the University of Oregon. They settled near Finn Rock in 1970.
“More interested in writing than going to school,” Lopez later recalled to interviewer Jim Aton, he landed steady work as a New York Times stringer and feature writer, 1968-1971, followed by at least 15 years of stringing for the Washington Post.
By then Lopez was also writing for Popular Science.
From there, his career writing for prestigious magazines took off, including bylines and photographs published in Harper’s, Audubon, Science, National Geographic, Outside, The Paris Review, and The North American Review.
Lopez’s first book, Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, appeared in 1976, followed a year later by Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1977), and then by Of Wolves and Men (1978).
Of Wolves and Men built sympathy for wolves, much as the Canadian author Farley Mowat had in Never Cry Wolf (1963) with vivid vignettes, including a description of a wolf who in the winter of 1976 flung herself off a 300-foot mountain ridge to make a getaway through deep snow, after the other nine members of her pack were shot by an airborne hunter.
(See Farley Mowat, 92, author of Never Cry Wolf, A Whale for the Killing, and Sea of Slaughter.)
Lopez next produced River Notes: The Dance of Herons (1979) and Winter Count (1981), before breaking from producing a book a year to spend five years as a field biologist in the Canadian Arctic.
Wrote less about animals in later years
That experience informed his biggest hit, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986).
Lopez wrote less about animals after Arctic Dreams, but later titles included Crow and Weasel (1990), Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren (1994), and Lessons from the Wolverine (1997).
Divorced from Sandra Landers in 1998, Lopez married Debra Gwartney in 2007.
Gwartney, an author herself, is best known for Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love (2010) and I Am A Stranger Here Myself, her 2019 fictionalized biography of missionary and Oregon pioneer Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847).
Gwartney was previously a Portland Oregonian reporter and, for 10 years, a Newsweek correspondent.
Eric Mills, coordinator, ACTION FOR ANIMALS, Oakland says
What a great loss! Without question, Barry Lopez was one of the very finest “nature writers” ever, and a major influence on the thinking of many, myself included. He will be sorely missed My sincere condolences to his wife and family and innumerable friends. R.I.P.
See link below to a selection of Lopez’s writings in ORION MAGAZINE. I would further highly recommend his last book, HORIZON (2019), a truly epic and wonderful work.
P.S. – See especially the Bill Moyers & Barry Lopez 2010 conversation. It’s a gem.
Margaret Anne Cleek says
I enjoyed his books, a very lyrical style of writing.
Eric Mills says
In light of the sad passing of Barry Lopez on Christmas Day, one of our
most eloquent, insightful and caring writers, I thought I might share with
you a copy of a typewritten letter he sent to me last Spring from his
Oregon home. Not only was Lopez a wonderful writer, he was a hugely
decent, gracious (and grateful) human being, and will be sorely missed.
Here’s the letter in its entirety.
Relatedly, I highly recommend to everyone his last book, HORIZON (2019) – a
biographical recollection of his life’s work. You’ll learn a lot.
March 21, 2020
Thank you for your kind words about my work. I’m most appreciative.
And thank you for all you’re doing, and have done, for wild and domestic
These last few months I have been thinking heavily on wild animals, about
the horror of sport and trophy hunting for example, but I haven’t found
the right words I need to lay it out in an essay. Some days I see the
coronavirus pandemic in the United States as a catalyst, dismantling
society. The chasm between those who are empathetic and those incapable
of empathy grows wider every day and the elements of cruelty in the
federal government’s management of the epidemic are apparent to everyone
who is watching.
Thank you for your stance about rodeo and thank you for bringing the
issues of cruelty and mistreatment front and center. Many times I have
thought that one reason I continue to write is out of respect for people
like you, without whom civilization would truly fall apart.
Thanks for your letter.
My very best,
Kate Joost says
I worked with Barry for several years as his personal assistant, primarily setting up his archive. It was the archive and a couple of other outbuildings that were destroyed. You will be happy to know that the house and guest house survived, thanks to the exceptional response of his insurance company. His wife, Deborah, is back home now.