What is Richard A. Johnson Reading?
Horizon by Barry Lopez (Random House Canada, 2019)
Few books have harnessed my insatiable wanderlust and stimulated my consciousness of the natural world as much as Lopez’s 1986 masterpiece, Arctic Dreams. And certainly no writer has so eloquently placed me at the distant edge of a wild place I had never visited and made me feel so welcome, so familiar, and so much a part of his journey. (I could spend endless days and nights camped inside his symphonic chapter on the formidable muskoxen of Banks Island and their almost unbelievable endowments of survival.)
So when I read (in tantalizing reviews in the NY Times and Outside magazine) that Lopez, now an elder statesmen of environmental science writing and a cancer-fighter to boot, had a new book on the way—itself a formidable muskox of a tome, at 550 pages—a little literary drool formed in the corner of my mouth. Part memoir, part travelogue, Horizon is “a reverie and an urgent appeal” (the Times) and a “sublime [and] bracing masterpiece for a broken world” (Outside). I wanted to go camp inside it.
When an inquiry at my local library branch revealed I might have to wait months to obtain the book, I tried to talk myself into spending three weeks’ worth of my beer budget on the hardcover, but I put it off, reasoning that my bedside book stack was already casting a long, ominous shadow.
In late April, among the throng of Amazon boxes—diapers, office supplies, and other sundries that two work-from-home new parents need to survive—that typically arrive each week at our front door in Victoria, B.C., was a mysterious box with Barry Lopez’s Horizon inside. I checked the “Purchases” folder of my Gmail inbox—had I ordered the book some late, carefree evening, under the influence of fatigue or a craft IPA, and forgotten? Had some anonymous Random House editor, also perhaps a bit drunk, tapped me to write a review? Or had Barry Lopez himself, word having reached him that I tend to carpet-bomb his name into almost any conversation on the arctic or the genre of nature-writing, decided to send me one of his very own author-copies?
A week later, the mysterious bibliophile revealed himself, but only after I straight-up asked him during an unrelated FaceTime call. My father-in-law is a man who takes sincere pleasure in facilitating the rich experiences of others. (As you might imagine, this quality makes him a natural-born grandfather.) His quiet demeanour and stay-at-home satisfaction with life mask a passion for the natural world and the places that our literary heroes take us. Doubtless he’s listened to me wax enthusiastic for Barry Lopez, and Arctic Dreams is one of his all-time favourites, too. “I’m glad it arrived, hope you enjoy it,” he said plainly of Horizon, with a knowing smile. Then he turned the conversation back to his grandson.
The Carrier, My People by Lizette Hall (self-published, 1992)
During the winter of 1807 a young Dakelh (Carrier) First Nation chief named K’wah saved the lives of the explorer Simon Fraser and his voyageurs encamped at McLeod Lake, B.C., by supplying them with 30,000 dried salmon to ward off starvation. The following summer Fraser completed his journey down the river that now bears his name and (pardon the brevity) the rest is history.
This summer I am travelling to the Cariboo region of eastern British Columbia to paddle (no, not the 1375-km Fraser River, good heavens!) the famous Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit with the same friend, Mike, whose wit and moose-spotting acumen grace my recent TNQ essay “Canoeing with Thoreau.” Having already devoured Fraser’s letters and journals as well as secondary histories of the region from the North West Company fur empire to the Cariboo Gold Rush to modern times, I found myself still lacking—as so many of us are—an Indigenous perspective on the living history of the land we mean to explore.
Enter the late Lizette Hall—historian, community leader, and great-granddaughter of Chief K’wah—whose compilation of oral histories of the Dakelh nation reveals not only stories of generations of Indigenous lives that often remain in the shadows, but also an implicit presentation of this land (or wilderness, in our Western romantic sense of it) as a responsibility, a privilege, and a continuous story.
While Mike and I are unlikely to face deprivation on the scale of Simon Fraser and his oft-luckless band of explorers (in addition to worrying about bears, hidden waterfalls and starvation, they also spent most of their days not canoeing but repairing broken canoes), neither are we travelling without a perspective on what lies beyond the horizon.
(If any TNQ readers out there know of other literary perspectives on the Cariboo region (Indigenous or non-), please knock on my Twitter door @writing_richard)
Photo courtesy of Richard A. Johnson.