Read About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory Online

Authors: Barry Lopez

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Writing

About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory

BOOK: About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
Acclaim for
About This Life

“[Barry Lopez] can bring the light of an arctic summer’s midnight to your living room.”

The Columbus Dispatch

“Lopez writes with a photographer’s keen eye, a novelist’s sure-handed way with detail and a biologist’s attention to scientific accuracy.”


About This Life
is a shimmering window on the richness of the world [and] the vagaries of memory.”

Portland Oregonian

“Whether he is visiting remote islands or sites closer to home, Lopez provides a sincere look at what is marvelous about his surroundings, and his book admirably adds to what he calls a literature of hope.”

Chicago Tribune

“Curiosity, fresh insight, and luminous, precise prose … is generously on display here.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Lopez is a careful and caring writer … he truly shows us the world’s magic.”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“[Lopez has] that rarest of keen eyes, the one that can home in on the face in the mirror and see truly.”

The Denver Post

About This Life

Barry Lopez is the author of six works of nonfiction, including
Arctic Dreams
Of Wolves and Men
; six works of fiction, including
Field Notes
Winter Count
; and a novella-length fable,
Crow and Weasel
. His work appears regularly in
, where he is a contributing editor, as well as in
The Paris Review, Orion, The Georgia Review, Outside
, and elsewhere. The recipient of numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award for nonfiction, he lives in western Oregon.

Also by

Arctic Dreams
Of Wolves and Men

Lessons from the Wolverine
Field Notes
Crow and Weasel
Winter Count
River Notes
Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter
Desert Notes

The Rediscovery of North America
Crossing Open Ground


Copyright © 1998 by Barry Holstun Lopez

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover
in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1998.

Vintage Books and colophon are registered
trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged
the Knopf edition as follows:
Lopez, Barry Holstun, [date]
About this life / Barry Lopez. — 1st American ed.
p.    cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-80650-5
1. Lopez, Barry Holstun, [date]—Biography.
2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography.
I. Title.
PS3562.067Z464 1998
[B] 98–14257

Author Photograph © Nancy Bennett Evelyn


For Mary Holstun Lopez

for Adrian Bernard Lopez and John Edward Brennan

for Sidney Van Sheck and Dara Emery

and for my brother, Dennis Holstun Lopez


east of the heights of New Rochelle in the watershed of New York’s Mamaroneck River in the winter of 1945. In the spring of 1948 my father, a billboard advertising executive, would move us away, to a home in rural California at the foot of the Santa Susana Mountains in the San Fernando Valley, far from this suburban landscape just thirty miles from New York City. I would never know why. Perhaps the move was an effort to save a marriage gone awry, or maybe he hoped to capitalize on prospects in southern California after the war.

For a long time I thought of California as the beginning, the place where my life took a distinctive shape, but something had already begun. When I recall incidents from those first three years in New York, some still vivid as a bowl of oranges on a summer windowsill, several seem to bear directly on my later life, to be adumbrations. Or perhaps that is only how memory works.

We lived on the second floor of a six-story apartment building situated on Orienta Point in the town of Mamaroneck. It faced onto Mamaroneck Harbor, an embayment of Long Island Sound. My parents, avid sailors, had a membership in the Nanhook Yacht Club, which was affiliated with “The Orienta”—a primary attraction for people who chose to live there.

A great lawn sloped north from the building down to a seawall and a narrow beach, off which sailboats were moored. My earliest memories are of crawling off a blanket onto this cool, prickly turf under a huge elm. Flower beds had been planted along the building’s east side, and I remember walking in them with my mother to pick flowers as tall as I was. I remember the aroma of the soil in summer and the way the bare earth puckered to a dry crust after an early morning watering.

The odor and the flowers’ colors in the garden attracted me. To ensure visits there with Mother, I’d sometimes line my alphabet blocks up on a windowsill—our windows were right above the gardens—and push them out. She’d take me along to retrieve them while she gathered bouquets.

I also remember the glare of light on the harbor and the
of white sails coming taut in a breeze. In warm weather I was closely watched like other children on the beach, but I recall wading out into the water as if I were alone, and wanting to go farther. I could see across to Shootfly Island and the estuary of Otter Creek. Away to the east, where Turkey Rock and Hen Island stood out, lowlying Peningo Neck protected the harbor from the open waters of the Sound.

Standing in seawater stirred to wavelets by the wind, my head thrown back, I’d turn slowly to gaze at the towering crown of the elm, backlit and twinkling in noon light, turn and catch the long horizon of the sound to the east, keep turning to follow scudding sailboats on that wind. On the hottest days I sought out the shade of the big elm, but I would go back in the water again to experience that peculiar yearning—to swim, to sail, to go. I would wait in the water for something to emerge, to appear in that empty space above its surface.

Shortly after my brother was born in 1948, my father drove out to California. My mother and brother and I flew west afterward in a Constellation. (I remember a living-room-like atmosphere at the rear of this plane, where couch seats were arranged in a horseshoe around a table, and going into the terminal at Love Field in Dallas with one of the stewardesses to eat dinner while my mother attended to my infant brother.) My parents divorced two years later, and my mother began raising us with a dedication I would not understand or appreciate for years. She taught home economics during the day at a junior high school; twice a week she taught night school at a junior college. She also worked at home as a dressmaker.

My images of our first house, when I was three or four and my father still lived with us, are of the way it sat apart, surrounded by alfalfa hay fields. Our street was a macadam-surfaced ditch meant to funnel heavy winter rains into the Los Angeles River. It also served as a corridor for heading sheep to summer pastures in the Santa Susanas. On different days we might be stuck in the car for either reason.

After my father left, not to be seen again, Mother bought a small one-bedroom house on a half acre of land in the town of Reseda. For boys my age growing up then in the northern San Fernando Valley, adventure unfolded in fruit orchards and wisteria hedges, in horse pastures and haylofts, and around farming operations, truck gardens, and chicken ranches. During these same years the Los Angeles River channel, another haunt, was floored and walled in concrete, so we saw the last of that river’s natural days. We hiked in the Santa Monica Mountains and we caught rides on slow freights west from Reseda to Canoga Park and back. We rode our bikes out as far as Porter Ranch, the rural fringes of valley settlement where braceros worked the fields and where encounters with coyotes, jackrabbits, and even rattlesnakes were not unusual.

Mother frequently drove my brother, Dennis, and me into the Mojave Desert on weekends, or up to Antelope Valley or away to one of a dozen beaches from Zuma, west of Malibu, to Pismo, up
north near San Luis Obispo. We spent summer weeks in camp at Big Bear Lake or with Mother’s friends at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.

One advantage of growing up in a single-parent home (it wasn’t called that back then, of course; “broken home” was the preferred term) is that if your mother is an interesting or handsome woman, she can attract the attention of interesting men. My brother and I knew several such men, all but one in my memory impeccable in their conduct and generous toward us. I remember picnics at the home of a movie stuntman who kept a rambling, jerry-built house in an unspoiled part of the Calabasas hills, where he’d dammed a creek to create a swimming hole. And picnics at the summer house of a man who was the gentlest person I ever knew, a horticulturalist at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden whom for a long time I wished my mother would marry. With them and Mother I experienced the crash of Pacific storm surf on the deserted beaches of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. I felt the hysteria that came with brush fires fanned by Santa Ana winds and caught the astringent smell of creosote bush after a desert rain.

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