Barry Lopez death: Author who tied people to place, dies at 75

Barry Lopez, an award-winning writer who tried to tighten the bonds between people and place by describing the landscapes he saw in 50 years of travel, has died. He was 75.

Lopez died in Eugene Oregon on Friday after a years-long struggle with prostate cancer, his family said.

Longtime friend Kim Stafford, former Oregon poet laureate, said Lopez’s books “are landmarks that define a region, a time, a cause. He also exemplifies a life of devotion to craft and learning, to being humble in the face of wisdom of all kinds.”

An author of nearly 20 books on natural history studies, along with essay and short story collections, Lopez was awarded the National Book Award in 1986 for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. It was the result of almost five years of traveling the Arctic.

His final work was Horizon, an autobiography that recalls a lifetime of travel in more than 70 countries.

Born in 1945 in Port Chester, New York, Lopez grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley and, after his mother remarried, New York City. In Horizon, he wrote that in those formative years, he developed “a desire simply to go away. To find what the skyline has cordoned off.”

His later years were spent with his wife, Debra Gwartney, in a wooded area along the McKenzie River east of Eugene. After years of writing about the natural world and humans’ effect on climate change, he mourned the loss of acres of timber, not to mention personal papers, in the September 2020 Holiday Farm fire.

The wildfire damaged Lopez’s home so badly that he couldn’t live in it. The blaze also destroyed a building that stored his original manuscripts, personal letters, photos and a typewriter he used to write his books. The IBM Selectric III was quickly replaced with an identical model by his friends.

“Just an incredible body of work and memories,” said his stepdaughter Stephanie Woodruff. “Very meticulously kept and organized. That (loss) was devastating, certainly. He wrote every single book on a typewriter.”

In 2013, Lopez wrote the essay “Sliver of Sky,” revealing he had been sexually abused by a family friend for several years starting when he was seven years old. Lopez said the essay was an attempt at catharsis.

Woodruff said the essay possibly helped lead to Horizon, a book more than two decades in the making. In a 2019 review, The Associated Press said the book felt like the crowning achievement of Lopez’s illustrious career, describing it as part travel journal, part history, part science lecture, part autobiography, and completely unique.

“I do think that (the essay) released something in him to really ground and round out and complete Horizon,” Woodruff said. “Everything he wrote was personal, of course.”

In a statement Saturday, his family encouraged financial support for the McKenzie River Trust, with which Lopez had worked on conservation efforts.

Lopez is survived by his wife, four stepdaughters and an older brother. A younger brother died in 2017.


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