About This Life

About This Life coverAbout This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
Barry H. Lopez
Vintage (September 14, 2011), 289 pages
originally published in 1998
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $10.59

Random House published what is apparently the last posthumous book by Barry Lopez, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, at the end of May. But by the time that book came to my attention I was already planning to read About This Life.

Many of the essays in this book are what you would expect from Barry Lopez: outdoor and nature writing. In the introduction Lopez provides a brief autobiographical sketch, but then he immediately heads outdoors. In the first essay he describes scuba diving on the Dutch island of Bonaire, off the coast of South America. The second essay recounts Lopez’s travels in rural Japan and the hospitality of his hosts. In the third essay Lopez writes about the Galápagos Islands, recounting both his own experience and their history. He then goes on to write about his travels in Antarctica.

But if you think that Lopez is strictly a writer of outdoors and nature, the next essay in the book will take you by surprise. He writes about the Boeing 747 airliner. He describes how the iconic jet is not just a passenger plane, but how it has become critical to the shipment of freight. And when he talks about freight he means freight of all kinds. He writes:

quoteI would fly in and out of cities like Taipei, Rotterdam, and Los Angeles with drill pipe, pistol targets, frozen ostrich meat, lace teddies, dog food, digital tape machines, pythons, and ball caps; with tangerines from Johannesburg, gold bullion from Argentina, and orchid clusters from Bangkok.

Lopez does not stop with freight. He spends several pages writing about his visit to the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, outside Seattle. He observes workers assembling a 747 for Singapore airlines. Assembling such a plane is not a trivial undertaking. He returns several months later as workers are putting the final touches on the plane.

The author is not simply an observer; he is a participant. He has somehow managed to get permission to sit on the flight deck with the crew of several flights in various parts of the world. He takes a flight from Chicago to Japan carrying Thoroughbred horses. Lopez talks to the pilots and copilots, learning that they are not immune to jet lag: they simply learn to live with it.

Back in more familiar Lopez territory, a long essay recounts his encounters with a man he calls Jack in the Cascade Range of Oregon. Jack operates a kiln, but not your standard gas-fired kiln. Jack’s kiln is called an anagama kiln. It is wood fired and has a very specific design.

When Jack does a firing, the kiln is generally full. Jack’s clients represent a wide range of skill sets, from the most experienced potter to the weekend amateur. They come from a variety of professions: “nurse, set designer, computer technician, freelance photographer,” Lopez tells us. Firings happen on the weekend, when this diverse community gathers, but it takes a week for the kiln to cool off before it can be unloaded. When it is unloaded there are surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Some pieces are broken, others come out more stunning than expected.

In another essay, Lopez writes about his work as a photographer and why he gave up photography. That is something to which I can relate, and something about which I may write separately.

Lopez devotes the final section of About This Life to cars. Not a section that I found terribly engaging, but that does not detract from the value and enjoyment I got from the rest of the book. I’m always happy to read the work of Barry Lopez.

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