However, the piece opens in a painful reckoning with the years of sexual abuse Lopez suffered as a child, the victim of a respected member of the community. While living there, he desperately wanted to escape, but after his family moved, Lopez writes, “I’ve missed California to the point of grief.” The shooting of jackrabbits, the pounding surf, the smell of eucalyptus, the “surgical sharpness” of the light – “without these things I think I would have perished.” If you love it enough, he suggests, the land will love you and even heal you. No matter how much we degrade it, “it’s still there, vibrating in the shadow lines”, under the asphalt and concrete.
In the years that followed, Lopez traveled extensively, preferring the barren and harsh lines of the desert and polar regions to the bustling maze of cities. He did his best to rid his wanderings of colonial conquest myths. In an essay on Antarctica, Lopez writes of the “crudeness and brutality” of the nationalism that drove the continent’s early 20th-century explorers and of “the curious emptiness of their achievements.” Lopez floated a little more humble. “Perhaps the first rule of all we try to do,” he writes, is “to be observant.”
Indeed, when these essays have a unifying theme and express one mandate, they are about the redeeming importance of caring for the planet and the other beings we share it with. Attention acts not only as an antidote to absent-mindedness, but also to the fatal seriousness of modern life. “Each place is only itself and is not repeated anywhere,” Lopez writes. “Miss it and it’s gone.” He describes this ‘intimacy’ with place in erotic terms, as something ‘primal’ and ‘ineffable’, ‘the easing of a certain kind of desire’ that arises from ‘intense, amorous contact with the earth’.
Despite thrilling encounters with wolves and killer walruses, Lopez wasn’t looking for Animal Planet-worthy adventures. He wanted us to look for the human history that can also be found in the landscape: the legacies of atrocities and exploitation that bounce around the rocks and valleys of this country as much as moose and coyotes. As a young man, Lopez made it a point to visit the scenes of battles and massacres in the centuries-long war of Euro-Americans against the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. “The battlefields,” he writes, “were less than the slaughter sites.” Most of the latter were unmarked. “What kind of governance is apt to emerge,” he asks, among a people so committed to amnesia? The question is rhetorical. We know the answer all too well.
The essays in “Embrace the Burning World Without Fear” are not arranged chronologically, so the growing alarm of Lopez’s later years only registers as some sort of pressing urgency. “We can no longer afford to continue in a protracted era of polite reflection and ineffective resistance,” he wrote in a piece published last year. The implications of attention, it becomes clear, are radical and deep.