Fearlessly Embrace the Burning World — Stone Pier Press

McKibben (who lived just up the road in Ripton) took the stage, a sweetly scrawny man in a fleece jumper. The crowd fell silent, expecting to hear their views on the future of grassroots activism, or freelance writing, or American geopolitics, or their ever-resilient hopes for this doomed planet.

He spent about half an hour describing every detail of the hiking trails he loved to take. One was so steep and smooth that a ski club used it in the winter, another so flat and rutted that locals fought off government attempts to pave it, a third had a small wooden hut waiting for anyone who wanted to walk that far and have a cold, quiet night. It was as detailed as a page from Thoreau’s notebooks. Frankly, everyone in the room was puzzled.

Many felt that McKibben’s failure to make broad environmental statements reflected the fact that, however bad it was in the 1980s, however much can be done now, the climate crisis can only get worse. . The fact that much of his recent writing deals with the cultural embitterment of the American faith from which he was weaned testifies to this possibility.

I thought about it, sitting in the audience, reading Embrace the burning world without fear. This latest book by environmentalist Barry Lopez straddles the same liminal space between wary hope and grim despair. Both a memoir and a collection of essays, the book covers scientific, personal and political approaches to the natural world.

Whether it’s the unspoiled swathes of arctic tundra, losing his own health after a cancer diagnosis, or missing his home along Oregon’s McKenzie River after a wildfire sparked by the wind three months before his death, Lopez is a sad but not angry writer. Where he sees no reason to hope, he still sees many reasons to love.

In the book, Lopez writes, “The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit in somewhere.” I never quite understood McKibben’s point of view until I read this book. It is not pessimism that drives an environmentalist to pay such loving attention to his special place, as if any ambition larger than what lies before him is unachievable or a cause for despair. On the contrary, the very attention that one pays to one’s environment testifies to the impossibility of despairing of it.

The book begins with an introduction by Rebecca Solnit, who offers a quote from mystic-philosopher-activist Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. The quote underscores Solnit’s claim that all of Lopez’s work — from his early fiction in the ’70s to these essays, published after his death on Christmas Day 2020 — is a form of prayer, a claim further backed up by the fact that, in his youth, Lopez almost became a priest or a monk.

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