Lopez is one of those writers that every nonfiction writer is told to read. His name is on almost every page of the little stack of “Books You Should Read” lists that I keep in the right-hand cubby of my desk. Yet, here I am, just reading him for the first time. Okay, so maybe that’s not quite accurate. I think I read “The Eye of the Raven,” a selection from Desert Notes, in some anthology along the way of life, and it was really striking.

Thus, when I came across his book About This Life in some stack in my house, I put it in my teaching bag and began reading it in those few moments between things. I’m a little sad I didn’t read him much before this. There’s just something honest, soft, strong, and smooth about his writing. It’s almost as if his words are like pieces of obsidian – beautiful and cool and safe until you hit that sharp edge.

Perhaps the essay that has most stuck with me is “Apologia.” On a cross country drive, Lopez stops each time he finds an animal killed on the side of the road, and he moves it away – buries it if he can – but gives it dignity that it doesn’t have it its mangled abandonment on the shoulder. The essay begins this way:

A few miles east of home in the Cascades I slow down and pull over for two raccoons, sprawled still as stones in the road. I carry them to the side and lay them in sunshot, windblown grass in the barrow pit. In eastern Oregon, along U.S. 20, black-tailed jackrabbits lie like welts of sod – three, four, then a faith. By the bridge over Jordan Creek, just shy of the Idaho border in the drainage of the Owyhee River, a crumpled adolescent porcupine leers up almost maniacally over its blood-flecked teeth. I carry each one away from the pavement into a cover of grass or brush out of decency, I think. And worry. Who are these animals, their lights gone out? What journeys have fallen apart here?”

I am struck by the simple action of this story – who but the most compassionate of men would actually stop to move roadkill out of the road? But I am also moved by the great and powerful metaphorical value of this idea that our journeys fall apart sometimes – whether we be animal or human (as if that’s a precise distinction) – and often, we are left lying on the side of the road leering maniacally. Sometimes, perhaps, we need a compassionate hand to move us aside out of the light of life so that we can gain some dignity.

Lopez’s writing brings me into a quiet place where I can contemplate – almost like I’m sitting in a copse of trees listening to the breeze. If you’re looking for that quiet, pick up About a Life and read.

Cover of Lopez's About This LifeAbout This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez