BOOK. Barry Lopez’s Open Skies: Science and Reflection in the American West – Sciences et Avenir

It was June 16, 1979, the evening of the patrol. In the distance, on a beach in Oregon, on the Pacific coast of the United States, two police officers notice figures as huge as they are unusual. At least 41 stranded sperm whales. Never saw. This story is one of 14 stories (dated from 1978 to 1988) that make up Ciel Overt by Barry Lopez (J.almeister). Then there is the opportunity to describe a strange ballet, sometimes unsettling, in which conflicting interests collide. Those of the local authorities who are connected with the protection, those of the curious who flock in crowds, those of the robbers of corpses, those of the journalists and those of the scientists with whom communication is difficult. Meanwhile, mammals that cannot be saved are dying.

In a tense and twilight atmosphere, this text (“See the sperm whales”) summarizes the questions of the collection. Namely, to think about the place of man in the face of nature, which he does not always understand, which often surpasses him. Whether it is a matter of coexistence with it, its use, or its scientific study. The question cannot be summed up in modern times: several times it was about pre-Columbian open-sky civilizations (Anasazi, Folsom tradition, Clovis culture) that succeeded in developing and building complex cities in inhospitable regions.

Literature, naturalism and militancy

The book was published in France by Gallmeister, known for publishing texts about nature (although he has since broadened his horizons), such as Pete Fromm, who has already been interviewed in Science et Avenir, Doug Peacock, a fierce advocate grizzly. , or Edward Abbey, bard of the deserts of the American Southwest. This literary genre is a mixture of naturalistic observation (some authors have a scientific background), contemplation, introspection, sometimes activism.

The author of the polar regions report, Rêves Arctiques (still with the Gallmeister), Barry Lopez descends the Colorado here between the Grand Canyon (Arizona) and Lake Mead (Nevada), goes to watch snow geese come to winter. on a lake in California, feasting on the vast scenery of Alaska, lost in contemplation of the geoglyph of a horse in the Mojave Desert (a captivating text that opens the book), or accompanies archaeologists in search of Anasazi remains in Marble Canyon in Arizona.

Naturalistic approach in universities

At a time when the United States is alarmed by falling water levels in Colorado’s reservoirs, which are Lakes Mead and Powell, the author’s comments on these two places, often reviled by environmentalists, acquire historical value.

First of all, Barry Lopez is a non-academic writer with a penchant for the static beauty of a place or for depicting dreamlike moments like classical music sessions played on the Colorado River. However, like Seeing the Sperm Whales, several stories are devoted to scientific work (biologists, archaeologists, ornithologists), especially when the author accompanies specialists in this field.

The last text, The Ephemeral Wisdom of Birds, is symbolic in this respect. Beginning with the destruction in 1521 by Hernán Cortés of Mexico, its canals, gardens, and huge enclosures, it turns into a reflection on a scientific approach “biased in that it imposes a subjective framework on the behavior of an animal; but it really only fails because it is incomplete.” The author even advocates a systematic naturalistic approach in universities so that each campus reconnects with and makes known its own natural history. And maybe then Man will stop destroying civilizations he barely knows, destroying their cities and killing their birds. To be content, as Cortes and his soldiers did, to admire it.

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