Reading Barry Lopez, gathering words

The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined. Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams book coverWhen I began this blog I chose for my tagline a quote by Barry Lopez about stories because it rang true for me. But I’d never actually read any of Lopez’s books. So I began with Arctic Dreams, followed by About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory.

If you want to be an armchair traveler of the world, if you love nature, if you crave being transported to another time and place by extraordinary writing, you must read Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams has some of the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.

“The aurora borealis, pale gossamer curtains of light.”

“The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the sun’s or moon’s corona in clouds.”

“The outcry of birds, the bullet-whirr of their passing wings, the splashing of water, is, like the falling light, unending.”

You will find uncommon truths, beautifully expressed. Here is Lopez on the great Arctic explorers of the past: “The day after a little trouble in the ice it is possible to imagine, if but imperfectly, the sort of reach some of these men made into the unknown, day after day.” 

“I think we can hardly reconstruct the terror of it, the single-minded belief in something beyond the self.”

“Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire of spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness.”

“What dreams there must have been that were never written down….that remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.”

If you want to write, how can you move closer to this kind of mastery of language?

old dictionary
Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed., unabridged, 1944

When I was reading Lopez, I happened to make a happy discovery in my writing bible, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor:  Lexicon Practice. Lexicon Practice involves looking up words you don`t know and words you want to know better, not in in a pocket dictionary or online, but in a mammoth 600,000-word dictionary, the kind you still see in some libraries.  (Long advises writers to search online for such a dictionary, commonly published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) You copy all of the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy them as well.

I write down the word in its language of origin, too. If it has a Latin, Italian or Spanish root, I can brush up on my foreign language vocabulary. Long instructs you to also write out the sentence where you found the word and make up a sentence of your own, preferably a sentence you can use in a piece of writing you’re working on. You can choose a lexicon theme based on the work you are doing at the moment. Since I’m writing a memoir, for example, I have a lexicon with words commonly used in the 1960s – products, types of clothing, etc.

Long believes in Lexicon Practice. Otherwise, our writing derives from the uninspired language of generic, overused words and phrases we find in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and social media. As a teacher of writing, Long can tell immediately when a writer does not do a form of Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, she says, and “…he favors concrete words…that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard. For Lopez, language is a musical instrument…”

Now, Lexicon Practice is a geeky, writerly thing, but it appeals to me. I can certainly stand to expand my vocabulary, and I find it an especially relaxing pastime in front of a fire on a cold winter`s night. This kind of practice slows you down, teaches you to choose words with care. If you want to write rich, compelling fiction or nonfiction, you need to be in love with words in this way, or allow yourself to fall in love with them by doing work of this nature.

Culling words from Arctic Dreams was an inspiring way to for me to establish the habit of Lexicon Work. A variety of birds populate the first pages of my first lexicon: plover, whimbrel, curlew. There are many boats and nautical references: pinnace, tender, portolano chart.  Geographical terms, too: archipelago, scree, promontory.  Definitions and drawings(As I write this, my word processor does not recognize a few of these uncommon words and highlights them as misspellings.)

Long advises writers to compose word lists, too. Her examples: every possible synonym for blue (sapphire, smalt, cobalt, woad) and all the parts of a fiddle (peg box, side rib, bridge, button). You can work according to a theme. Chairs and chair parts. Types of roofs. Clothes for people who love the outdoors. Get an L.L. Bean catalog and find words like cargo pants, fleece, sun-washed, twill, seersucker, Mary Janes, wellies.

I found that keeping a lexicon is a good excuse to buy one of those expensive, fancy journals I love. Mine has a silvered filigree cover designed in Germany around 1800.

Currently, I’m gathering words from About This Life.

In my next post, more about Lopez and his themes. In the meantime, if you want to be uplifted, if you need encouragement in your life’s work, listen to a few minutes of this conversation between Barry Lopez and Bill Moyers.

Have you discovered any unusual words lately that you especially like? Leave them in the comments in my left sidebar.


On Writing: Statements of Purpose at

Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1986.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long, Wallingford Press, Seattle: 2010.

13 thoughts on “Reading Barry Lopez, gathering words”

  1. Hi Valerie, I’m glad I found your blog and your post about the “lexicon practice”–I just read that section from WPM and ordered some journals. I’m wondering if you have found ways to incorporate the words you’ve collected into your own writing yet, and if so, if your use of the collected words is happening spontaneously or deliberately?

    1. I haven’t been doing it long enough for it to quite be spontaneous yet, it’s really more deliberate. I think what it’s really doing for me is teaching me to seek out words more intentionally than I used to. So I may not find a word in my lexicon to use, but I’ll take more time to assemble a list of words that could make up an essay on a certain topic, and to include more unfamiliar words in that last – mostly place names and names of trees, etc. – Just trying to be more specific and grounded in detail. I’m so glad you stopped by and commented.

  2. another beautiful inspiring post, your words are evocative too Valorie, I love your Lexicon Practice and the cute little drawings, I can see how it would help the new vocabulary become more accessible to memory. Barry Lopez sounds like a wonderful voice, soul, writer, I too am very pleased to have been introduced to him.

    The bird words remind me of Kathleen Jamie’s book of nature essays Finding’s, I learned many new words reading her work and she also counsels taking time to observe without trying to identify, seeing the thing flying overhead as a poet would, describing it, rather than naming it, an interesting exercise.

  3. Great post! Thank you so much for introducing me to Barry Lopez. I’m surprised I havent’ come across him before–his work sounds like the kind of thing I love most to read. I loved the interview with Bill Moyers–amazing! I’ll be checking out more of his work. Also, love the idea of the Lexicon Journal–great way to explore and expand our vocabulary, which is really broadening the way we can know and understand the world and communicate meaningfully with each other.

  4. Valorie, I’m delighted to have found your blog! I have revered Barry Lopez for nearly 30 years, since my first encounter with “Arctic Dreams” and “Of Wolves and Men”, both of which I have read multiple times. I had the good fortune to meet him and shake his hand several years ago following a talk he gave in Lancaster PA shortly after the publication of “Home Ground”. To me his use of language is luminous, lyrical, and I cannot overstate the depth of my appreciation for both the writing and the man. whom I count among the great souls of our time…It will be my pleasure to return to your blog, because I have been seeking a sense of community with others who feel as I do about language and about Barry Lopez. Thank you! Rebecca Henry Lowndes

    1. You’ve said it so beautifully. I agree he is one of the great souls of our time. I’m glad he’s written a lot so I have a lot to look forward to. Thanks so much for commenting. I’ll be writing about him in my next post, too, would love to hear what you think. I would love to meet Barry Lopez as you have.

  5. I’m happy to be introduced to Barry Lopez and have added him to my list of authors to read. I much enjoyed the interview too. Thanks for posting!

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