“I can tell you in two words,” he said when asked about his motives for writing. “To help. I am a traditional storyteller. This activity is not about yourself. It’s about culture, and your job is to help.”
The Guardian put it this way in 2005: “Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them. Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a windblown tree: These abstract shapes can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed.”
After a trip to Alaska to research wolves for a magazine assignment in 1976, Mr. Lopez devoted two years to a study of the history, lore, habitats and literature of wolves, reviled in myths as evil and hunted since the Dark Ages as bloodthirsty beasts. He interviewed scientists, trappers and native people in the American and Canadian Northwest. He even raised a wolf pup.
His book “Of Wolves and Men” (1978) was a National Book Award finalist and won the John Burroughs Medal and the Christopher Award. A history of man’s relationship with wolves, it separated fact from fiction in what critics called a cleareyed evaluation of a creature that has been superstitiously scapegoated and historically slaughtered nearly to extinction in regions of Europe and North America.
“In coming to terms with the difference between what we know and what we imagine about the wolf, Lopez has shed light on some painful truths about the human experience,” Whitley Strieber said in a review for The Washington Post. “By laying no blame while facing the tragedy for what it is, he has made what we have done to the wolf a source of new knowledge about man.”
Mr. Lopez’s fiction, a shelf of novels and short stories, reflected his humanist convictions, a blend of adventure, intimacy, ethics and identity. In “Crow and Weasel” (1990), a fable of long ago, “when people and animals spoke the same language,” two youngsters leave their plains tribe and come of age facing perils in the wilderness on a quest for wisdom.
“Light Action in the Caribbean” (2000) was a diverse collection of short stories bound by Mr. Lopez’s belief in the redemptive values of self-respect. In “Emory Bear Hands’ Birds,” an imprisoned Native American storyteller uses magic realism to evoke hope in fellow inmates. In the title story, a young woman gives a smug, materialistic yuppie his comeuppance in a Caribbean vacation paradise:
“The first bullet tore through his left triceps, the second, third, fourth and fifth hit nothing, the sixth perforated his spleen, the seventh and eighth hit nothing, the ninth hit the console, sending electrical sparks up, the tenth went through his right palm, the next four went into the air, the fifteenth tore his left ear away, the sixteenth ricocheted off the sixth cervical vertebra and drove down through his heart, exiting through his abdomen and lodging in his foot.”