Arctic Dreams: Barry Lopez’s monument to the Far North

I hesitated to review this book because it’s a nature book, which is not my thing, but it’s an important one and I read it for the first time recently so I thought I should knock it off my list. Also, Lopez is in the news again for his latest work, Horizon, which I believe is a kind of Arctic Dreams on a global scale.

Arctic Dreams came out in 1986 and was immediately understood to be a classic in the genre.  

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“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as turns of the mind, and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable.”

Lopez’s writing has a lot to do with it. Precise and careful, he dismisses other natural histories of the region as “cursory and unintegrated.”

There is something mesmerizing about Lopez’s commitment to detail. Early on, he offers a chapter-long explanation of the planetary mechanics that make the Arctic unique, taking the reader on a walk due south from the North Pole in order to sketch in the specifics, right down to the humus in the soil, the animals that can survive in the scarce light. “Of the boundless species of insect, only about 600 are to be found in the Arctic,” he says, leaving absolutely nothing out.

Accuracy is important, and he’ll reach anywhere to get the right description. “A south wind blew, but so slightly. The kind of wind nineteenth-century sailors called ‘inclinable to calm.’”

Lopez takes five paragraphs to describe the hair on a muskox. “The longest guard hairs — 25 inches or so — grow down from the throat.” After several pages on muskox behaviour, comes this line, all alone, without further explanation (as if any were needed): “Arctic foxes derive some unknown delight in their company.”

The scale of this book is part of its importance, in time as well as space. Lopez spent four or five years traveling the Arctic, which to him includes the Canadian Arctic and northern Alaska, an enormous area. He also goes far back in time, opening in 1823 with a crew of British whalers hanging around Lancaster Sound, and reaching back even further as needed. 

“In pursuit of answers I traveled with people of different dispositions,” he writes.

The reasoned, considered tone of that sentence is classic Lopez (or B. Lo., as he’s known to certain fans). It’s also a great way to describe the various and distinct Arctics he describes, as experienced by, say, a drilling crew mapping oil deposits, a biologist counting birds, or Inuit hunting narwhal. And an even better way to highlight how much of the “Arctic” is in the mind (and usually, ambition) of the beholder.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that industrial sites — the Nanisivik mine near Arctic Bay, Polaris on Little Cornwallis Island — get the same B. Lo. treatment as any other Arctic phenomenon.

“In the most distant camps, to my sensibilities at least, were some of the saddest human lives I have ever known,” he says, before noting the general indifference of the people on these sites to the land where they’re living, “the violent way it is addressed.”

All of this is filtered, of course, through Lopez’s sensitive and thoughtful nature. “What, I wondered, had compelled me to bow to a horned lark?”

Lopez makes statements that in less authoritative hands would be glib or just ridiculous. “The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as turns of the mind, and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable.”

This is, in fact, the nut graf of the book.

But its thrust is that the Arctic he encounters is changing, and unlikely to retain the splendid isolation required to keeps its gentle rivers flowing, its birds mating (you see the difference when hacks describe nature). “To contemplate what people are doing here,” he writes, “to consider human quest and plight and not know the land, I thought, to not listen to it, seemed fatal.”

There are no politics in this book, only wonder at why some people can look at a stretch of boggy tundra and see a whole world, while others see wasteland waiting to be turned into something useful. (Part of the joy of reading this book is believing that you yourself would see this world  in fact, you are, by reading this book, but of course we know there is nothing prohibiting greedy businessmen from also buying and reading this book, then firing up the drill rig. Actually, these people may be one and the same, because they are the ones who want, and get, to be there, in the beautiful North.)

One story stood out to me. It happens when Lopez is camping on the sea ice in Admiralty Inlet on northern Baffin Island. A helicopter lands. Inside is a mining executive — the boss — who’s been scouting the ice, worried that a recent icebreaker trip may have inhibited travel for the Inuit (“Eskimos,” they are called in this book). The man invites several hunters on board his helicopter to inspect the ship’s 40-mile track.

“That accomplished, the man could have left, feeling a wave of genuine gratitude from the Eskimos for this thoughtfulness. But he stayed,” Lopez writes. “He sat in a tent in the hunting camp and ate the ‘country food’ that was offered along with the bannock and tea. He did not try to summarize or explain anything. He did not ask a lot of questions to demonstrate his interest. He just sat quietly and ate.”

This seems as good an explanation as anything for what Lopez himself was doing: tarrying, appreciating, soaking it all in and mulling it over.

Then piling it all into this fascinating book.

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