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Review: Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams (London: Picador, 1987)
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it.
N. Scott Momaday, frontispiece
Enjoy the audio version of this review – listening time 15 minutes – or simply dive into the written text below, complete with additional illustrated quotations, a treat of triologisms and a wealth of words. Or do it all.
This is what Barry Lopez does in Arctic Dreams. It’s about a quarter of a century since I first read this moving and enlightening book. Having recently re-read it, I was struck by how acutely relevant it remains to some of the central dilemmas we face. At one level, it is a beautifully written natural and human history of the Arctic, including its exploration and exploitation. This in itself makes the book a gem, opening up a landscape that most of us will never visit, giving a glimpse into the capabilities that have allowed people and other species to make it their home.
Arctic ecosystems have the same elegant and Byzantine complexities, the same wild grace, as tropical ecosystems; there are simply few moving parts. p. 25
It highlights different forms of resilience and ingenuity in finding ways to survive the extremes of a spare, harsh ecosystem. Beyond that, it raises questions about our connection to landscapes in general; how we engage with them, how we shape them and, more to the point, how they shape us and our assumptions.
For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal. p. 404
This reexamination of things we (at least I) often take for granted, is partly prompted by the enormous variations in the intensity and availability of light which, combined with the sweeping vastnesses of the region, shakes up notions of time and how we perceive it.
It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general. p. 12
Lopez also gives wonderful insights into the skills of the people who have lived there longest, the Eskimos. Having to survive over centuries with limited resources seems to have created a capacity to quickly grasp and make use of the properties of even unfamiliar materials.
Also eye-opening are some of the ways they described the Westerners who began turning up in significant numbers in the 19th century. Firstly, since the tendency was for ships to come in the spring when conditions were more favourable,
… local Eskimo, the Tununirmiut … traded informally with the British whalers, whom they called upirnaagiit, “the men of springtime”. p. 6
More alarmingly, given the environmental limits we are overstepping, they also refer to us as ‘the people who change nature’ (p. 39), not necessarily for the better.
In addition to making deft use of whatever resources were available, they seem to have developed a tremendous capability to map the terrain, making and using maps before they met Europeans. Particularly striking is an example of someone drawing a pretty accurate outline of a jagged, intricate coastline region – Lopez features the drawing alongside a modern map (p. 288). Equally impressive are ‘Eskimo “sky maps” – reading the land beneath the sky by how it is reflected in the light and cloud’ (p. 291). Continuing with this theme, I liked this surprising insight into the map-making of bears:
To take a shortcut, a creature must have a map in its head of where it is – memory is no help. How bears create and use such maps is one of the most intriguing of all the questions about them. p. 98
The skill and determination of a range of wild animals and birds in surviving a harsh environment is both wondrous and humbling. Lopez questions some standard assumptions about them.
Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals. They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry. p. 37
We unthinkingly imagine the animals as instinctual. We are suspicious of motive and invention among them. p. 63
The feistiness of some of the birds he encounters is also arresting.
Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. In a heedless moment, years from now, will I remember more machinery here than mind? If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen? p. 36
They all build their nests on the ground, so their vulnerability is extreme. I gazed down at a single horned lark no bigger than my fist. She stared back resolute as iron. p. xix
One owl settled back slowly over its three eggs, with an aura of primitive alertness. The other watched me, and immediately sought a bond with my eyes if I started to move. p. xx
The more I learn about birds, the more the notion of equating ‘bird brain’ with stupidity seems itself stupid. Lopez comments on birds keeping him company on his walks, not out of some kind of friendship, but because they know how food turns up:
You are afforded the companionship of birds, which follow after you. (They know you are an animal; sooner or later you will turn up something to eat). p. xxiv
Having worked for a while in a field called variously Design for Environment or Sustainable Design, I enjoyed learning how polar bears build passive temperature control into the dens where they raise cubs. An added feature is that the dens can be expanded to give growing cubs space to exercise indoors as they build up size and strength before being ready to head out into the elements.
… by designing the flow of air and controlling the thickness of snow, an excellent insulator, a female can keep fresh air moving through her den all winter and maintain the temp at about 30F, no matter how cold it gets outside … she also adjusts the thickness of the roof. p. 90
A few lines about the muskox hints at collaborative instincts, as in how they defend themselves from attack by backing ‘themselves into a rosette, rump to rump, with calves and yearlings wedged between adults’ (p. 61). And enjoying the sound and meaning of some Eskimo words Lopez shares, I liked the oo-ah roundness of a term describing the region: oomingmannuna, ‘where the muskoxen have their country’ (p. 281).
More lamentably familiar, Lopez touches on decades of industrial scale whaling, with the high point (or low, from the whales’ perspective) being 1823 when some 2,000 whales were killed. Two quotations sum it up for me: the value of whaling to the British economy, and the sensitivity of whales to physical suffering. Firstly, the haul of a single whaling ship:
… the whale blubber she carried would render 236 tons of oil to light the street lamps of Great Britain and process the coarse wool of its textile mills. Also in her hold were more than 4.5 tons of whalebone (baleen), to be turn into umbrella staves and venetian blinds, portable sheep pens, window gratings, and furniture springing. p. 2
And describing a bowhead whale harpooned in 1817:
It is so sensitive to touch that at a bird’s footfall a whale asleep at the surface will start wildly. The fiery pain of a harpoon strike can hardly be imagined … thirty hours after it had been harpooned, another Greenland right whale was still towing a fully rigged ship at two knot. p. 4
In another case, the whalers came across a sleeping whale which was awoken by their approach before she:
… swam slowly once around the ship and then put her head calmly to its bow and began to push. She pushed the ship backward for two minutes before the transfixed crew reacted with harpoons. The incident left the men unsettled. p. 4
Arctic Dreams encourages you to take a clear-eyed look at who we are and where we have come from, and to contemplate where we might be – or would rather be – heading. It demonstrates how taking the time to engage with a landscape, in particular a spacious and quiet one, can help you imaginatively embrace the long stretch of human history, turning it over in your mind like a pebble in the palm of your hand.
Without the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance, it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come … You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it. pp. 172-73
Inevitably, learning about (and from) a landscape that has been as much exploited as explored, challenges attitudes to nature and draws attention to our currently unsustainable trajectory.
In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed a certain distance from the ‘holler of contemporary life’ with time to think about some of its buzzwords, including ‘leadership’. In considering examples I’ve known of leadership failings, it occurred to me that a frequent flaw in people who might otherwise qualify as leaders is a lack of self-mastery. Initially, I felt that self-restraint was the missing ingredient, but more recently this has come to seem simply a step in the right direction, inadequate in itself. Self-restraint feels like hard work, a wrestling match between will-power and desire (‘I will not eat that last piece of chocolate cake, I am strong…’). Self-mastery seems easier – once you get there – more like a liberating sense of enjoyment and satiation after a single slice of pie.
Lopez takes this idea of self-restraint – or self-mastery – further, to the level of humanity. The sustainability ‘world’ tends not to talk about this as it sounds miserably puritanical and grim, rather than potentially leading to a happier engagement with the world, desirable for freeing us from a grasping neediness for more-more-more.
Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him, say evolutionary biologists, to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive, not to outstrip his food base. He must learn restraint. He must derive some other, wiser way of behaving toward the land. pp. 38-39
‘He must learn restraint’ isn’t a winning formula and invites defiance, but a liberating self-mastery may be tucked away in that ‘other, wiser way of behaving toward the land’. We need more compelling language than ‘self-restraint’ and ‘self-mastery’ – perhaps somewhere in those rich seams of round-sounding capacious Eskimo words there is a term that might serve (ideas welcome, include from other languages, or neologisms conjured in the magic of your mind).
In the meantime, find some plant, tree, creature or place before which you can joyously, admiringly bow and thereby reconnect with your dreams.
This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration. In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of the horned lark, you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream. p. xxix
Note: Barry Lopez mentions that ‘Eskimo’ is an inclusive term referring to the descendents of the Thule cultural tradition in present-day Canada and the Punuk and Birnirk cultural traditions in modern-day Alaska. In addition, the Eskimo terms he highlights are from the Inuktitut dialects of the eastern Canadian Arctic.
A particular inspiration to me was one of the Eskimo words Lopez brings to light. It resonated so deeply that I have carried it around like a talisman for decades, recently culminating in the launch of a celebratory website: www.nuannaarpoq.com. Please visit, enjoy, and sign up for more!