As terrestrial frontiers go, the circumpolar regions have long been man’s most formidable and mysterious. In Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, Barry Lopez, whose earlier writings about nature, in such books as Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven (1976), Of Wolves and Men (1978), River Notes: The Dance of Herons (1979), and Winter Count (1981), have won for him enthusiastic plaudits, focuses on the northern circumpolar regions, particularly the area between the Bering Strait and the Davis Strait.
Lopez, who has made several trips to the Arctic, has observed his sources closely and recorded the fruits of his observations meticulously. He has also done extensive research on the Arctic at the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, Alberta, and the results of his research are, in particular, detailed in the last chapters of the book. These chapters focus on the various expeditions that have through the centuries explored this frozen landscape.
Lopez handles his materials with the meticulous care of a scientist, with the visual sensitivity of a painter, with the cadences and insights of a poet, and with the ingenuous awe of a man to whom the Arctic has revealed wonders that border on the religious. His first-person narrative is deceptively casual, disarmingly nonchalant; its flow and its careful use of language remind one of the best of E. B. White’s writing.
Even though many sections of the book are highly specialized, they are nevertheless easily accessible to nonspecialists. Reading that is simultaneously this hard and this easy points to writing that is carefully calculated, penetratingly observed, and effectively revised. Lopez knows his material well and reacts to it enthusiastically. He also knows his audience and understands precisely how to share with them the enchantment that he has found in the extreme North.
Part of the scientific allure of the Arctic is that its ecosystem is only ten thousand years old, dating to the retreat of the Wisconsin ice. This makes it the youngest ecosystem and, to many, the most interesting on the planet. By comparison, the history of man, from Cro-Magnon to the late twentieth century is four times older.
Lopez demonstrates some of the intense drawing power the Arctic has on humans, who sometimes are drawn so much into the majesty of the nature that surrounds them in the far North that they lose judgment and put themselves at great risk. Lopez himself was at times in imminent peril, but at such moments, he felt detached, somehow removed from the danger. On one occasion, his clothing became wet and froze on his person.I began to recognize in the enduring steadiness another kind of calmness, or relief. The distance between my body and my thoughts slowly became elongated, and muffled like a dark, carpeted corridor. . . . I knew I had to get to dry clothes, to get them on. But desire could not move my legs or arms. They were too far away. I was staring at someone, then moving; the soaked clothes were coming off. I could not make a word in my mouth.
In passages such as this one, ever replete with rich similes and vivid metaphors, Lopez captures the detached quality that overtakes one in the Arctic. He depicts with precision the difference in how one views the demarcations of time and space that exist in this frozen world about which he is writing.
Lopez writes accurately and passionately about the legendary explorers who have left their mark on the northern Arctic regions and about the Eskimos who inhabit them. He depicts individual Eskimos bent on testing outsiders who come to explore or exploit the area. In some cases they rob the intruders, in others they help them.
The Eskimos are fighting a losing battle against the white man and against an industrialized civilization that threatens the fragile Arctic environment. Lopez cites historical evidence to suggest that as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population of the Arctic has died off from such diseases as pneumonia, tuberculosis, smallpox, diphtheria, and poliomyelitis as the white man has made incursions into the area in ever-increasing numbers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
(The entire section is 1748 words.)