Arctic Dreams

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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...

(This entire section contains 1748 words.)

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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.

Lopez is at his best when he writes about the animals of the region. He pictures a society of animals, most of them predatory, that have adapted not only to the extremes of cold that characterizes the Arctic but also to the twenty-four hours of darkness that constitute their diurnal cycles in winter and to the twenty-four hours of sunlight that constitute their diurnal cycles in summer.

The denning animals, notably the polar bear, hibernate, although not in the ways that many people imagine. The pregnant female polar bear is the one most likely to construct a den and retreat into it for half the year, living on her fat and awaiting the birth of her cubs. Male polar bears and females that are not pregnant are not nearly so consistent in their patterns of hibernation as the pregnant female is, although all polar bears live essentially off their fat during the winter, to such an extent that they may lose half their body weight in the months between October and April.

A pregnant female will construct a den only large enough for her to move around in, building a tunnel to it that will accommodate her body, a passageway about two feet in diameter. As the arrival of her cubs nears, she will construct space for them because they will be in the den with her for up to two months after birth, during which time they grow from about one pound to twenty-five pounds in weight. They live on their mother’s milk, which is among the richest of known milks, surpassing even that of seal milk in nutrient value.

Lopez traces a swift evolution from the brown bear to the polar bear which, in some cases, stands twelve feet high and, in summer, may in some cases weight more than a ton. He notes that adaptation in the Arctic is greatly accelerated in most species. Certainly failure to adapt through evolution would result in extinction.

The polar bear, whose hair is hollow and stands erect so that it does not mat, can dry itself by shaking and by rolling around in the snow. The layers of fat that insulate it from the extremes of the cold water in which it must hunt seals, provide it simultaneously with nourishment during the long winter. An underlayer of wool protects it from the cold winds. The polar bear produces so much heat that heat retention would be a greater problem to it than the cold were it not for the fact that its footpads and other less insulated body areas conduct heat away from it.

Lopez writes with feeling and with a remarkable depth of knowledge and understanding about the Arctic creatures, such as lemmings, ringed seals, horned narwhals, musk oxen, beluga and bowhead whales, caribou, the crustaceans and fish of the Bering Strait, booming walruses, and varied bird life. He writes in a celebratory way about these wonders of nature, existing as they do in a remarkably hostile and predatory environment which, through the millennia, has been balanced, however, precariously, in such a way that it has endured.

Lopez depicts nonliving things, such as the huge icebergs that he encounters as he sails toward the Strait of Belle Island, with the same sort of zeal that characterizes his writing about Arctic animals:The first icebergs we had seen. . . listing and guttered by the ocean, seemed immensely sad, exhausted by some unknown calamity. We sailed past them. Farther north they began to seem like stragglers fallen behind an army, drifting, self-absorbed, in the water, bleak and immense. It was as if they had been borne down from a world of myth, some Götterdämmerung of noise and catastrophe.

He then compares them to fallen pieces of the moon. It is this sort of writing and this level of analogical observation—images of caribou moving across the land like wood smoke in a snowstorm or of whales whose skin is the color of a bruise—which distinguish this book and make it comparable to the best of Loren Eisley’s scientific writing for general readers.

The manner in which Lopez discusses the types of ice in Arctic Dreams brings to mind the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, formulated by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir, according to which the language of various social groups indicates the relative values these groups places on various items. For example, shepherds have many words to describe grass, because the types of grass on which their flocks feed is of considerable importance. Similarly, the types of ice that exist in the Arctic are so numerous that each type demands a special word to indicate its unique qualities. It is a matter of life and death to know precisely what kind of ice one is about to encounter, and Lopez recounts in detail the kinds of ice that one finds in the far northern reaches. He also goes into the dynamics of ice, telling how it forms and how some types move with such inexorable and crushing force that anything in their path will be annihilated.

Lopez also devotes considerable attention to a discussion of light in the northern reaches. He compares the colors of the snow-covered earth to those of a desert, to ochres and siennas, to gray greens.Arresting color in the Arctic is found more often in the sky, with its vivid twilights and aurora borealis. . . . Arctic skies retain the colors of dawn and dusk for hours in winter. On days when the southern sky is barely lit for a while around noon, layers of deep violet, of bruised purples and dense blues, may stretch across 80° of the horizon, above a familiar lavender and the thinnest line of yellow gold.

Lopez notes the effect of Arctic light upon the nineteenth century school of luminist painters, about whom he writes knowledgeably. Indeed, his many apt allusions to painting and to architecture reveal a considerable breadth of learning in the fine arts, and these comparisons enhance the book substantially.

Although Arctic Dreams, winner of the 1986 American Book Award in the category of nonfiction, is not strident, it certainly makes a fervent ecological statement. Perhaps Lopez’s tendency to understate permits this book to make its ecological point more effectively and permanently than a polemical statement could have. His environmental concerns are both apparent and informed.


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Booklist. LXXXII, January 1, 1986, p. 643.

Business Week. April 14, 1986, p. 20.

Choice. XXIII, May, 1986, p. 1390.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, March 7, 1986, p. 22.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, February 1, 1986, p. 188.

Library Journal. CXI, March 1, 1986, p. 102.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, February 16, 1986, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXII, March 17, 1986, p. 110.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 24, 1986, p. 65.

Time. CXXVII, March 10, 1986, p. 74.