Friday, January 31, 2014

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez

Good writing—vivid, precise, lyrical, descriptive prose—can be its own justification.  Good writing is one of many justifications for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez (Scribner’s, 1986).  By any definition, this book is encyclopedic—in length, scope, ambitions, and spirit.  It’s one of the great American books about landscape, in this case the Arctic landscape.  As an example, Lopez’s descriptions of icebergs, his epic list of their categories and types and names, are (words escape me) breathtaking.  He explores the Arctic world through its wildlife (the narwhale chapter was especially interesting), geography, native culture, archaeological history going back thousands of years, ecology, and European discovery.  The book concludes with a long narrative detailing the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage and the voyages of discovery it motivated.  The research and experiences that went into the writing of this book (numerous trips to the Arctic, long sojourns there) suggest not only resolute dedication but obsession.  In his own way Lopez is like one of the British explorers who spent three or four years in the Arctic, waiting for the ice to thaw so that their ships were free to sail home.  But it’s not clear that Lopez has a home.  For him the Arctic emptiness, the lack of detail (on first observation), the long dark winters, and the silence are attractors.  He explores human nature in this book, the nature of the human spirit both to discover and to learn as well as to exploit and desecrate.  Clearly the Arctic too is a mirror of Lopez’s own inner self.  In addition to all the other things Arctic Dreams is, this is a work of reverence, self-contemplation, and spirituality.  In that regard it reminded me of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978), and to a lesser extent John McPhee’s Basin and Range (1981), but the scope here is more encompassing.

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