Arctic Dreams

Barry Lopez
Bantam Books

A reader could be prone to chills on a sunny March day as spring breaks through, and still be mesmerized by the love Lopez clearly has for a land that routinely has temperatures double digits below zero centigrade. His love of the landscape’s mysterious, often impenetrable serenity, is filled with mirages and challenges for daily survival that suspend a reader’s usual perceptions like a good science fiction.

Slyly, he invites the reader to imagine the polar solstices, learn about the elegant polar bear, muskox and the mythical narwhal. He’s a scientist who can write poetry: “In the reprieve at the end of the day, in the stillness of a summer evening, the world sheds its categories, the insistence of its future, and is suspended solely in the lilt of its desire.”

In cascading sentences he explains the seasons, animal migrations, a surprising variety of plants and we get a peek at the elusive Eskimo. I would like to incorporate some of their language into English. Quviannikumut means to feel at peace with the world and deeply happy. Long and patient waiting is quinuituq. An isumataq is a person who can create an atmosphere of deep wisdom.

Language appears to be endless. I have a reasonable vocabulary, but I often learn new words in well written and deeply crafted books. Lopez presented me with more than the usual with tenebrous (dark, away from the light), polynya (an area of open water in sea ice), and disquisitions (a formal inquiry).

Definitely not a vacation book, Arctic Dreams was enjoyable to read in deep winter when I easily drift into his atmosphere and was willing to read patiently during long dark nights. Deftly, he led me along to enjoy the Arctic’s unknowable beauty, and then woke me up by describing early explorers intrepidly sailing toward doom in ill-equipped ships that are trapped by ice for three or four years, leaving them reduced to eating rat soup. Their endless attempts to map the land suggests dozens of stories still to be researched and written.

But as the book went on, I found it more information, science and history than, in the end, I was able to absorb. It ends with the presence of today’s oil companies as he describes them as pleasure adventurers that are littering the landscape as they are in Nepal. The comparative ease of today’s visitor describes oil company housing with carpet, snack bars and work-out machines. Barry may be a last recorder of the Arctic’s original landscape.


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