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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a…

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986)

by Barry Lopez

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This is a fascinating look at the Arctic, with each chapter thematically taking on one topic: polar bears, narwhals, ice and light, the history of polar exploration, and much more. Throughout, Lopez riffs on the theme of landscape, and our relationship with the land itself shaping us and shaping how we view it.

I haven't read many books that would fit into this category, if I can call it a category, of philosophical nature writing. The closest authors I can think of - and it's a stretch thematically on the one hand and stylistically on the other - are Henry David Thoreau and E.B. White. But if you like thoughtful writing, history, travel and nature, it's definitely worth a try. Just don't expect to read it very fast, as his dense style will take some getting used to. ( )
  bell7 | Mar 25, 2015 |
A classic, published in 1986, although I've managed to not read it until now. That's my loss, since Lopez's prose is astonishing, both in its scientific & journalistic precision & in its philosophical, ethical lyricism. In fact, his musings constitute a profoundly useful ethics of respect toward & value-recognition of both land & life in the Arctic (& by extrapolation, all places, species & cultures on Earth). One that assumes the dignity of each being within an ultimately unpossessable landscape. I found Lopez's account of the history of European exploration, mapping & "discovery" less compelling than his accounts of signature species & cultures in the Arctic, all the while recognizing its utility. For it was these explorers who for the most part aimed to control, to possess & profit from rather than to live with or in the Far North. Almost 30 years after the publication of Arctic Dreams, we know the situation to be even more dire than Lopez could envisage in the 1980s: Climate Change is rapidly warming & melting while radically changing habitats of the North, to the point that CC rather than overhunting might spell doom for species like the Polar Bear or transform them into archaic zoo species; and drilling for oil continues(already in the 80s the Alaskan Oil Pipeline was in place)with proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at high risk of becoming reality. ( )
1 vote Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
This was a picturesque trip into life in the North American arctic. Lopez discusses the native tradition of focusing on significant time or geographical locations within the individual or community's memory and then utilizes it as a framework for his writing. The chapters focus around a theme, such as "narwhal", "views of development" or "light", in which the writer weaves his experiences with historical and scientific data. Overall, an excellent book. ( )
  bethanyinthetaiga | Apr 8, 2014 |
This was a non-fiction written rather like a memoir featuring the author’s observations from travels in the Arctic Circle with a combination of historical, biological, anthropological, sociological, philosophical and geological anecdotes peppered throughout. Overall I found it readable, but sometimes it got overly scientific and dense – some skimming was done. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the Arctic, such as exploration, icebergs or polar bears. I especially liked the chapters focusing on species and reading about interesting aspects of their biology, habitat, and interactions with humans. Did you know there is a fish with a 10 foot unicorn-like horn? It is called the narwhal and really confused some of the earlier Arctic explorers. I would recommend this with the caveats that you should be interested in scientific writing and have plenty of time to read it. ( )
  aliciamay | May 1, 2013 |
What do you say about a work that attempts to fully examine the Arctic from within and without, both as a place that is real and a place upon which Westerners have imposed their dreams and delusions and greed. (The original people had few, if any, delusions about the place and its rigors). The first five chapters - each chapter is almost exactly fifty pages long - examine the natural history of the region, meticulously and readably, from migration routes to a focus on particular iconic animals from the polar bear to the narwhal, and also some of the lesser but important animals, the arctic fox and hares. He examines what is known about how each of these animals lives, what they eat, what eats them, and how they survive. In every case he is watching for how the animal lives in 'harmony' with the land, how they deal with disaster, with change. One feature, of the Arctic, for example is that conditions can change dramatically, populations periodically crash and recover, and some of the animals are more adaptable than others.. He also looks at the relationship each animal has to the native people, how and who hunts them. There is a little about modern hunting and whaling but for the most part Lopez spares us that. Much is still unknown and possibly unknowable about the arctic, both polar regions are beyond challenging to researchers, so that, for example, nothing is known of what narwhals get up to for large parts of the year. No one has seen a narwhal being born (if I remember correctly... it might have been some kind of walrus) or mating or anything like that. Chapter six through nine move into the deeper Lopez theme of examining how Westerners have 'seen' the Arctic - what has drawn them to such an inhospitable climate - from the monks who explored it six centuries ago, to the obsessive search for the Northwest Passage. He spends time too, examining how the attitudes of each captain or leader of expeditions determined - and frighteningly so - survival. Those who could be respectful and learn from the Eskimo were more likely to survive, those who paid attention and took precautions, who listened to their humblest sailors, who were not arrogant, well, most of them made it home. The others did not. Peary. Franklin. It's sobering. He looks at painters and oil diggers and life for the modern Eskimo, Lopez is observing everything always looking at how our dreams and ideas feed what we see and how we act. One of his most telling observations is that he begins to realize that whatever you have read about the Arctic, before you see it, will greatly influence WHAT you see when you are there. Some of the most moving and elegant writing (and all of it is elegant, believe me) is about how we forge a relationship and give meaning and depth to our lives - as in real happiness and contentment - by respecting and knowing all about the landscape around us. We are one organism surrounded and embraced by countless living organisms - even in a place as seemingly bleak as the Arctic: life, movement change prevail. Breathtakingly well expressed. Someone mentioned, when I said I was reading Arctic Dreams that their partner keeps a copy of it by the bedside, and I can fully understand why. Above all it is Lopez the writer who staggers - he can write about scientific minutia, say, how ice is formed, or about our moral and ethical responsibilities to the earth with equal clarity. This review does not do the book justice, not even close. ***** ( )
11 vote sibyx | Feb 8, 2013 |
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The landscape conveys an impression of absolute permanence. It is not hostile. It is simply there - untouched, silent and complete. It is very lonely, yet the absence of all human traces gives you the feeling that you understand this land and can take your place in it.
Edmund Carpenter
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.
He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.
He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colors of the dawn and dusk.
N. Scott Momaday
For Sandra
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On a warm summer day in 1823, the Cumbrian, a 360-ton British whaler, sailed into the waters off Pond's Bay (now Pond Inlet), northern Baffin Island, after a short excursion to the north.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375727485, Paperback)

Based on 15 extended trips to the Canadian far north over a five-year period, Arctic Dreams celebrates the mysteries of what documentarians fondly call "last frontiers." Such places are everywhere in danger of destruction in the interest of ever-elusive economic progress, but Lopez writes no jeremiads. Instead, he aims to foster a kind of learned understanding of wild places, in this case the vast, scarcely knowable northern landscape. Writing of the natural history of the Arctic and its inhabitants--narwhals, polar bears, beluga whales, musk oxen, and caribou among them--Lopez draws powerful lessons from the land and imparts them assuredly and gracefully. Arctic Dreams deservedly won a National Book Award in 1986 when it was first published.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:50 -0400)

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This book is an account of the history, ecology, and mystique of the arctic region. The author offers a thorough examination of this obscure world, its terrain, its wildlife, its history of Eskimo natives and intrepid explorers who have arrived on their icy shores. But what turns this marvelous work of natural history into a breathtaking study of profound originality is his unique meditation on how the landscape can shape our imagination, desires, and dreams. Its prose as hauntingly pure as the land it describes, and is nothing less than an indelible classic of modern literature.… (more)

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