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Arctic Dreams (1986)

by Barry Lopez

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,654318,056 (4.15)119
For better readers, an account of the history, ecology, and mystique of the arctic region.
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English (30)  Spanish (1)  All languages (31)
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
If you are Canadian or really and truly interested in the Arctic, then this would rate five stars for you.

I was more interested in the history, facts and observations than the occasional musings.

Nice assortment of maps. ( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
Writing a decent book isn't that difficult - there are multitudes of good writers with a facility for language who can come up with something readable merely by applying their talents to a given subject for a few months. It's a matter of mechanics more than anything else: give an established writer a topic and a deadline and you can be assured that most of the time the resulting product whether fiction or non-fiction will slide smoothly down the gullets of the reading public. To write a truly excellent book, however, you have to be truly passionate about your subject. This fire in the heart and in the fingers can't be mistaken; it's a vividness of imagery, a sharpness of perception, an outpouring of insight, and a rhythm of prose that makes reading the result both a pleasure and an education, which Arctic Dreams certainly is.

Arctic Dreams a nature book, and the finest books about nature are great examples of the unity between edification and entertainment that a driven author can achieve: to pick only American authors, John McPhee has made an entire career out of mining the lyrical side of the English language from the alpine majesties of the natural world, Jack London's lupine solitudes will always be peerless in their intensity and force, Rachel Carson almost singlehandedly revived the idea of the environment as a political issue worth caring about, and Henry David Thoreau is still worth rereading to understand the conflicted mindset of the modern lover of nature. Lopez borrows from each of those traditions in this work whose subtitle ("Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape") gives a good indication of his take on the Arctic. It talks about animals, birds, fish, whales, water, ice, the stars, the sun, Eskimos, explorers, painters, all refracted prismatically by the effect that this daunting edge of the Earth has on people like him who have lived in it for years.

It's obvious he had something of a religious experience out there in the Arctic - his lengthy digressions on the history of the narwhal or the migration of muskoxen flow in torrents that rejoin the main narrative after epic journeys of history and data, while his ruminations on the difficulty European painters had in replicating the peculiar clarity of light they saw in that alien landscape are just one of the ways he tries to get across the idea that this place can't be described in words, even if they have the fit and precision of ice blocks in an igloo. His discussions of paintings are key, and I highly recommend looking up the artwork he references while you read, because a lot of the book is devoted to the mindset you get in when surrounded by towering icebergs and endless plains. Having those depictions, as inadequate as they are, increases your appreciation for the daunting contrast he describes between the implacable earth and the ambition of man.

It's hard to read the book and come away not full of superlatives and flowery metaphors, which is a testament to the power of Lopez's prose. I haven't stopped reading so often to admire an apt phrase since I first read McPhee's Encounters With the Archdruid, and while Lopez is much more politically engaged in his subject than the scrupulously neutral McPhee, I feel like it only enhances the intensity of his ardor for the land and puts him more in Carson's realm.

I ultimately found that I had only two minor issues with the book, both related. The first issue concerns a brief discussion of the differences between Eskimo and outsider languages as they relate to the Arctic wilderness. Invoking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Lopez offers the claim that due to the grammatical construction of the Hopi language, it would be easier for a Hopi child to understand quantum mechanics than an English-speaking child. Suffice it to say, this is the worst kind of layman pseudo-science (I must have missed the overwhelming dominance of Hopi speakers in theoretical physics), and it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. At least he didn't repeat the infamous "50 words for snow" canard.

The other issue is the general over-romanticism of the Eskimos and their way of life. While I've never been to the Arctic and have gotten all my knowledge of Eskimo culture from books, passage after passage veered dangerously close to noble savage clichés that told me more about Lopez's disdain for his own culture than anything about Eskimos. Couldn't you write that 14th century English peasants were "exquisitely adapted to the rhythms of their environment" with equal veracity, or rhapsodize about their "differing conceptions of time and space" in the same way? The commendable sympathy and insight Lopez had for the Eskimo way of life and the challenges it faces from modern society did not need the encrustations of idolatry he chose to provide. However, the book is still excellent, and is highly recommended if you like great writing about cool nature topics. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
"Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an ‘umiak,’ not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A Central Eskimo shaman named Aua, queried by Knud Rasmussen about Eskimo beliefs answered, 'We do not believe. We fear.'"

"Many people claim that the aurora makes a sound, a muffled swish or 'a whistling and crackling noise, like the waving of a large flag on a fresh fale of wind,' as the explorer Samuel Hearne wrote. And some Eskimos say 'the lights' will respond to a gentle whistling and come nearer. They easily evoke feelings of awe and tenderness; the most remarkable effect they seem to have, however, is to draw a viewer emotionally up and out of himself, because they throw the sky into a third dimension, on such a vast scale, in such a beautiful way, that they make the emotion of self-pity impossible." ( )
  uncleflannery | May 16, 2020 |
The Arctic has captivated people for centuries, it has held the promise of wealth, is a place of unspoilt beauty whilst being one of the toughest places to survive in. It has drawn explorers and writers, adventurers and artists who use the landscape for inspiration. But it is an incredibly harsh environment; it takes no prisoners.

The celestial light on an arctic cusp

This hostile landscape is a place that Lopez has returned to time and time again to discover the people and animals that navigate and migrate across this land of ice. The ecosystem there is finely balanced and part of his story tells us how these closely interlocked systems are so susceptible to external influences, in particular with regards to climate. As well as writing about his journeys, we learn about the discoveries that were made by sailors and explorers over the past four hundred years, many of whom lost their lives as sailed into the freezing oceans. He describes his scientific observations, packing in details about the millions of birds and animals in the region.

Jet-black guillemots streaking over the white ice

I loved the landscape parts of the book, his eye for details on the landscape and the people are really good, and the writing comes across so well you could be there watching the aurora borealis with him. His writing is clear and concise, without being too showy. Whilst I understand it is important to set the context of how we came to know this place, there was a little too much history for a travel and nature book really, and I would have preferred much more on the landscape. It was worth reading, but I have read better though. ( )
  PDCRead | Apr 6, 2020 |
Barry Lopez has a keen eye and his outpouring of love and respect for the Arctic was a moving and lovely account of his, and indeed our, relationship to landscapes. The first chapters look at different animals in the Arctic, such as the polar bear, narwhale and muskox, but Lopez also skillfully weaves in philosophical investigation and personal experience. The final two chapters about Arctic exploration did not do such a fantastic job with weaving, I felt a bit like a pinball trying to keep the shifting of dates and names straight, it could have been a bit more linear for ease of understanding because these expeditions did sound intriguing and harrowing. ( )
  b.masonjudy | Apr 3, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barry Lopezprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rambelli, RobertaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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
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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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For better readers, an account of the history, ecology, and mystique of the arctic region.

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