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Arctic Dreams (1986)

by Barry Lopez

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,898408,400 (4.14)1 / 180
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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» See also 180 mentions

English (39)  Spanish (1)  All languages (40)
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Interesting topics and observations, but the prose is too flowery, and sometimes melodramatic, for me. ( )
  lschiff | Sep 24, 2023 |
Excellent with quibbles. Books of this variety are frequently dry. This one was not. If each chapter were cut by 20% it would have been better. But still a great read. ( )
  JBGUSA | Jan 2, 2023 |
Extremely readable and beautifully written nonfiction covering almost every aspect of the arctic. This book contains elements of biology, zoology, botany, archeology, anthropology, ecology, ornithology, geography, oceanography, meteorology, geology, cartography, and more. It includes segments on muskoxen, polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales, narwhals, seals, walruses, migration patterns, where its people originated and how they live, hunting, ice and snow, the aurora borealis, history of its exploration, and scientific expeditions. It exudes a sense of place, and the author’s love for this land is almost palpable.

Lopez goes beyond technical explanations, offering insight on the human responses to this stark and stunning environment. He covers topics not typically found in a science-based book, such as art, culture, emotion, imagination, spirituality, philosophy, and the capacity for astonishment. He cautions that the extremes of this terrain make it exceedingly susceptible to man-induced catastrophes, and that long-term thinking is needed to ensure we do not destroy it, as it recovers from harm more slowly than a temperate ecosystem. Lopez makes a cogent argument that deep-rooted ideas about seasons, time, space, distance, and light are not applicable to the arctic, and that different ways of thinking about these concepts are needed.

I have read numerous scientific books and I am fascinated by the ability to survive in extreme conditions. This book stands out for its ability to communicate the science involved in understanding the arctic, while simultaneously clarifying the limits of scientific thinking in gaining a true sense of the region. It marries science and sentiment extremely well, though it occasionally drifts into rather esoteric realms. Recommended to those interested in the arctic, environmentalism, nature, science, or the relationship of humans to the natural world.

Memorable passage:
“But the ethereal and timeless power of the land, that union of what is beautiful with what is terrifying, is insistent. It penetrates all cultures, archaic and modern. The land gets inside us; and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it.” ( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
This Non-Fiction National Book Award Winner is not easy to categorize. It is rhapsodic writing, sometimes impressionistic and sometimes full of jaw-dropping facts: part geography (of the Arctic), part natural history, part biology (including background on muskoxen, polar bears, seals, walruses, narwhals, caribou, lemmings and numerous sea birds), part Eskimo sociology, part history of polar and Arctic exploration, and part philosophical musings on the relation of man to his environment and the relationship of human hunters to their prey.

I learned a great deal from this book. Clue to reading the book: have on hand several large, detailed maps of the region. Appendix I of the book contains the latitude and longitude of most of the key places mentioned. The story of the search for the Northwest Passage is greatly enhanced by being able to visualize the obstacles.

Some of the items that stood out to me:

In the search for the Northwest Passage (a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean), all the early explorers had to overwinter in the Arctic. An examination of a good map of the region shows how difficult it was to find a clear path through the area. While there are a number of large islands, there are only narrow bodies of water to get around them. Moreover, many of the apparent passages lead to dead ends or become blocked by large chunks of ice. Early attempts often ended in death and disaster.

Robert Peary, the self-proclaimed first explorer to reach the North Pole (his claims are in doubt), had other personality flaws besides an outsized ego and a tendency to alter facts to suit it. He notoriously mistreated the Inuit, convincing six individuals to come to America with him for “study.” He then deposited them in New York with the American Museum of Natural History as live “specimens” and abandoned them. The Inuit were kept in damp, humid conditions and within a few months, four died of tuberculosis, their remains dissected, and their bones put on display. A fifth managed to gain passage back to Greenland, and only the sixth, a boy of six or seven remained, orphaned and adrift in New York.

Peary was also cruel to his animals. He fed some of his sled dogs to the others in order to minimize the amount of food the expedition had to carry.

Lopez lived among the Eskimos while working on this book, and he discovered that few outsiders had much knowledge of the Eskimo language beyond the conversational, and even less understanding of their culture. He averred it was ''nonsense'' to consider our culture sophisticated and theirs naive.

A notion of community dominates the Eskimo worldview, as expressed by the Eskimo word “Isumataq.” It means one person cannot possibly hold all wisdom. Sharing information, respecting the opinions of others, pooling knowledge, and a respect for nature is the key to their survival.

Contrary to the popular misconception, lemmings don’t commit suicide. They migrate in large groups, and those at the front can get pushed over cliffs by the mobs following behind.

The wildlife in the Arctic is hardy. Polar bears are so well insulated they actually need to get rid of excess heat, which they do by eating snow.

In the Arctic, one often can’t discern if what is visible is a big distant thing or a close small thing. A Swedish explorer had all but completed a written description of two unusually symmetrical valley glaciers making up a a large island, when he discovered what he was looking at was a walrus.

The light in the Arctic is like a living thing, and was a constant source of awe for Lopez. Although the sun virtually disappears for the entire winter, the Northern Lights, a phenomenon caused by ionic reactions in the upper atmosphere, afford some illumination as well as putting on spectacular dynamic displays. When the sun reappears in spring, one is filled with gratitude and pleasure. Lopez noted that the reflection of the sun on the ice constantly shifts, creating scenes ranging from magnificent skyscapes to staggering cathedral-like structures made out of ice. In spite of the monochromatic landscape, nothing stays the same.

Lopez concludes about the Arctic that it is a country of the mind:

“It is easy to underestimate the power of a long-term association with the land, not just with a specific spot but with the span of it in memory and imagination, how it fills, for example, one’s dreams.”

The final line in Mr. Lopez's book, when he is standing alone on an island in the dark, silent Arctic, reads: "I was full of appreciation for all that I had seen." And readers are grateful that he shared it.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Oct 17, 2022 |
Review: Artic Dreams by Barry Lopez. 4* 08/18/2022

This book was very interesting and informing. Barry Lopez wrote a non-fiction educating, memorizing account of the Arctic surroundings. He writes effortlessly like it’s a great celebration of the profusion of life with many historical, cultural, philosophical excursions and the scientific matter of the environment.

I don’t think Barry Lopez left anything out when he wrote this book. He covered almost every aspect of the Artic. In this book the author wrote about the elements of biology, the study of plants, zoology, the study of human culture, archeology, ecology, and the study of birds, geography, oceanography and more. It also includes where its people originated and a lot of data on the animals as seals polar bears and whales. Included is the history of exploration, hunting and the aurora borealis. This was a magnificent book to read. Barry Lopez did a wonderful job organizing valuable information on most aspects of the region ( )
  Juan-banjo | Oct 8, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barry Lopezprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rambelli, RobertaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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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.

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