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

You couldn’t have an environment more in contrast with the landscapes that are the subject matter of this book.  I was walking along in baking hot Brooklyn, New York, on this or that errand.  The heat wave was stifling.  There was little greenery anywhere, and what there was had a coating of greasy smog and exhaust on it.  Odd smells emanated from the garbage cans.  I was covered with a film of sweat and grit.  On the sidewalk in front of a small shop next to the post office I saw a small table with a sign advertising used books, two for a dollar.  A book lover never passes up a situation like that unless he is in the midst of a life-or-death emergency.  And right there on the top sat this book, “Arctic Dreams”, which I had been meaning to read for years.  I had read about it; I had heard it had won the National Book Award; I knew it was my cup of tea.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find another book on the table or in the boxes underneath to pair with this one, so I walked inside and convinced the guy to give me the one book for fifty cents.  It was a good paperback copy.  I would have paid the whole buck for it; hell, I would have paid five bucks for it.  But the finagling was part of the fun, and the shopkeeper and I parted amicably.

This book is a description of the author’s travels in the arctic, but it is far more than just a travelogue.  It does not merely describe the landscapes, the animals, and the peoples he encounters.  It explores what the arctic does to the mind and heart, what it awakens in the hopes and dreams and desires of those who live in or travel through the land.

The author is a poet as well as an adventurer.  He describes in depth the life cycles of such animals as the musk ox, the polar bear, and the narwhal.  He traces the legends of the unicorn that grew from appearances in Europe of the narwhal’s long straight tusk.  He details the migrations of animals like arctic birds and the caribou.  He describes the long journey of the peoples who became Eskimos from Asia, of their struggles to adapt to the land, of the way that they became part of the environment around them and as a result managed to survive and thrive in a place others find uninhabitable, of how modern technology has affected their way of life, both for better and for worse.  He writes of the long cycles of light and darkness in the arctic that wreak havoc on psyches unaccustomed to them, of the different concepts of day and night, of mirages and other tricks the light plays on the horizon, of the glimmering aurora borealis.  He describes the harsh landscapes of the tundra and the iceberg-strewn seas and the polar ice sheets.

He mainly focuses on the portion of the arctic from the Bering Sea to Greenland, especially the islands of the Canadian archipelago.  Most of the land north of the Arctic Circle consists of the Canadian islands and Greenland.  It is here where early explorers searched for the northwest passage.  A long section of the book details the various expeditions that sought for that elusive route through the northern islands to the trade lands of Asia.  Many lives were lost in a futile attempt to find that trade route.  The men were unprepared for the vagaries of the land, unwilling to accept the help or adopt the ways of those who had already learned to live in the environment.

I can’t say I have an overwhelming urge to see the arctic for myself.  I don’t do well in the cold.  I’m one of the first in the house to start bundling up when fall starts turning into winter.  I’d probably visit Alaska if I had the opportunity, and even head up into the far north if I were sure I could rest in a warm bed at night and have hot drinks and hot food.  But this is one of those books that you can dive into and experience the thrill of being there without being there, through the words.  The author has made the trip for me.  He has walked the land, done the research, and has sat down and written about it so I can enjoy the experience vicariously.  I’m grateful for that.  That’s one thing that books are for.  I can’t go to Middle Earth, either, and yet Tolkien takes me there.  In some ways the arctic is as distant for me as Middle Earth, but Lopez has made the journey and in this book invites me to accompany him.  I am glad to acquiesce.  This is a great book, well-written and informative and fascinating.

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