“In the reprieve at the end of a 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.” –Barry Lopez, in Arctic Dreams (1986)
Even though I’m back in warmer climates, I still have a longing for cold places, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) satiated some of that desire by taking me into the Far North, an enchanted place of snow and ice where shrewd animals, resilient people, and hardy plants do much more than simply survive in the cold. Arctic Dreams is, by now, a modern classic in the natural history category, and although I wish that I had read it sooner, I found that it does indeed have that enduring quality—which is good for those of you who still haven’t read it. This book won’t drop into literary oblivion before you decide to take it up.
In the book’s Prologue, Lopez says “At the heart of this narrative, then, are three themes: the influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination. How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth.” Arctic Dreams sounds like an ambitious narrative, and it is. Lopez slowly draws us into this world through early chapters devoted to the area’s unique wildlife: muskoxen, narwhals, polar bears, snow geese, and whales. His later chapters forge more complex relationships between these animals and their historical connections with people and place. In the end, one understands what Lopez means when he says: “For a relationship with a landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.”
The best parts of Arctic Dreams are its adventurous bits—the parts within which Lopez, himself, is a part of the narrative, and in other sections, I wanted to see the author more involved. But maybe that’s just me. Lopez takes on a huge project with this book, and I admire him deeply for it. For anyone wanting to read more natural history, this book should be read and will certainly be admired for its ability not only to reconstruct the physical aspects of a place but also to uncover how a place makes its home in our dreams.
I’ll end with one of my favorite Arctic Dreams passages (not because it has anything to do with what I’ve said above about the book, but rather because it has everything to do with what I have been thinking about lately):
“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”