Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape – Barry Lopez, 1986

Read for Nature & Environment. A profound book, one of the best I’ve read this decade. It’s up there with Braiding Sweetgrass in terms of changing the way I look at the world. I had somehow gotten Lopez mixed up with Bruce Chatwin, whose writing I don’t care for, so this was a revelation. It’s beautifully written, but the most striking thing about it is the breadth of ideas and observations, leading to insights I’ve never heard expressed elsewhere.

Short quotes

  • “Eskimos, who sometimes see themselves as still not quite separate from the animal world, regard us as a kind of people whose separation may have become too complete. They call us, with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, ‘the people who change nature.'”
  • “unnerving with their primitive habits: a mother wiping away a child’s feces with her hair, a man pinching the heart of a snared bird to kill it, so as not to ruin the feathers”
  • “Mankind is, in fact, even older than the Arctic, if you consider his history to have begun with the emergence of Cro-Magnon people in Europe 40,000 years ago.”
  • “Sitting high on a sea cliff in sunny, blustery weather in late June—the familiar sense of expansiveness, of deep exhilaration such weather brings over one, combined with the opportunity to watch animals, is summed up in a single Eskimo word: quviannikumut, ‘to feel deeply happy'”
  • “Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”
  • “Sciences are occasionally so bound by rational analysis, or so wary of metaphor, that they recognize and denounce anthropomorphism as a kind of intellectual cancer, instead of employing it as a tool of comparative inquiry, which is perhaps the only way the mind works, that parallelism we finally call narrative.”
  • “To a modern traveler the arctic landscape can seem numbingly monotonous, but this impression is gained largely, I think, from staring at empty maps of the region and from traveling around in it by airplane. The airplane, like the map, creates a false sense of space; it achieves simplicity and compression, however, not with an enforced perspective but by altering the relationship between space and time.”
  • “We sometimes mistake a rude life for a rude mind; raw meat for barbarism; lack of conversation for lack of imagination.”
  • “the caution with which one should approach any journal, of the tendency to make a single appealing narrative stand for the entire experience or, worse, to stand in place of the experience”
  • “The notion of Eskimos exploring their own lands and adapting anew at the same time Europeans were exploring the Arctic was something the Europeans were never aware of. They thought of the Arctic as fixed in time—a primitive landscape, a painting, inhabited by an attenuated people. They mistook the stillness and the cold for biological stasis. They thought nothing at all changed here. They thought it was a desert, a wasteland.”
  • “What is the point at which the ‘tragic’ loneliness of an individual, which drives him toward accomplishment, no longer effectively leads but confounds the well-being of the larger society?”

Longer quotes

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. What does it mean to grow rich? Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a fortune, which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north? Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?

Muskoxen are unique among ruminants in the amount of body contact they make. Even when they are fleeing, they gallop away shoulder to shoulder, flank to flank. One of the most dazzling displays of this I ever witnessed occurred on Seward Peninsula when a herd of muskoxen spun around on a hill in confusion at the approach of a low-flying aircraft. They moved as a single animal, rising in a tight turn to change direction. The wild, synchronous sweep of their long skirts was like a dark wave of water climbing a sea cliff before falling back on itself.

On land, the bear is protected by a thick underlayer of dense wool and a relatively open layer of guard hairs about six inches long. These guard hairs are so hard and shiny they appear synthetic. They are also hollow, which means that a polar bear’s fur stays erect and doesn’t mat when it is wet. Also, because of the open spacing and smoothness of its guard hairs, a bear can easily shake free of water before it freezes. (He also rolls in snow, an excellent blotter, to daub off moisture—as do people who accidently fall through the ice.)

These stories, of course, are from another era; but the craven taunting, the witless insensitivity, and the phony sense of adventure that propelled them are not from another age. They still afflict us. For these men, the bear had no intrinsic worth, no spiritual power of intercession, no ability to elevate human life. The circumstances of its death emphasized the breach with man. During these same years, by contrast, the killing of polar bears by Eskimos occurred in an atmosphere of respect, with implicit spiritual obligations. The dead bear, for example, was propitiated with gifts. Such an act of propitiation is sometimes dismissed as “superstition.” “Technique of awareness” would come much closer to the mark, words that remind you of what you are dealing with.

The ecotone [transitional area] at the Admiralty Inlet floe edge extends in two planes. In order to pass under the ice from the open sea, an animal must be free of a need for atmospheric oxygen; the floe edge, therefore, is a barrier to the horizontal migration of whales. In the vertical plane, no bird can penetrate the ice and birds like gulls can’t go below water with guillemots to feed on schools of fish. Sunlight, too, is halted at these borders.

Because you have seen something doesn’t mean you can explain it. Differing interpretations will always abound, even when good minds come to bear. The kernel of indisputable information is a dot in space; interpretations grow out of the desire to make this point a line, to give it a direction. The directions in which it can be sent, the uses to which it can be put by a culturally, professionally, and geographically diverse society, are almost without limit. The possibilities make good scientists chary. In a region like the Arctic, tense with a hunger for wealth, with fears of plunder, interpretation can quickly get beyond a scientist’s control. When asked to assess the meaning of a biological event—What were those animals doing out there? Where do they belong?—they hedge. They are sometimes reluctant to elaborate on what they saw, because they cannot say what it means, and they are suspicious of those who say they know. Some even distrust the motives behind the questions.

We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal. Where do they go and what do they eat in the winter, when it is too dark and cold for us to find them? The Chilean poet and essayist Pablo Neruda wonders in his memoirs how an animal this large can have remained so obscure and uncelebrated. Its name, he thought, was “the most beautiful of undersea names, the name of a sea chalice that sings, the name of a crystal spur.” Why, he wondered, had no one taken Narwhal for a last name, or built “a beautiful Narwhal Building?”

When they are feeding in the grain fields around Tule Lake, the geese come and go in flocks of five or ten thousand. Sometimes there are forty or fifty thousand in the air at once. They rise from the fields like smoke in great, swirling currents, rising higher and spreading wider in the sky than one’s field of vision can encompass. One fluid, recurved sweep of ten thousand of them passes through the spaces within another, counterflying flock; while beyond them lattice after lattice passes, like sliding Japanese walls, until in the whole sky you lose your depth of field and feel as though you are looking up from the floor of the ocean through shoals of fish.

After the herds have gone, the calving grounds can seem like the most deserted places on earth, even if you can sense strongly that the caribou will be back next year. When they do return, hardly anything will have changed. A pile of caribou droppings may take thirty years to remineralize on the calving grounds. The carcass of a wolf-killed caribou may lie undisturbed for three or four years. Time pools in the stillness here and then dissipates. The country is emptied of movement.

Eskimos quickly grasp the essence of any mechanical problem and solve it. Even when the object is something they’ve never seen before, they will select from “scrap” or “waste” material something with the right tensile strength or capacity for torsion or elasticity, something with the necessary resistance to heat, repeated freezing or corrosion, and shape it with simple tools into a serviceable if not permanent solution. Nineteenth-century explorers remarked on this capacity often, as have modern scientists with broken outboard engines and wristwatches.
Very sharp, someone once said, these broadly smiling men with no pockets, no hats, and no wheels.

The first icebergs we had seen, just north of the Strait of Belle Isle, listing and guttered by the ocean, seemed immensely sad, exhausted by some unknown calamity. We sailed past them. Farther north they began to seem like stragglers fallen behind an army, drifting, self-absorbed, in the water, bleak and immense. It was as if they had been borne down from a world of myth, some Götterdämmerung of noise and catastrophe. Fallen pieces of the moon.
Farther to the north they stood on their journeys with greater strength. They were monolithic; their walls, towering and abrupt, suggested Potala Palace at Lhasa in Tibet, a mountainous architecture of ascetic contemplation. We would pass between them, separated from them by no more than half a mile. I would walk from one side of the ship to the other, wondering how something so imposing in its suggestion of life could be approached so closely, and yet still seem so remote. It was like standing in a dirigible off Annapurna and Everest in the Himalayas.

In its initial stages, the crystalline structure of sea ice incorporates brine and is not solid. It will therefore bend under a load before it fractures, while newly formed freshwater ice, brittle and also more transparent, will fracture suddenly, like a windowpane. (Because of its elasticity, even sea ice four inches thick is unsafe to walk on, while freshwater ice only half as thick will support a human being.)

The variety of ice types and the many patterns of its fracture and dislocation amaze a first-time visitor. What could become as ordinary underfoot as soil or rock remains as exotic as the surface of another planet. When nilas sags beneath you, your legs have no idea what to do. If you are forced to cross a series of pressure ridges with a heavy sledge, or must fight constantly to keep a small boat from being crushed in moving pack ice, you have difficulty imagining any landscape more exhausting or humbling.

If I were a painter, I, too, would be taken with the fullness and subtle quality of the light here. You have the color balances from all twenty-four hours from which to choose, the sweeping lines of crisp desert vistas under huge prairie skies, and the rarefied air with which to work. Ice and water push the light up beneath cliffs and into other places where you would expect to find shadows, and back into the sky where it fills the air. At certain hours the land has the resolution of a polished diamond.

Luminist painters sought out a soothing and restful light, which they found along the New England coast at places like Provincetown, Massachusetts. The art critic John Russell, alluding to the nation’s mood after the Civil War, has called it “a healing light.” I think of these New England paintings because the light in them, the plein-air essence of it, is a familiar light in the Arctic. As I traveled to and from Resolute, especially in the evening hours around midnight, I beheld scenes that reminded me forcefully of the work of luminists like Fitz Hugh Lane. At Cape Vera, Devon Island, one evening, the water in Jones Sound was so black and matte-finished it looked like scorched earth, and the icebergs floating in it were so brilliant my eye could not rest on their surfaces. Another time, off the west coast of Ellef Ringnes Island, the air, not the sun, seemed to be the source of a flat, breathy light, within which I saw only long, restful lines: a bare strand meeting the dark water, and the water the vacant blue of the sky. And yet again on Banks Island, at two in the morning, I saw a herd of muskoxen moving across a shallow slope of green grass in strong light, through air as bright as if it had just been washed in a summer rain, with brilliant, individual pinpoints of purple lousewort and white avens in the foreground. As in the New England paintings, it was as though “all that one beheld was full of blessing.”

We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place. Considering the tradition of distant travelers, the range of their interests and the range of their countrymen’s desire to know, the government camp on Cornwallis Island seemed an impoverished outpost. There were no provisions there for painters, for musicians, for novelists. And there were no historians there. If the quest for knowledge in any remote place is meant in an egalitarian sense to be useful to all, then this is a peculiar situation. Yet it is no different from what one would find in a hundred other such remote places around the world. Whenever we seek to take swift and efficient possession of places completely new to us, places we neither own nor understand, our first and often only assessment is a scientific one. And so our evaluations remain unfinished.

Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression—its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.

If the mind releases its fiduciary grip on time, does not dole it out in a fretful way like a valued commodity but regards it as undifferentiated, like the flatness of the landscape, it is possible to transcend distance—to travel very far without anxiety, to not be defeated by the great reach of the land. If one is dressed well and carrying a little food, and has the means to secure more food and to construct shelter, the mind is that much more free to work with the senses in an appreciation of the country.

Stefansson was once asked by an Eskimo to whom he was showing a pair of binoculars for the first time whether he could “see into tomorrow” with them. Stefansson took the question literally and was amused. What the inuk probably meant was, Are those things powerful enough to see something that will not reach you for another day, like migrating caribou? Or a part of the landscape suitable for a campsite, which you yourself will not reach for another day?

It is impossible to separate their culture from these landscapes. The land is like a kind of knowledge traveling in time through them. Land does for them what architecture sometimes does for us. It provides a sense of place, of scale, of history; and a conviction that what they most dread—annihilation, eclipse—will not occur.

For Whorf, language was something man created in his mind and projected onto reality, something he imposed on the landscape, as though the land were a receptacle for his imagination. I think there are possibly two things wrong with this thought. First, the landscape is not inert; and it is precisely because it is alive that it eventually contradicts the imposition of a reality that does not derive from it. Second, language is not something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land—in testing the sea ice with the toe of a kamik, in the eating of a wild berry, in repairing a sled by the light of a seal-oil lamp. A long-lived inquiry produces a discriminating language. The very order of the language, the ecology of its sounds and thoughts, derives from the mind’s intercourse with the landscape. To learn the indigenous language, then, is to know what the speakers of the language have made of the land.

The literature of arctic exploration is frequently offered as a record of resolute will before the menacing fortifications of the landscape. It is more profitable I think to disregard this notion—that the land is an adversary bent on human defeat, that the people who came and went were heroes or failures in this. It is better to contemplate the record of human longing to achieve something significant, to be free of some of the grim weight of life. That weight was ignorance, poverty of spirit, indolence, and the threat of anonymity and destitution. This harsh landscape became the focus of a desire to separate oneself from those things and to overcome them. In these arctic narratives, then, are the threads of dreams that serve us all.

The land in some places is truly empty; in other places it is only apparently empty. To those who had no interest in the movement of animals, the entire region seemed empty. They could not grasp a crucial fact—seminomadic people living here in such small numbers were an indication that the animals themselves moved around. Either the animals did not stay long in one place, or there were not very many of them to begin with, or they were very hard to kill. Or there would be more people, living in more permanent dwellings. The land was not empty, but it teemed with animals that would sustain men only in a certain, very limited way. To know this you either had to live there or depend on the advice of the people who did.

One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.

The dignity we seek is one beyond that articulated by Enlightenment philosophers. A more radical Enlightenment is necessary, in which dignity is understood as an innate quality, not as something tendered by someone outside. And that common dignity must include the land and its plants and creatures. Otherwise it is only an invention, and not, as it should be, a perception about the nature of living matter.

We tend to think of places like the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave, as primitive, but there are in fact no primitive or even primeval landscapes. Neither are there permanent landscapes. And nowhere is the land empty or underdeveloped. It cannot be improved upon with technological assistance. The land, an animal that contains all other animals, is vigorous and alive.

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 a leaning into the light.

In this book I learned about:

  • Interestingly, Lopez sometimes introduces terms before defining them, specifically savssat (“A Crowding of Arctic Animals at Holes in the Sea Ice”) and polynya. That works for me because I learned most of my vocabulary through context, but I wonder if it’s on purpose?
  • I wanted to find the “advertisement for a well-known ale” that David Brainard supposedly carved into a rock on the coast of Greenland. References exist but I can’t find a photo.
  • Dorset Culture art
  • Fothering
  • Similar to isotherms: isograms (magnetic gradients) and isanthers (time gradients for the blooming of flowers)
  • Rutter
  • Lopez claims that lemmings are “too small to grow hair long enough for insulation and still be able to walk”
  • “Noting that fats in the caribou’s leg joints congealed at lower temperatures the farther they were from the body core, they took the fat from the foot to use as a lubricant for bowstrings in freezing temperatures. (Western civilizations made the same discovery with cattle, whence neat’s-foot oil.)”
  • Polar bear “pries tiny thalia from a kelp strand with a single claw” – can’t find what those are? Unless he means thalli?
  • Muskoxen defending a calf until all the adults are dead hit me hard – “must have been one of the most pathetic sights ever engineered by civilized people.”
  • Many mirages were thought to be Arctic places to explore – mountain ranges and islands (“Crocker Land,” “Barnard Mountains” etc.)
  • Brasil” or “Hy-Brasil” was near Ireland (I had heard of it but thought it was related to Brazil, which it’s not).
  • Class and job differences hindered knowledge diffusion. “No one class or culture can pretend to entirely grasp a stretch of land.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.