Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses – Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003

I rarely buy new books these days, but I got myself a copy, as I had done for Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). When we read Braiding Sweetgrass in the Nature & Environment book group, Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately became one of my favorite authors ever, so choosing her first book as a selection was easy. We have read a lot of single-organism books (ants, beavers, coyotes, octopuses, rattlesnakes, ravens, trees…) but this was one of the best, and features in embryo many of the themes woven through Braiding Sweetgrass. The chapters can also be treated like free-standing essays – “The Owner” stood out in particular: a truly compelling essay, more of a short story, with a twist ending – a horror story, really, both beautiful and heart-rending.

Short quotes

  • “Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”
  • “Mosses engineer the movement of water simply by harnessing the attraction of water for surfaces. Their forms take advantage of the adhesive and cohesive forces of water, to move the water at will over their surfaces, without expending any energy of their own.”
  • “‘If you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have deadstock.'”
  • “I think we need a new aesthetic that honors a mossy roof as a status symbol of how responsibly the homeowner behaves in maintaining the ecosystem. The greener the better. Neighbors would look askance at the owner of a roof scraped bare of friendly moss.” I love the idea… but mosses surely do damage roofs simply by keeping water in touch with the roof for longer?
  • “In the alveoli, your breath is but a single cell away from your blood. The cells are glistening and wet, so that the oxygen may dissolve and pass over. Through this thin watery film, deep in the lungs, our bodies become continuous with the atmosphere. For better and for worse.” Like mosses, which is why they are good indicator species of air quality.
  • “The average person knows the name of less than a dozen plants, and this includes such categories as ‘Christmas Tree.’ Losing their names is a step in losing respect. Knowing their names is the first step in regaining our connection.”
  • “Every way of knowing has its own strengths and weaknesses.”
  • “There is more living carbon in Sphagnum moss than in any other single genus on the planet.”
  • “This global cloud of spores powders every surface with the possibility of mosses.”
  • “It was not money that the rocks required, it was time. And the ‘time is money’ equation doesn’t work in reverse.”
  • “Wildness cannot be collected and still remain wild. Its nature is lost the moment it is separated from its origins. By the very act of owning, the thing becomes an object, no longer itself.”
  • “I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed.”
  • “trees alone don’t make a forest”
  • After discussing slug feces: “biologists may make unsuitable dinner conversation, but we are seldom bored”
  • her daughters “ate up the summer in heaping spoonfuls like homemade peach ice cream”

Long quotes

Day by day, [students’] vocabulary stretches and they proudly refer to leafy green shoots as “gametophytes” and the little brown thingamajigs on top of the moss are dutifully referred to as “sporophytes.” The upright, tufted mosses become “acrocarps,” the horizontal fronds are “pleurocarps.” Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

Initial research on Tetraphis shed no light on why some patches produced spores and others gemmae:

There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to Tetraphis‘ reproductive choice. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the woods, it’s that there is no pattern without a meaning. To find it, I needed to try and see like a moss and not like a human.

In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected
to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken, it must instead be given. Knowledge is bestowed by a teacher only when the student is ready to receive it. Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience. It is understood that there are many versions of truth, and that each reality may be true for each teller. It’s important to understand the perspective of each source of knowledge. The scientific method I was taught in school is like asking a direct question, disrespectfully demanding knowledge rather than waiting for it to be revealed. From Tetraphis, I began to understand how to learn differently, to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.

Mosses don’t speak our language, they don’t experience the world the way we do. So in order to learn from them I chose to adopt a different pace, an experiment that would take years, not months. To me, a good experiment is like a good conversation. Each listener creates an opening for the other’s story to be told. So, to learn about how Tetraphis makes reproductive choices, I tried to listen to its story. I had understood Tetraphis colonies from the human perspective, as clumps in various stages of reproduction. And I had learned little by doing so. Rather than looking at the clump as an entity, I had to recognize that the clump was simply an arbitrary unit that was convenient for me, but had little meaning for the moss. Mosses experience the world as individual stems and to understand their lives I needed to make my observations at the same scale.

Driving the Adirondack roads, past glittering lakes and deep woods, you’ll scarcely ever see roadside litter. People love this wild place and the care for its well-being is obvious. But where Route 3 cuts through the mined land, plastic bags are caught in the alders and beer cans float in the ditches full of rusty water. Disregard is also a positive feedback loop; garbage attracts garbage.

The city mosses have much in common with their urban human counterparts; they are diverse, adaptable, stress-tolerant, resistant to pollution, and thrive on crowded conditions. They are also well traveled.

A city offers mosses a multitude of habitats which may otherwise be quite uncommon in nature. Some moss species are far more abundant in the human-made environment than they are in the wild. Grimmia
doesn’t discriminate between a granite crag in the White Mountains and a granite obelisk on Boston Common. Limestone cliffs are not abundant in nature, but there’s one on every Chicago street corner and
mosses perch contentedly on its pillars and cornices. Statues provide all kinds of water-holding niches where mosses abound. Next time you walk through the park, look in the folds of the flowing coat of whatever general sits mounted on a pedestal, or in the wavy marble locks of Justice’s hair outside the courthouse. Mosses bathe at the edges of our fountains and trace the letters on our gravestones.

We tend to devalue the flora of cities as a depauperate collection of stragglers, arising de novo with the relatively recent development of cities. In fact, the urban cliff hypothesis suggests that the association between humans and these species may be ancient, dating from our pre-Neanderthal days when we both took refuge in cave and cliff dwellings.

I take great pleasure in gathering plants, filling my basket with roots and leaves. Usually I go with a specific plant in mind, when it’s time for elderberries or the bergamot is heavy with oils. But it’s the wandering itself that has such appeal, the unexpected discoveries while looking for something else. I get the same feeling in the library. It’s so very much like picking berries—the peaceful field of books, the concentrated attention of the search, and the knowledge that hidden somewhere in the thicket is something worth finding.

Its tremendous water-holding capacity allows Sphagnum to modify the ecosystem for its own purpose. The presence of Sphagnum causes the soil to become saturated, filling the spaces between soil particles that might otherwise hold air. Roots need to breathe, too, and the waterlogged peat creates an anaerobic rooting environment which most plants can’t tolerate. This impedes the growth of trees, leaving the bog sunny and open.

[The hairpiece’s] intricate design of bees and flowers was carved from luminous ivory. I was immediately struck by how out of place it seemed on its velvet platform, more like a stolen treasure than a work
of art. How much more beautiful it would have been in the black oiled hair of the artist’s wife. And more authentic. In a display case, a thing becomes only a facsimile of itself, like the drum hung on the gallery
wall. A drum becomes authentic when human hand meets wood and hide. Only then do they fulfill its intention.

At the center of the garden stood a sculptured rock taller than either of us and beautifully covered with mosses. Each carefully chosen clump accented the irregularities of the boulder. An eroded pocket in the rock was filled with a perfect circlet of Bryum. The artistry rivaled any piece we had seen in the gallery and yet it struck the wrong note; the collection was only an illusion of nature. Plagiothecium can’t grow in crevices like that, and Racomitrium wouldn’t share a habitat with Anomodon, despite the beauty
of their colors side by side. I wondered how this beautiful but synthetic creation passed the owner’s standard of authenticity. The mosses had been reduced from living things to mere art materials, ill used. “How did you get these to grow like this?” I asked. “It’s very—unusual,” I hedged. Matt smiled like a kid who had outsmarted his teacher and answered, “Superglue.”

Mosses have an intense bond to their places that few contemporary humans can understand. They
must be born in a place to flourish there. Their lives are supported by the influences of previous generations of lichens and mosses, who made the rock into home. In that initial settling of spores they make their choice and stick to it. Relocation is not for them.

Here on the shadowy edge of where green life seems barely possible, Schistostega has all it needs. Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response. I have been blessed by the companionship of good teachers and I count Schistostega among them.

In this book I learned

  • Boundary layer where moss lives: more heat, water, carbon dioxide (10x!), less turbulence
  • Gemmae cups on moss – little eggs that are clonal propagules! They don’t go far – they “carry a combination of genes that has already proven successful on this stump,” whereas spores are “a powder of potential sent off to seek its fortune in the unknown realm beyond the stump.”
  • Psychrometer – wet-and-dry bulb thermometer
  • “The predominant cause of tree mortality in the northern deciduous forest is windthrow.”
  • Gap dynamics: different species can colonize different types of disturbance gaps. “This decaying log is a stage, and the scenes take place in the gaps, where the colonists act out their drama.”
  • Silvery Bryum is everywhere! “I have never traveled without encountering Bryum on my journey. It was on the tarmac in New York City and on the tiled roof outside my window in Quito the next morning.” Unlike larger organisms, mosses are truly omnipresent because their spores can travel the entire world easily.
  • The artist Jackie Brookner, who alas has died since this book came out. I want to visit the boulder Prima Lingua, which is at East 9th & Ave. C in Manhattan.
  • Uses of moss for diapers and sanitary napkins – knowledge male scientists didn’t get

The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter – Colin Tudge, 2006

Read for Nature & Environment – we loved it! Tudge writes beautifully. I especially enjoyed the methodical tour through all the major plant families; the notion that trees are just as dynamic as animal organisms, just not on our timescale; and the clear explanation of polyploidy (first time I’ve felt like I’m beginning to understand it).

Short quotes

  • “an old kapok tree in Costa Rica in which biologists had thus far listed more than four thousand different species of creatures”
  • “A forest is a forest because it has trees in it, not because it may have sloths and toucans or squirrels or chimpanzees. The trees are the prime players and the animals are the dependents.”
  • “the idea … that each of us might aspire to be a connoisseur of nature, and connoisseurship implies a combination of knowledge on the one hand and love on the other, each enhancing the other.”
  • What is a tree? “Many plants … have independently essayed the form of the tree. Each achieves treedom in its own way. ‘Tree’ is not a distinct category, like ‘dog’ or ‘horse.’ It is just a way of being a plant.”
  • “The more that is revealed, the more wondrous nature becomes. The more we know about living creatures, the more deeply we can engage with them. This is the appetite, as Hamlet said, that grows from what it feeds on.”
  • “Typically, the botanist says that two similar trees are the same, while the mateiro [indigenous expert] says they are different” and is proved right.
  • “The Ducke Reserve is about a hundred thousand times smaller than the United States … yet harbors nearly twice as many kinds of native trees.”
  • “It is at least possible that many local names in Maori and a thousand other languages are not meant to express particular relationships at all. After all, traditional societies—or at least the specialists within them—typically know their local flora and fauna as well as the rest of us know our friends and family. When you know everyone individually, you do not need to name them in ways that express particular relationships.”
  • “The Latin names can be rather long, and sometimes too similar for comfort. If you’re sitting up late with a 40-watt bulb it’s easy to confuse, say, the Myrtaceae, Myricaceae, Myrsinaceae, and Myrsticaceae.”
  • “For my part, I feel that Darwin’s is a glorious vision. I love the notion that we are literally related to all other creatures: that apes are our sisters, and mushrooms are our cousins, and oak trees and monkey puzzles are our distant uncles and aunts. Conservation, on such a view, becomes a family affair.”
  • W. D. (Bill) Hamilton proposed that it was the need to avoid parasites that prompted the evolution of sex—for sex produces the generation-by-generation variation that makes life difficult for parasites, which tend to be highly specialized, to get a hold.”

Longer quotes

Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy.

I’ve been fascinated by lantana since seeing it grow wild in Tucson and recognizing it as the pretty pot plant with multicolored flowers I know from the northeast, so this was an interesting anecdote:

Dr. Sas Biswas, of the Forestry Research Institute in Dehra Dun, northern India, tells a charming story of sandalwood trees he once found growing in a dead straight row in the middle of nowhere. Why were they there? Who had planted them so carefully and then abandoned them? No one, is the answer. But in the past there had been a garden; and around the garden was a fence; and along the fence grew the inevitable Lantana; and sandalwood had grown as parasites from its roots. Now the garden and the fence are long gone and the Lantana with it, but the sandalwood remains.

Mangrove tree roots breathing:

The rising tide pushes the old air out; and when it recedes, fresh air flows in again through the lenticels and pneumatophores. Thus the roots of the mangrove trees effectively breathe. They use no muscle power to do this, as an animal must. The sea is their diaphragm. The tide serves to aerate their roots; wind and fleets of obliging animals spread their pollen and seeds. Trees just don’t need the elaborations of muscle and blood and nerves on which animals expend so much.

You would not immediately suspect, if you confronted an aspen in an urban park, that it is among nature’s most resourceful trees. It has a languid air, with wanly fluttering leaves on long, flat stalks, which in autumn turn a melancholic yellow. … Yet for all its bloodless foppishness the quaking aspen has the widest distribution of any North American tree, and in large stretches of the far north it is the dominant and at times the only species.

Fig pollination dependent on specific species of fig wasps:

If we do anything to interrupt the lives of the wasps—are too free with insecticide, for instance–then we we will kill off the figs, or at least ensure that the present generation is the last. The fruits of figs are essential provender not only for bats and birds but for a host of other creatures too. In Panama, figs of various kinds are in fruit all through the year, while most other fruits are far more seasonal. There are times when figs are all there is. Take away the figs, and half the fauna could be in serious trouble. The whole ecosystem balances on a pinpoint—and we could tip it into oblivion without thinking; or, indeed, we could let it slip through our fingers even if we were trying very hard to save it. On the other hand, precarious though it seems, figs and wasps have maintained their relationship in one form or another without interruption for more than forty million years. There is robustness in the system. If only we can work with it, it might pull through yet.

In this book I learned

  • Rainforest trees are especially difficult to identify and study because there are so many different species, most of them look alike, and they flower at unknown/unpredictable times.
  • “[Linneaus] led botanical expeditions from his native Uppsala with the local band out in front and everyone dressed in a uniform of his own design.” Wish I could find an illustration of them!
  • Bryophytes are not known to be a clade – “nobody knows the relationship between [liverworts, hornworts, and mosses], or whether they are closely related at all”
  • The Lost Gardens of Heligan
  • Northern conifers are tall and thin not to shed snow, but to maximize the light they get on the side, since the sun is low
  • Knobcone pine and Monterey pine can enclose their old cones in wood
  • Wollemia, like the coelacanth, was only known from 120 mya fossils until a group turned up in Australia in 1994
  • The name “spruce” comes from “Prussia”
  • Retrophyllum minus (a podocarp) is a tree that grows in running water!
  • Double fertilization – Tudge’s explanation is easier for me to understand than Wikipedia’s: in angiosperm embryogenesis, “a second cell in the pollen fuses with two sets of cells in the ovule to form a combined cell with three sets of chromosomes; and this peculiar triploid cell then multiplies to form a food store, rich in carbohydrates, protein, and often fat, that surrounds the embryo.”
  • Seagrasses are like marine mammals – they are land plants that moved to the water, but they still have flowers and pollen!
  • Avocados have a crazy system where there are two types of flower, A and B, that can only be pollinated by the opposite flower based on time of day
  • Macadamia nuts are indigenous to Australia – “the only native Australian food plants of significance to world markets”
  • Sweetgum, as the name indicates, has a fragrant resin. Tudge says it’s “known as storax or styrax,” but Wikipedia uses “storax balsam” to distinguish it from “storax” aka benzoin. I am fascinated by resins, and we have introduced sweetgums around here (Liquidambar styraciflua), but I’ve never noticed their resin. Something else to look out for!
  • There’s a native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens! I’ll keep an eye out – sounds like the terminal flower/berry clusters would be the easiest way to tell.
  • “Golden rice” is no big deal because other plants (mangos, papayas etc.) have plenty of vitamin A. “If high-tech vitamin A-rich rice is ever of help at all, it is only in regions where traditional agriculture has been shoved aside by high-tech, industrialized, monocultural farming.”
  • “a tree could grow to a height of nearly two miles if the tensile strength of water was the only constraint on its growth”
  • Sebertia acuminata accumulates nickel from soil
  • Parkia flowers: “pompoms of stamens and styles, bright red or pale yellow or bronze, depending on species, that hang from on high on long, thin threads like Christmas baubles”
  • Dependency of tambalacoque on the dodo’s gizzard apparently is too simplistic, as they are growing fine if protected from pigs etc. “Evidently it wasn’t the presence of dodoes they required but an absence of imported herbivores. This is excellent news for the tambalacoque. But it is a pity, indeed, to kill off such an excellent story.”

I questioned these

  • Tudge repeats a tidbit from the Encyclopedia of Wood, that the Paris Metro tracks are made from ekki timber (Lophira alta). I can’t find any independent confirmation, but the wood is used for railway sleepers.
  • He claims “beeches that are allowed to grow into forest trees shed their leaves” (as opposed to hedges). I certainly see tons of marcescent beeches in the woods – or are those not “forest trees” because they don’t get huge before disease takes them?

Summer World: A Season of Bounty – Bernd Heinrich, 2009

Read for Nature and Environment. We liked it, although not as much as Winter World – it’s not as focused; it rambles all over the map. It’s a beautifully designed book, with green print on cream paper, but not quite enough contrast for easy reading.

Quotes

The possibility of individual caterpillars to generate amazingly different forms makes me appreciate what is possible in the debate over nature versus nurture. Much of what we are and become depends on minute subtleties, and that gives me hope in the reality of free will, and its power if we choose to exert it.

The sugar borers have achieved, or are held to, something enviable. They are in a world of plenty, so none go hungry, destroy their habitat, or jostle and interfere with each other. Somewhere there is a check on their natural rate of increase, and you can be sure of one thing—that if they could tell us what they wanted at any one time, they would vote to obliterate the forces that hold them in check, the forces that ensure their long-term benefits. And so, probably, would we, if we voted merely on the basis of our individual interests.

We can still compete with cheetahs, lions, and leopards in running down antelope, but we can do it only in the midday heat. And the reason is that we have the mental capacity to pursue a goal that we can neither see nor smell but that we can imagine. Additionally we have a unique suite of adaptation to deal with internally generated body heat under the blazing sun. They include our nakedness, our ability to route blood to the surface of our extremities so that our veins bulge at the surface of exposed skin, and our ability to sweat profusely over the skin. These are capacities needed by hunters who get their edge through endurance in the heat.

In this book I learned

  • Reason for separate leaf/flower buds (which I learned to distinguish when doing spring observation of “Order of Bloom” at the Botanic Garden): strategic time-wise separation, for example wind-pollinated before leaves, bee-pollinated in late summer when insect activity is peaking
  • Woodfrogs “often freeze solid, and in that condition they don’t have a heartbeat, breathing, digestion, or activity of the brain cells. A reputable human pathologist … would conclude that they are dead.”
  • Red-eyed vireos decorate their nests with bits of hornet nests – not as insulation, not structural, and “hornet paper is hard to come by.” Heinrich theorizes maybe it deters squirrels (e.g.) from approaching the nest?
  • Additionally, he says wood thrushes incorporate snake skin, catbirds line their nests with rootlets and decorate with grape bark, and ravens and chickadees use fur – no speculation as to why.
  • In his studies of bumblebees, Heinrich found that individual bees became specialists in particular flowers – “they developed ‘search images’ of what flowers to look for.”
  • Some caterpillars eat leaves selectively so they look the same but smaller (rather than full of holes) – to avoid giving away their presence
  • Longhorn beetles can detect tree injury – “when I chop down a pine, fir, or spruce, one group of these beetles, the sawyers, Monochamus, come flying in—within minutes!”
  • Before flower nectar is available, hummingbirds rely on the insects that yellow-bellied sapsuckers draw to their weep holes
  • “We breed ’em, you feed ’em” — bumper sticker of the Maine Blackfly Breeders Association
  • “Sand grouse in Africa have special feathers on the breast that soak up water so that it can be easily carried back to the nest. The young sip the water from the tips of the feathers, like baby mammals suckling on their mother’s teats.”
  • Cicadas are active when it’s too hot for their predator, cooling themselves with the equivalent of sweat glands.
  • Welwitschia – I love visiting the big one at Smith Botanic Garden!
  • “Perpetual summer species” – long-distance migrating birds. “They can always live in a summer world, thanks to energy-rich berries and heroic sustained exercise. … We manage the same trick of living in perpetual summer, although not by strenuous biannual migrations but by creating and retreating into ‘climate bubbles.'”
  • Heinrich claims humans are unique because we have 3 species of lice (head, body, pubic) and no other bird or mammal does. Really??? Is it possible they just haven’t been looked at closely enough? Why would that be? It only took a minute of searching to find that great apes in general have lice of both Pediculus and Pthirus genera, so I’m a little disappointed in the scholarship there.
  • “We still [post-DDT] release about fifty new chemicals into circulation per week. They are tested on lab rats—animals that never experience summer or winter, that live in dumps, and that when tested have no relation to any ecosystem except a sterile cubic plastic box.”
  • Some tree species “time their blooming by not blooming, and thereby control the seed predator population.”
  • “What we observe now is a result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. But the selective pressures that have acted on some features in the past are now unlikely to occur every year and may be seen only rarely. Instead, they are probably witnessed only at bottlenecks.” That’s like what Beak of the Finch described.
  • I compared notes with my book group on Heinrich claiming he didn’t know rhododendrons rolled their leaves in the cold until he read it in a 2007 paper about rhodys in the mountains of northern China. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw the leaves of rhododendron of two species planted on our campus also rolling up.” We all knew that from first-hand observation. Plant blindness?

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.”