Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams is a book about the Arctic, written by Barry Lopez and published in 1986. I was introduced to this author on a chance TV station change last spring when I landed on a Bill Moyers interview with him. This book and the Paul Woodruff book Reverence were subjects of that evening’s discussion. Debby remembered that I liked the interview and bought me this book.

Arctic Dreams is the result of 15 extended trips the author took to the Arctic over a period of five years. The author relates to us details and impressions of the north, from the Alaskan arctic across the Canadian arctic to Greenland, a land most of us will never see.

The author introduces the discussion by describing how the Arctic stimulates one’s imagination. “The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as turns of the mind, and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind disassembles the landscape … and then reassembles the pieces … trying to fathom its geography. At the same time, the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.”

This span of the Arctic encompasses great variety, with “unrelieved stretches of snow and ice that in summer become plains of open water and an ocean that is the tundra, a tawny island beneath the sky.” Punctuating the tundra are sharply pitched mountain ranges; wild river canyons and thundering falls; towering glaciers; badlands of deeply etched rocks in muted oranges, yellows, reds; open winter rivers wreathed in frost smoke; underground shale fires that have burned for centuries; 100′ high sand dunes; valleys of grasses and wild flowers surrounded by glacial ice cap; “the blue-black vault of the winter sky, a cold beauty alive with scintillating stars”.

The closest landscape most of us can imagine is a desert with expanses of weathered rock and gravel, “spare, balanced, extended, and quiet… rich with metaphor, with adumbration.” The arctic monotony is relieved by weather systems and by life. In the windswept, dustless arctic atmosphere, sunlight provides great clarity even at a distance, revealing with unusual sharpness, making animal presence vivid. Yet in a barren landscape, most life and its artifacts are small and hidden, requiring one to pay close attention to things underfoot. Once in tune with the landscape, one is rewarded with great beauty both in the large and the small.

The author recalls two inspirations for the book. The first relates to his initial experiencing of the Arctic summer, which ‘timeless and full of light, reminded me of sublime innocence, of the innate beauty of undisturbed relationships’. Especially moving to the author was the quality of the light that pressed against his face, burned against his cheekbones. ‘I had never known how benign sunlight could be. How forgiving. How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter.’ He describes the resolute, steely-determined lives of the dedicated smaller creatures there, the contrasting abandon of the caribou, the fecundity that exists there at all levels of life in a delicate dance with the rhythm of the natural environment, all so clearly dependent on the serene, enabling light.

The second inspiration was the author’s becoming acquainted with “the long human struggle, mental and physical, to come to terms with the Far North. …I came to believe that peoples’ desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra. And too, that the land existed quite apart from these.”

Arctic dreams are the influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination and aspirations. Everyone who goes to the Arctic brings a different dream, shaped initially by preconceptions. One’s own dream is how one imagines an ideal future. A personal concept of wealth underlies each dream, measured either in terms of beauty, knowledge and understanding, prestige, money, advantage, or adulation. Our desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it and our sense of wealth.

By looking more closely into the landscape, assessing the true nature of the place, we ourselves will be shaped and a less tangible inward wealth will accrue. “By coming to know a place where the common elements of life are understood differently, one has the advantage of an altered perspective. With that shift, it is possible to imagine afresh the way to a lasting security of the soul and heart, and toward an accommodation in the flow of time we call history, ours and the world’s. That … is the dream of great and common people alike.”

Our current arctic presence derives from dreams pursued largely without such understanding and accommodation, in ignorance of the whole of one’s relationships with one another and with the land. When approaching the Arctic for the first time, many preconceive a wasteland that warrants no protection from man’s heavy heel. The author avoids moralizing about past atrocities against the land and its beings as others have done. Rather, he seeks to start a dialog that will enable future men to shed ignorance of the land and to approach it with respect.

The author claims not to be a nature writer; rather, humanity and reverence for life are his principal subjects. But this book contains more information about natural history than one would expect to find in a book dedicated to the subject. Because of his specially developed senses and intuitions, the Earth itself numbers among his teachers, arguably with a principal role. And perhaps that is the message of this book, to let the Earth teach us. After setting the stage with a description of some of the ways the Arctic differs from temperate climes, he continues to explore the arctic landscape through the lives of the large animals there, musk ox, polar bear, caribou, narwhal, together with the omnipresent birds. His descriptive prose is provoking, but I kept wishing for some photographs.

In the prolog, the author covers the common story of initial European contact, exploration, resource extraction to the point of extinction, and native suffering due to culture clash and consequent introduced communicable diseases for which no defense was available. The extraction was that of the British whalers, just as the foreign liquidators of timber, sea otter, beaver, and buffalo would do in other regions of North America. The whalers killed an estimated 38,000 Greenland right whales (bowheads), turning the Davis Strait into a slaughterhouse where the majority of the carcass was left afloat after the blubber was removed. Today, there may be fewer than 200 left there.

Early arctic explorers were motivated by a need for riches, fame, and conquest. But many of these returned multiple times, and with each trip, they became wiser, their earlier objectives now tempered by a growing sense of consternation and awe. “It is as though the land slowly works its way into the man and by virtue of its character eclipses these motives. The land becomes large, alive like an animal; it humbles him in a way he cannot pronounce. … Its power derives from the tension between its obvious beauty and its capacity to take life …the darkness and light bound together within it, the feeling that this is the floor of creation.” Unfortunately, modern extraction industry personnel live and travel in insulated cocoons, deprived by their technology of the opportunity for developing such awareness.

Over half the book is dedicated to such human intervention in the Arctic. Man has been the most resourceful and determined animal to occupy the arctic in the last four millennia. Dorset camps from 1500 years ago are still identified by the ring of stones used to anchor the bottoms of their animal skin shelters. The rare stone foundations of large houses of the Thule culture from 800 years ago might be seen. Looking away from any of these ancient finds, one senses from the harmonious authority of the surroundings just how much a part of the natural history these people were. More often now, though, one encounters artifacts left by explorers of the last two centuries. And the lack of harmonious connection of these finds to the land is vaguely disturbing.

The Eskimo peoples (a term frequently but inaccurately applied to all arctic native populations) are not romanticized. They are merely people of a primitive culture who were almost annihilated due to contact with European adventurers; up to 90% of their population died from disease. When approached from strength, with respect and dignity, these qualities were reciprocated. Good relations enabled enlightened travelers to share the Eskimo’s millennia of secrets. The native populations have come to a unique understanding of this highly mutable environment and have adopted a lifestyle balanced to the resources, enabling continuous but necessarily nomadic existence. They have mastered the perspectives of space and time and light that are so different there than in temperate latitudes. Early European settlers in Greenland took advantage of optimal climatic conditions to eke out an existence via an European approach to the land. But their attitude of superiority prevented their learning from the native peoples in the area. Then when the conditions changed to a more normal arctic severity, their ignorance of Eskimo ways caused their settlements to crash. Those that didn’t perish sought inclusion with the native populations.

The author finds it hard to travel in the Arctic today and not to be wrenched by the upheaval that modern invaders have wrought to both native villages and open land. The societal and dietary disruptions to the ages-old native cultures are accelerating beyond one’s ability to detail. The great petroleum and metals extraction industries are revising the landscape on a large scale and pace. All this heedless, intrusive imposition on the land and its people engender despair and depression in the comprehending visitor. Yet the author was quick to sidestep these topical issues, focusing instead on developing a deeper understanding of how one comprehends the land and imagines his place within it.

The author’s voyages of Arctic comprehension enlisted the company of various traveling companions: Eskimo, marine ecologist, landscape painter, roughneck, and the crew of an Arctic freighter. And he found that “all that the land is and evokes, its actual meaning as well as its metaphorical reverberation, was and is understood differently.” This has always been true, and in temperate climates, the land is malleable enough to accommodate all but the most egregious misuse. But like the desert, the Arctic is a fragile ecosystem. All life lives in a delicate balance, and man’s interventions, if not accompanied by sensitivity and understanding, can wreak lasting havoc.

How do we reconcile these understandings so as to provide a harmonious human future in the Arctic? The answer offered is to go back to the future, to realize our collective dream as a people for the last 50 millennia, “a simple abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well. And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.”

“To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.” Reciprocity with the land, as defined by relationships with mutual integrity, although sometimes difficult to define, is a necessary ingredient for the dignity we seek. And this dignity, based on respect for the land and its living creatures, can infuse all future relationships.

The author, when most in tune with his arctic surroundings, finds himself unconsciously bowing to the life there. Man longs to find a dignity that might encompass all living things, and to bring this dignity to one’s own dreams, to make one’s life exemplary in some way. One finds darkness in the natural world, in human cultures, and within oneself. It is a responsibility of an adult to learn to live among the contradictions life imposes, such as the need to kill in order to live. Dignity can include “all the dark threads of life” if we “pay attention to what happens in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.”

“In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate, … one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge. … The things in the land fit together perfectly even though they are always changing. I wish the order in my life to be arranged in the same way I find the light, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird … . This impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself… making life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”


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