Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape
by Barry Lopez
I hardly know where to start with this book. Arctic Dreams is an overwhelming examination of the arctic landscape and what it has meant to various peoples throughout history, at once detailed in particulars and sweeping in scope. The chapters range from nature writing about animals and their movements across the land to explanations of how soil composition changes the further north you go; the phenomena of the aurora borealis, mirages and other light effects and the many different forms ice takes. There are sections that read like history, and others written purely from the author's personal encounters with wildlife and native people. Human ventures into the forbidding land are described, from explorers trying to find the Northwest passage, mapmakers seeking new coasts, adventurers trying to reach the North Pole, men simply looking for economic opportunities (furs, oil, etc) or even, more recently, scientists conducting various studies. Many of the early ventures failed, as the men didn't understand the land or how to survive in it (compared to the tenacity and skills of the native Eskimos). Some of this got tedious, especially the part about expeditions and missing parties, which not only dealt with how the men struggled to survive when stranded in the ice (more interesting) but also the politics and economics involved in backing the expeditions, and in rescue efforts (dull, with too much information). And I found the section explaining sun halos, mirages, arcs, etc difficult to understand, although at first fascinating (it was hard to picture what was being described. Perhaps some photographs would have helped). My favorite chapters were those about animals and how they live in the cold: polar bears, muskoxen, seals, narwhals, migrating birds etc. There's even a chapter about how the quality of light and immense grandeur of icebergs inspired artists, with descriptions of particular paintings. Aside from the difficult parts, an astounding book. It describes the landscape as an immense living entity, that requires respect on its own terms. Makes me want to read more about the arctic, and look for more books by Barry Lopez.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 464 pages, 1986
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