Book Review: Arctic Dreams By Barry Lopez
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.
Published in 1986, the year of my birth, ‘Arctic Dreams’ continues to be one of the most important, well-known books written about the Arctic and its inhabitants. It isn’t an easy book to read. It’s not the sort you take with you on the train on a Saturday morning. It’s a book you read when it’s quiet and the front door is closed and locked, when you have a pen and notebook to hand and your phone and internet connection are both switched off. It’s a book you read when you have time to spare so you can fully immerse yourself. ‘Arctic Dreams’ is dense with engrossing information about Arctic history, nature, expeditions, scientists, discoveries and famous explorers. For me, reading it involved tackling a chapter a day. I found that I needed the time to sit back and mull over what I’d just taken in. Yes, it is that that rich in detail. Lopez is a poetic, thorough, thought provoking writer, one whose respect for the Arctic is apparent and highly admirable. His descriptions are exquisite, magical and continually mesmerising. ‘The polar bear is a creature of arctic edges: he hunts the ice margins, the surface of the water, and the continental shore. The ice bear, he is called. His world forms beneath him in the days of shortening light, and then falls away in the spring. He dives to the ocean floor for mussels and kelp, and soundlessly breaks the water’s glassy surface on his return to study a sleeping seal.’
Lopez isn’t afraid of getting close up, nudging in further and further, so we can experience as fully as possible. I have learnt so much from this book, and my respect for the Inuit, well, it has reached a whole new, higher level. Lopez talks often about the ways in which the Inuit communicate with the land and work it, and its inhabitants; with a peaceful, spiritual, practical approach. Nothing goes to waste. Every scrap, every sinew gets used. The ability of the Inuit to find multiple uses from walrus ivory, for example, is illustrated in the following passage. Otto Geist, excavating a Panuk site on Saint Lawrence Island in the 1920’s, made a list of items these people made solely from walrus ivory, each one designed to perform a specific task or serve a specific purpose. A dog-harness buckle. A wound pin to keep a seal from bleeding. Part of a fox trap. A tent-line tensioner. His list ran to more than a hundred items.
As I slowly journeyed through ‘Arctic Dreams,’ I found my knowledge steadily growing, and it delighted me that I was coming across such a vast amount of new information. I had imaged that I’d read most of what there was to know about the Arctic, and feared that I wouldn’t encounter anything fresh or new. How wrong I was. I learnt that Inuit have the ability to draw maps from memory alone. That as hunters, they believe they are bound into a sacred relationship with the animals they pursue. I learnt that the Inuit believe the Aurora Borealis is the play of unborn children, or, and this one I particularly like, the torches held by the dead to help the living hunt in winter. Some believe that ‘the lights’ respond to a soft whistle, and will come closer. I learnt that winter darkness could bring on the extreme winter depression the Polar Eskimos call perlerorneq, which means to ‘feel the weight of life,’ and that they can have amazing vision, spotting Caribou from three or four miles away. I enjoyed reading about family life, about the types of clothing the children would wear during their first days of life ‘…a cap made of arctic hare fur, underclothes of bird feathers, a hood made of caribou fawn with the ears attached.’ The following passages touched me deeply. ‘One is struck by the great efforts of the mother, especially, to confirm the child immediately in a complex and intricate relationship with the land, the future source of the child’s spiritual, psychological and physical wellbeing.’ Lopezcontinually highlights the ways in which the Inuit had life playing in a perfect balance, and highlights the ignorance, stupidity and greediness of the Europeans who permanently damaged the way of life of these indigenous people.
I have many, many post it note stickers throughout this book, and in this review I’ve only touched on a few sections that I have marked for future reference. Much has changed since 1986. Sea ice is melting faster than ever previously recorded and we are on the verge of losing the Arctic as we know it, due to our greed and sheer, bloody recklessness. Read this book then pass it on. Then by another one and pass that on too.