Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Karen R. Long on Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams”


This essay by NBCC member Karen R. Long, book editor of Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer on Barry Lopez’s 1986 NBCC award winner for nonfiction “Arctic Dreams,” is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

In the marketplace of ideas, the booth marked global warming groans with books. We have Al Gore’s work, of course, and the bouquet of titles attacking it. For elegance and economy, my favorite in the genre is “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Plain Dealer science writer John Mangels is partial to a new paperback, “Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming.”

But the book that calls me most strongly now—in our era of melting sea ice and shifting ecologies—is “Arctic Dreams,” a work of staggering beauty and rigorous science written by Barry Lopez 22 years ago. It won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize for the best nonfiction of 1986, and I reread it this past week, wondering what light it might shed in 2008.

Quickly, though, I lost myself, caught up in Lopez’s calm perception and incandescent writing. “Arctic Dreams” may be the best book available about the Far North, based on four years and 15 extended trips up to the circle from Greenland to Alaska—Lopez tagging along with scientists and indigenous peoples.

“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it,” he writes at the outset, striking a characteristic note of restraint. “The Arctic, overall, has the classic lines of a desert landscape: spare, balanced, extended, and quiet.”

Lopez once worked as a landscape photographer, and his brooding eye is expert. “We are not creatures who look up often,” he observes, asking us to imagine the acoustical space of a small, social whale. “We are used to exploring ‘the length and breadth’ of issues, not their ‘height.’ For a narwhal there are very few two-dimensional experiences.”

The book lets us see the “alert composure” of the narwhal. It notes the insects that rise in stupendous numbers off the summer tundra, the muskoxen with coats so beautifully insulated that the winter snow piles on their backs without melting.

“Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals,” Lopez writes. “They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.”

In a chapter called “Migration: The Corridors of Breath,” Lopez sees the entire Arctic as a region breathing: an intake with the March arrival of early snow geese and bowhead whale, the short summer of mating and fecundity, then the great exhalation in the fall as millions of creatures return south.

He coaxes us to see these caribous and arctic foxes, polar bears and cod not as objects, but as mysteries, vibrating with behaviors that resemble the uncertainty described in particle physics. Laced through these meditations are observations from John Muir and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and the diaries of 19th-century explorers who shot and taunted wildlife out of boredom.

Nothing about “Arctic Dreams” is sentimental. Violence and beauty stretch in tension across the Far North, blood stains the snow. Lopez describes being out in a small boat with three scientists when a storm comes up and the ice cuts them off. The men work feverishly, nearly silently, all day to break the boat free and save their lives. The incident is crisp, dispensed in four pages.

We know from satellite imagery that the Arctic ice is thinning and diminishing, making the planet less able to reflect away solar heat. On page 124 of my original book, I circled this passage:

“It is the ice, however, that holds this life together. For ice-associated seals, vulnerable on a beach, it is a place offshore to rest, directly over their feeding grounds. It provides algae with a surface to grow on. It shelters arctic cod from hunting seabirds and herds of narwhals, and it shelters the narwhal from the predatory orca. It is the bear’s highway over the sea.”

The Eskimos have a word for us that translates “the people who change nature.” I finished “Arctic Dreams” pondering the viability of Lopez’s great virtue: restraint.—Karen R. Long

Reprinted with permission from The Plain Dealer. All rights reserved.