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I shall never see the Arctic, but I have Arctic Dreams

The frozen north with Barry Lopez: A Slightly Foxed books essay

As travelers go, I am a wimp. I like comfortable transport and a bed to sleep in. But I would dearly like to be otherwise, and the travel books that appeal to me are those which give me vicarious experience of the sort of spartan roaming that I know I could never have undertaken.

Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died 1,500 years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.

Barry Lopez has worked as a landscape and nature photographer but is now known – rather better in the United States than elsewhere – as an essayist: ‘America’s foremost poet-naturalist’. Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986. At the start of the book we find him alone on the tundra in the endless evening of an Arctic summer night; he is bowing respectfully to birds – snowy owls, golden plover, Lapland longspurs. He is at it again on the last page, acknowledging grey whales, the wake of a seal. Now, I am a hard-headed woman and on the whole I cannot be doing with this sort of thing – anthropomorphism run riot. But somehow Mr Lopez gets away with it. Such is his enthusiasm, his erudition and application, his lyrical respect for the beauty and complexity of the Arctic eco-system that, a hundred pages in, you are right there with him – intoxicated and with all rational defenses down.

In fact, despite the anthropomorphic streak, his approach is both scientific and historical. Much of the book’s fascination lies in its abundance of wonderfully arcane information. You learn of the interesting problem posed by the polar bear’s dark nose, so conspicuous for a hunter that depends on camouflage. Does the hunted seal not notice it? Inuit legend holds that the bear covers its nose with one paw when stalking; contemporary experts speculate that an optical phenomenon makes the nose appear to the seal victim like the shape of another, distant seal resting on the ice.

And then there is the narwhal, that extraordinary creature with an ivory tusk that spirals from its forehead. The function of the tusk remains a mystery: is it a spear to impale prey, or a defensive weapon, or an implement to stir up fish on the sea-bed? It was treasured as unicorn horn from the time when samples first reached Europe, and was traded for immense sums; a Danish king was crowned in a chair made entirely of narwhal horns; no narwhal has ever been successfully maintained in captivity. Strange, mystical animals; to read the description of a pair seen by the author from the air, lying in a long, straight lead in the ice, is to be there with him – almost.

This is where the power of language asserts itself. I am a devotee of wildlife documentaries; when David Attenborough is on I clear the diary. Images from his Life in the Freezer remain with me: waves of penguins leaping up on to an ice shelf, a polar bear swimming underwater. But the strange thing is that this book has provided an equally potent series of pictures in the mind, without a glossy photograph on offer (a clever editorial decision, that the book should be without illustrations). Somehow, the place and the birds and the beasts rise from the pages and float before you quite as effectively as by way of some state-of-the-art lens; words alone do the trick, charged with the author’s fervor for what he sees.

The Arctic is immense – unimaginable expanses of tundra, of ocean, of sea ice, of pack ice, of field ice, of nilas, of grease ice, of frazil ice. The author gives you a tour of ice, wearing his scientific hat. He also gives you a chilling account of the way in which this vast area, teeming with life, has been ravaged by the Western world, ever since the Elizabethan voyagers sailed into it in the 16th century. The Inuit call us ‘the people who change nature’, with good reason. Today, it is the drilling for oil and gas that causes devastation. Before that, it was the voracious consumption of other natural resources, and the very contact with polluted Europe.

It is thought that 38,000 Greenland right whales may have been killed during the whaling decades; in 1986, when Barry Lopez was writing, there were 200 left. Up to 90 percent of the native population perished from diseases introduced by the whalers and other traders – diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis. A kind of carnage. The author’s grim contemplation of this is telling, alongside his almost mystical appreciation of that landscape in its primal innocence – a world of exquisite light: the aurora borealis, the scarves of turquoise melt-water that surround icebergs – and of perfectly adapted creatures.

There was always carnage, of course. That world of perfect adaptation is one in which everyone is eating someone else. No place for sentiment. At a 19th-century Inuit campsite archaeologists mapped out the skeletal debris of about 250 muskoxen, each shoulder-blade bearing a small, round hole that would have carried the arrowhead straight to the animal’s heart. The polar bear stalks its seal prey with meticulous craft – and still fails more often that it succeeds. Predation is a precarious way of life, and predators do not exterminate entire populations; only Homo sapiens does that. Before the advent of firearms, the Inuit subsisted in a nice balance with the creatures on which they depended. They killed what was required for their immediate needs, and no more. Now, those few indigenous survivors of early epidemics must be restricted in their slaughter, infected also by Western disregard of natural resources.

This begins to make Arctic Dreams sound like a tale of woe. Not so. Above all, it is a celebration, and one which swerves engagingly from the briskly scientific approach to that misty-eyed tendency which leads to bowing to birds. At one moment Barry Lopez is describing how the structure of a muskox’s coat enables it to endure at temperatures of -40°F, at another he is considering the bone and antler carvings of Dorset Culture Inuit – contemporary with our Bronze Age – and finding something dark and impenetrable in the human faces portrayed. He is a passionate advocate of his subject matter, and the effect is to carry the reader with him.

I shall never go to the Arctic. I shall never see bearded seals, ribbon seals, spotted seals. Or the birds on Tula Lake: pintail, lesser scaup, goldeneye, cinnamon teal, northern shoveler. I love those litanies of names. But when I read his account of a polar bear’s ivorywhite head gliding in glassy black water, of herds of belukha whale seen beneath sheets of young ice, then this book serves as a superbly painless form of travel.

Penelope Lively is a novelist who lives in London. This article was originally published in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. Eclectic, elegant and entertaining, Slightly Foxed introduces readers all over the world to good books from the past and present.

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