Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

Artic Dreams I ordered Arctic Dreams after being intrigued by Claire’s review. The wonderful library system brought me a copy from the Bath Central Library to my little village library for a very reasonable £1 so I could pick it up after the toddler singing group. Then just as I was losing momentum (its quite a hefty book) it was on the BBC Radio 4 A Good Read, which also gave it a strong recomendation.

I loved it. Wonderfully rich descriptions of everything from the behaviour and movement of animals, through how the landscape itself changes as ice melts and reforms and the human aspect of the Arctic, Eskimos (Inuit and other groups) and Western man. Its not a quick read as I lingered over the descriptions, given such a rich description to allow visualising a foreign landscape.

There are no pictures in this book, just sketch maps to enable understanding of how locations link together. For the landscapes and the appearance of the animals, Lopez’s descriptions are sufficient. The are rich and describe movement in a way a picture could not convey.

Rather than being a coherent book it is more a collection of nine, roughly 50 page, essays with a prologue and epilogue to tie them together. Each essay is on a single theme, and whilst I flagged slightly reading “Migration”, the following chapter “Ice and Light” which described the visual landscape and how the ice moves was fascinating.

[on icebergs] I stare for hours at these creatures I have never seen before. They drift past in the spanking beautiful weather. How utterly still, unorthodox and wondrous they seem.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the human chapters as much as I did, but the tales of how Arctic explorers knowingly risked their lives for a combination of motives and how this has led to modern-day knowledge of the Arctic was interesting. Still more interesting however was Lopez’s attention to the native people of the Arctic, past and present. He acknowledges the advantages arcehology has in a climate where decay takes decades and centenaries rather than months and year, and discusses with respect his dealings and travels with the modern-day Inuit without romanticising their way of life.

The book acknowledges myths and legends about the Arctic without dismissing them, and suggesting explanations where these are possible

And if you have ever seen a polar bear swimming 30 feet below the surface in clear water, watched it stroke and glide, turn and roll down there like a sea otter, you would not wonder that bears could fly.

As I read this book I couldn’t help but think of the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials Trilogy, and wondered whether Pullman had taken from this work at all. In addition I noticed a reference I had previously been unaware of, a William Parry was a famous Arctic explorer who held the record for farthest North travelled for 48 years.

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2 thoughts on “Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

  1. So happy to hear that you read this and how serendipitous to have heard it discussed on Radio 4,thanks for that link I will look forward to listening to it as well. The essays are long and yet so wonderfully considered, they are to be savoured. I love that this is being republished as a Vintage Classic, I hope it continues to find a new readership.

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