Classic review: Arctic Dreams

Evocative account of Arctic strays toward soapbox.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 464pp. $22.95

[This review from the Monitor's archives ran originally ran on March 7, 1986.] It's hard to disagree with any of the salient points made by Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams. Mr. Lopez is invariably ethically correct when assessing what should and should not happen to the far northern reaches of America.

And as he has demonstrated in four other works of nonfiction, most notably the engaging “Of Wolves and Men,” he can report on the facts and the arcana of natural history as well as anyone else. Everything about a landscape as it penetrates consciousness and becomes a factor in mental life interests him.

His book on the Arctic tells of walruses, seals, Eskimos, oil companies, (innumerable) explorers, field biologists, the movement of ice, the lack or abundance of light (remember, this is the Arctic, land of the midnight sun), and the astonishing narwhal, a first view of which prompted this appraisal: “It was as though something from a bestiary had taken shape.”

At his best, Lopez is a connoisseur of natural phenomena, and he conveys what he sees with precision: “There were 250,000 lesser snow geese at Tule Lake. At dawn I would find them floating on the water, close together in a raft three-quarters of a mile long and perhaps 500 yards wide. When a flock begins to rise from the surface of the water, the sound is like a storm squall arriving, a great racket of shaken sheets of corrugated tin. (If you try to separate the individual sounds in your head, they are like dry cotton towels snapping on a wind-blown clothesline.)”

He can also suggest the feeling of a moment, as in this description of a -45 degrees F. day in Fairbanks, Alaska: “In the witless gray light, huge ravens walked the alleys behind stores, tearing at bits of garbage. They hunkered down on the tops of telephone poles in the white vapor, staring down, cawing that ear-splitting caw. I never felt anything so prehistoric.”

There are many such moments in “Arctic Dreams,” moments when Lopez aligns himself with the landscape, feels deeply in touch with its strangeness and its wonder, and works to convey the spiritual content of his response.

The problem is that Lopez never strays far from the soapbox. He cannot seem to resist telling readers, again and again, that they need to rethink their treatment of the natural world. It is one thing, and commendable (and true), to hope to raise landscape consciousness by saying that “the land is like poetry,” that “it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life,” and it is chilling to know that the Eskimo word for the white man translates as “the people who change nature.”

It is something else, however, to be lectured at in a condescending tone about all the atrocities committed against the land and its inhabitants by the “impersonal avarice of a corporation,” the soulless dynamo that is technology, and by us.

Lopez interrupts “Arctic Dreams” to sell his agenda too often, and this causes the narrative heartbeat to become arrhythmic. He is likely preaching to the already converted anyway, because I suspect those who need to read this book probably won't.

Which is too bad, because, its annoying tone and editorializing aside, “Arctic Dreams” teems with exactly the sort of material that those of us interested in natural history savor.

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