Arctic Dreams


This post is a review of a book I’m still reading. Sort’ve.

But let me start from the beginning.

My friend the naturalist buys used copies of books he loves to pass on to friends. (I plan to adopt this practice myself someday.) A few months ago, he gave me a book originally published in 1989, Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez. It’s one of those fat old pocket-sized Bantam editions with a yellowed paper cover and endorsements from every major newspaper, the kind that’d be buried between the bodice rippers and the Grisham reprints in the grocery store paperback section.

I received the book in the middle of a delicious August, and I was far from the right mood to read about ice and tundra in the last days of the summer I wanted to last forever. Well, actually I didn’t want to face the heartbreak of a historical Arctic not long past but gone.

But these old paperbacks call to me. Maybe it’s a leftover frisson that lingers from snooping in my grandma’s Harlequin romances? I never shelved Arctic Dreams. It waited on my desk. I don’t remember why I finally picked it up.

This is meant to be a book recommendation, but I don’t think I’ve really gotten around to that part. I’ll try again.

Mr. Lopez says,

“We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place.”

He poses this thought almost exactly in the middle of the book that answers the need he describes. For all the years of travel covered in this book, he’sbeen bearing witness to the Arctic, what is beautiful and edifying about a faraway place most of us earthlings will never approach.

Mr. Lopez accumulated years in the Arctic not because its beauty wasn’t pure or apparent, but maybe because it took that long to learn how to explain what is beautiful and edifying about it, to learn the things that matter about the polar bear and the muskox and the narwhal. His savory prose is layered and complicated, and lyrical and full of words that slow me down: keen observations of arctic wildlife sifted into Mr. Lopez’s sometimes transcendent descriptions of ice bergs and taiga, suspended between explorations of Western and Inuit ways of knowing, with deep respect toward the latter and self-aware critique of the former.

If you mean to fall in love with a place you’ve never been, Arctic Dreams is the romance for you and a heartbreaking natural history. Read it.<

Here’s the sort’ve-not-a-book-review part of this post: It’s been years since I wrote in a book, but the passage that follows what I quoted above had me scrambling for something to write with. It’s underlined in my copy now—only in pencil, but I think I’ll go back over it with ink so I can find it moreasily when I need it. Here, for you:

“Considering the tradition of distant travelers, the range of their interests and the range of their countrymen’s desire to know, the government camp on Cornwallis Island seemed an impoverished outpost. There were no provisions there for painters, for musicians, for novelists. And there were no historians there. If the quest for knowledge in any remote place is meant in an egalitarian sense to be useful to all, then this is a peculiar situation. Yet it is no different from what one would find in a hundred other such remote places around the world. Whenever we seek to take swift and efficient possession of places completely new to us, places we neither own nor understand, our first and often only assessment is a scientific one. And so our evaluations remain unfinished.” (itals. mine)

I often try to figure out what exactly I’m trying to do in all these spaces I occupy on the internet. Whether I’m trying to be an artist or a wordsmith or a teacher or a scientist. How and why I’m bearing witness to the tiniest remote places buried under our noses and twined into our neighborhoods, and what my medium is after all. Or at least, what I want it to be, especially on this internet where science seems to own all the conversations about the natural world. We have to be so careful when we add in the art and the poetry, even if we’re only applying our human lens to nature’s art.

But I could almost make this passage into a personal statement. Flip some pronouns, re-state it positively in an active voice. I mean to be the painter, the novelist, the historian in the remote places, to tip the quest for knowledge in favor of anyone who cares, whatever approach reaches folks.

It’s strange and welcome when someone else’s words reach across a page to the exact place where you’re standing. Especially when you’re busy trying to decide where that place is.

Posted in Musings | Tagged | 2 Comments

light housekeeping

stormThe past few months have knocked me on my butt, if I’m being honest. Good things, mostly: I started a new, more demanding, more fulfilling position is the biggest one. But I didn’t have much space around the edges of a new job for snooping or photography. My lunchtime walks disappeared under a few heavy duty work projects. I’ve been withering under fluorescent lights since September.

The days grew shorter, that’s another thing.

I also led my very first natural history workshop two weekends ago, Smartphone Nature Photography, at the South Fork Natural History Museum nearby. I’m not going to lie—I offered to do it mainly so I’d have a chance to hang out with other nature lovers. Everybody who came was wonderful, and they took great photos! I liked it so much, I volunteered to lead a bird walk for the museum in February, tentatively titled “The Shiveriest Duck Walk.” More info to come on that soon, I guess.

Anyway, without a whole lot of time to spare, I tried to settle into this new reality where I had to scramble to make time for nature, a huge contrast to how I’m accustomed to living. I’d grab an hour here or there, but nothing like the grand old snoops I’m used to. I mean, work is work, right? Can’t fight daylight savings time, either. Lots of people go months without a breath of fresh air, and it probably wouldn’t kill me either.

Except, I was kind’ve dying, and I didn’t even know it. Until I did.

At exactly noon today, I walked out into a glorious fresh November day, into the sunshine, away from my desk. I spotted a merlin sneaking into the scarlet oak trees to terrorize the local birdlife. Painted lady butterflies flitted among the falling leaves. Chipmunks and sparrows and juncos dug around in the duff, and my miniature winter wren friend bounced like a clockwork toy on her little bitty legs, scolding me for disturbing the peace. It was *swear word* magical.

I missed all that, and I missed this place too. I want to keep the faith here, but I need to make a few changes to keep up. So here’s the deal: I’m going to try to write and post weekly for the next few months. To meet that goal, I absolutely have to get out, so there are upsides for everyone, though I may have to resort to comics or something to fill the space… There will be fewer big photo posts, probably more phone photos, and perhaps some illustrations, if you’re ok with that. I hope you are, because I’m sort’ve heading in that direction anyway. If I can scratch together an extra few hours, I might even give this rusty website an overhaul. Redecorate the place, make it a little more welcoming, maybe. What do you think?

So that’s the current state of the union: Life is full, but the balance is off. This little blog  helps me maintain the right balance, so I plan to be spending more time here. Hope you do too.

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thar she blows

I’ve been landbound nearly my whole life. I’ve never been so far from a shore that I couldn’t see it, unless I was in the air. And after marrying into a family of seasick landlubbers, I’ve hesitated to test myself on the open water. But Long Island is a finger extended far into the ocean, and the ocean means more than beaches.

It means whales.

This past Sunday, some friends and I joined a whale-watching-and-research-survey cruise hosted by the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. Midmorning, we chugged out of Montauk Harbor at the very tip of the south fork of the island, heading toward Block Island about 14 miles away. I kept thinking, “I don’t know anyone who’s seen this view of Montauk Lighthouse.” As the lighthouse, and the WWII radar tower, and the headlands of my island faded behind us, even the gulls abandoned their seats on the tour. Block Island loomed, and then shrank to a hovering mass on the horizon. The coast of Long Island disappeared.

Montauk-Point-Lighthouse herringgull

It takes a long time to cross that distance over water. Hours, I think, though I wasn’t checking. The ocean quietly scintillated around us, the sun beat down, and the ocean-going birds must have been somewhere else. I almost thought the whales were too. But no. We idled a few minutes. Then the captain suddenly threw the engine into gear, the PA system hummed with the voices of the spotters, and we plowed toward distant cones of steam. Fin whales blowing. Three of them.

two-whales roll finbackdive

There are only so many pictures you can take of a 60-foot sleek grey back cutting the ripples, steaming exhalations through enormous nostrils, yards of a mostly unseen body sliding past, arching up, slicing the air with a blade of fin, sinking smoothly out of sight. It all looks the same on screen, but each instance feels different. Olympic divers would be envious: 70-odd tons, and not a hint of a splash. Fin whales are so powerful, they don’t have to lift their tails out of the water like other whales. They don’t need any extra boost of power as they dive. They whip their flukes unseen under the waves, and disappear. All they leave behind are wide slicks of flattened surface water, anomalously out of sync with the rest of the wind-riffled waves.

They’re so fast they escaped the first great age of whaling, only to become the most tempting prey in the ocean once our hunting technology caught up with them. Their populations are only recently starting to recover in the North Atlantic.

Our guide, Dr. Artie Koppelman, doled out bits of information in these snail-paced doses. He told us that the whales empty their lungs at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Fwoom. Being inside those giant lungs as they exhale would be like being flattened by a train, I thought. He told us that Fin whales are assymetrically colored: the right side of their face is white, contrasting with the rest of their grey-brown bodies. I didn’t catch sight of that feature, the whales surfaced, breathed, dove so fast. He told us we had seen a mother and a calf pair, and that the calf, at nearly six months old, would soon set off on its own. We watched the calf roll, lifting a fin out of the water, using the torque of its rotation to close its mouth against the 18,000 gallons of water it gulped to strain for food.

We only saw three of the giant Fin whales, though other tours have seen dozens of other whales and dolphins in the same patch of ocean. They’re big enough to find from miles away, and yet somehow the ocean isn’t big enough for them anymore. Once there were hundreds of thousands of Fins. And hundreds of thousands of Blues. And all the others, an ocean literally teeming with flocks of the most enormous creatures ever seen in the universe, and all the other things in the ocean that fed them. It teems much less now.

Eventually, we let the whales go on without us. The boat turned west, back toward the lighthouse that waited for us on Montauk’s reinforced cliffs. Sun-tired and listless, most of the passengers stopped watching the ocean, until someone spotted a dark fin cutting the water, and another blade of fin sinuously trailing it in languid figure-eights.


Can you see it?

Can you see it?

A real, live Hammerhead shark! In the ocean! The same ocean I swim in all summer! I wanted to put on a snorkel and trail my head in the water all the way back to port. The surface was quiet the rest of the trip, but there had to be more. I wanted to see them.

Naturalists develop the habit of visiting specific patches of earth often. Different times of year, times of day, different ways of being in the same place yield way more insight into the way other things live than a once-and-done pass through. I’ve seen more species in my patches throughout the years than I think I’d see if I chased every rare-bird sighting, or toured all most popular spots on the island.


Ocean sunfish!

Ocean sunfish!


I wish I could make a patch of the ocean, and as of this trip, I’m going to rate myself sea-worthy enough to take a stab at it. There’s no such thing as a whale-watching season pass, but I’m going to do my darndest to get out there as often as I can. It’s a big ocean, and there’s still a hell of a lot to see in it.

Posted in Education of a Naturalist, Fauna, Stories | Tagged | 7 Comments