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.