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.

east west

clamshell sunsetsilhouette3 dune snailshell sunsetsilhouette2 driftwoodmoonwave sunsetsilhouette fullmoonWhile some folks abandon the beaches after September, I’m an all-weather kind of girl. Last weekend, I scratched together some minutes to visit the barrier island at sunset. I planned to look for ducks on the northern bay side, and then cross to admire the ocean to the south. I sketched a vague plan for a post about the cold, fierce November ocean, but the water lapped the sand as gently as August waves. Instead, I oriented myself to the lights at the other cardinal points: the sun, setting to the west, the full moon rising at my back.

The chance to watch both simultaneously is one gift of these shortened days; thank goodness, since we’re counting every heartening effect we can find until the winter solstice.

Now, the moon at her fullest rises early and enormous. The optics of the atmosphere bend the light and magnify her face so that her craters and rays are visible to the naked eye. On the other horizon, the sun wraps herself in crimson and gold, and casts her warm glow on the face of the moon.

I can’t decide which I prefer: these fiery sunsets, or the simmering enormity of the rising moon. Late fall and winter are the moon’s seasons, after all. But the sun sure puts on a good show, doesn’t she?

bird by bird

birdsofnorthamericaA few weeks ago, I asked a question on Twitter: How many North American birds could you name by sight? For many of my friends, the answer turned out to be, “More than I thought, now that I’m counting.” And over the past few weeks, some of them have returned to the question, realizing, over time, that they know more birds than they imagined. Great Blue Heron. Gull. Robin. Chickadee. Blue Jay. Pigeon. Flicker. Sparrow. Turkey. Crow. Red-tailed Hawk. It comes as a surprise, it seems.

And I wonder if the same question occurs to them as occurs to me: how exactly did I come to know in the first place?

Bird-minded folks sometimes ask one another, “What’s your spark bird?” It’s a beautifully phrased question about our origins, and among the disciples, it can be revealing. Was it a humble robin? An exotic or elusive bird? A particularly striking warbler? Some birders remember a specific feathered individual. Me personally, I can never nail down the moment.

I remember one warm summer evening at my grandparents’ house on the bank of the Rock River. I was about nine or so, exploring the yard in torn shorts and long braids. I sat alone on a splintery picnic table under a sprawling silver maple, watching dusk fall on the river. Out of the summer hum of crickets and cicadas, I picked up a sound I was particularly tuned in to: a kitten, crying in a lilac bush. Though I couldn’t find it, I ran to the kitchen to tell my grandma, who is also tuned in the key of cat. I led her across the yard to where I’d found the kitten, which I’d already claimed and named, but when she heard its voice, her face fell. “Oh geeze,” she said. “It’s only a catbird.”

“What’s a catbird?”

“It’s a bird that sounds like a cat!” She turned back to the house.

I stayed, and peered into the darkening bush, trying for a glimpse of this bird that sounded so much like a kitten that it’d fooled its namers, too. Catbirds are difficult to spot when they don’t care to be seen, and it was years before I actually caught sight of one, a slaty grey skulker. Years more before I discovered their bright red bloomers. But after that encounter, I never stopped looking.

I remember how my mom knew the names of the birds who visited the feeders she hung outside our dining room—flicker, cardinal, sparrow, chickadee, blue jay, starling. And the names she recalled, but couldn’t hang decisively on any of our visitors: grackle, finch, blackbird, nuthatch. We were not a family of naturalists, and I’m pretty sure birds weren’t on the school curriculum. Most likely she learned from her own mother, she who named the catbird. But how did she know? And who taught her? Few of my friends knew any birds beyond robins. The knowledge always felt like a special family trait, even though its source is a mystery to me. I’m not exactly sure I want to know the true history.

I remember the house finches, too, or at least their painted likeness on a certain glossy page. My other grandparents kept a copy of the Golden Guide to Birds on their coffee table. I would leaf back and forth through the book when I visited, admiring the colors, the weight of the paper, the way it settled open to particular species in my palm.

My grandparents never actually pointed out any birds to me, but they did pass on an old guide they didn’t use any more. It grew dusty and creased as old paperbacks do in the hands of middle-schoolers. Those guides were probably published with that well-worn and well-loved patina, anyway. Somehow the illustrations came to life in the mind of a suburban girl, far distant from their home habitats. The stripedy-purply finches in the field guide’s paintings occupied my imagination for years, until the day I finally saw them in real life. I recognized them instantly, as well as others I finally met in person years later: sandpipers, kestrels, bluebirds.

I suspect that lots of folks have lived similar stories. Instead of a feathered coup de foudre—a lightning strike of love—our minds stayed quietly welcoming and open to a growing awareness of the nature of things. All the creatures crept into my consciousness undercover, by way of books and backyards. And I realized how many I knew by name only when I started looking.

How about you? Do you have a spark bird, or were you a slow learner? And while we’re on the subject, I wish someone in my life had been a fan of fungi, because I’d be much better off if I’d gotten a head start as a kid. Are there any critters or plants you wish you’d known about long ago?


I borrowed the title of this post from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” which is excellent.