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.

in which i suggest some books

I’m generally not very useful when it comes to this book-recommending business. That’s what I get for having my nose stuck in a field guide most of the time. I’m more of a specialist, I guess, so if you’re ever in need of a nature-y sort of book suggestion, I’m your girl. In fact, I’ll do you one better. Right here, in no particular order: my top four favorite nature writers for your reading pleasure. Leave your own suggestions in the comments! I’m always looking for good reads.

Writer: Aldo Leopold
My Favorite Work: A Sand County Almanac

“To arrive too early in the marsh is an adventure in pure listening: the ear roams at will among the noises of the night, without let or hindrance from hand or eye. When you hear a mallard being audibly enthusiastic about his soup, you are free to picture a score guzzling among the duckweeds.”

— A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac is a book of essays illuminating each month of Aldo’s year on his “Sand Farm” in southwestern Wisconsin. Aldo is considered one of the original American conservation writers, but that’s not why I love him. What I love is how he writes with such a loving familiarity that he relocates me in my imagination to the sandy pine forests of Wisconsin. He writes as if he’s on intimate terms with all the creatures and creepers in his essays — including enough biographical details that you may as well have met the little weasel in question yourself.

Writer: Rachel Carson
My Favorite Work: Under the Sea Wind

“The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.”

— Under the Sea Wind

Rachel is known primarily these days for her book, Silent Spring, a prophetic warning about the overuse of pesticides in the 1960s that, in essence, sparked a movement that ultimately saved dozens of species of animals, and probably thousands of people. Before Silent Spring, Rachel wrote eloquent explorations of the coast and ocean that illuminated these worlds for millions of readers years before Jacques Cousteau carried his lights and cameras into the deep. While Cousteau’s writing and filmography is full of ego and braggadocio, Rachel writes with humble awe and genuine delight at the power and process of the ocean. Read Under the Sea Wind for a birds’ (and fish’s) eye view of the saltwater world.

Writer: John McPhee
My Favorite Work: All of them. I will read anything he writes. But notably, Annals of the Former World, and Founding Fish.

“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphor…”

— Annals of the Former World

John won a Pulitzer for a book about rocks. He’s written about, oh, just about everything, including a dam in Mississippi, for the New Yorker. And I spent almost all my down time on jury duty engrossed in his book about fish. Never would have predicted it, actually. Now I know more about American Shad than any other fish on the planet — and I liked it. His Pulitzer winner, Annals of the Former World is a literary geology of the lower 48 of the United States, and while you’d think geology would be rather dusty (har har), I’ve seldom been more engrossed in a tome of its size. It’s a compilation of five books that investigate the deep history of the geologic regions of our continent from coast to coast. I like to re-read certain sections when I travel, for example Basin and Range when I visited Death Valley. John’s voice, — amused, amusing, and astonished by turns — in my mind kept reminding me there was more to those mountains and valleys than rocks. I couldn’t stop thinking about the time.

Poet: Mary Oliver
Favorite Work: I can’t pick just one!


held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us

as with a match
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.”

— From the poem, “Snow Geese,” in the collection,
Why I Wake Early

Once, I was reading another poet, Wendell Berry, at an airport gate waiting to board. A motherly woman seated next to me asked me who Wendell was, what kind of poetry he wrote, and whether I liked him. Then she told me, with much conviction, “If you like this kind of poetry, you should read Mary Oliver.” Of course, when I got home I checked out a collection of Mary’s poems from the library right away. Reading her poems was like finding the North Star. She’s had a home on my bedside table ever since. She writes with joy and tenderness about being in love with the world around her — the fierce, violent world of the owls and the bears, the thrilling world of the spring thrushes, the wholly relatable world of the foxes and the flowers, and of course the people and the words that fill her life — and generally says all the things I ever want to say about everything. Her poems always leave me silent, but so full, in the best way.



Photo: Mine, of Mary Oliver’s Poem, “Everything,” from New and Collected Poems, Volume II.