I was twenty-six years old when I first read Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez’s National Book Award-winning account of the five years he spent visiting the Arctic region. It was a difficult read for me. I tried to care about a land that seemed not only distant, but harsh and unlovable in the extreme. Why would anyone, I wondered, spend so much time in such a place? What about the Arctic could possibly fill a 400-plus page book?
It took me a long time to finish Arctic Dreams. And in truth it’s not a book to rush through. Lopez’s writing, with its minute descriptions, historical references, and sudden leaps, takes time to absorb. Many times while reading the book, I experienced that cold-fire, top-of-the-head-lifting-off sensation that Emily Dickinson described so precisely, even while wondering where, exactly, Lopez was taking me—were we in Banks Island or Tôrnârssuk? Did it matter?
I kept reading. I imagined Lopez standing completely still, somewhere very cold, and memorizing what he saw: “here is a prong from a bird spear; here is a walrus-tooth pendant; but what were the ideas attached to these objects?”
Arctic Dreams explicates the landscape, a place that includes the indigenous people who understand it better than anyone but to whom few listen, the scientists who study it via industry-funded grants, and its animals and plants. My favorite section of the book, “The Country of the Mind,” describes the tiny Beaufort Sea Island called Pingok: “to a Western imagination that finds a stand of full-crowned trees heartening, that finds the flight and voice of larks exhilarating, and the sight of wind rolling over fields of tall grass more agreeable, Pingok seems impoverished.” By the end of the chapter, Lopez questions our acceptance of the need to leave home (“it is a convention of Western thought to believe all cultures are compelled to explore”), wonders “which plants separate at a glance mesic tundra from hydric, hydric from xeric?” and observes the remains of human settlement on the island.
Lopez offers the deep connection the Inuit people have to the land that’s sustained them for centuries as a balm for what ails our present culture: “This archaic affinity for the land, I believe, is an antidote to the loneliness that in our own culture we associate with individual estrangement and despair.” Reading these words, I suddenly understood why I should care about this vast and distant land: because someone else did. That, I believe, is the message that underscores Lopez’s nature writing: we should care, passionately, powerfully, about every place on Earth, no matter how strange or unforgiving.
In the mid-2000s, I sat in the audience in Saratoga, California, listening as Barry Lopez recited W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks” from memory. After the poem ended on the line “dark though it is,” Lopez let the silence last, then began, finally, to read a short story from his latest book.
Thirty-one years after I first read Arctic Dreams, I moved to Eugene, Oregon, just a few miles west of Lopez’s home on the McKenzie River. That home was badly damaged in
September of 2020, when the Holiday Farm fire burned through almost 300,000 acres in the McKenzie River Valley, displacing thousands of people. On Christmas Day, 2020, Barry Lopez died, surrounded by his family.
After I heard of Lopez’s death, I searched for my copy of Arctic Dreams, the one I bought in 1986, but I couldn’t find it. I now own a brand-new copy of the book that challenged me so much all those years ago. I look forward to reading it.