Subtitled “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape”, this is a strange tome indeed. The first chapters read very much like a somewhat florid natural history book. The arctic is often described and imagined as a desolate landscape of snow, ice and few living things. Barry Lopez explains why this isn’t the case.
Lopez explains how the peculiar nature of the arctic makes the things that live there very special. Take for instance his explanation of soil. Soil is, he says “a living system”, a combination of dirt and decaying organic matter. “It draws in oxygen like an animal through myriad tunnel built by ants, rodents ad worms”. However the further north you go, the less living this is. Because of the cold, there are less animals and plants to help the material decay and aerate the ground. Eventually you get to a situation where dead material will take years, perhaps decades to decay.
It’s this understanding of the arctic places as being a continuation of other areas and a break that makes Lopez’s writing so interesting. It’s not simply that the Eskimo people are human’s adapted to the cold regions, it’s that there has been a gradual transition as people moved into the arctic and changed their lifestyles to suit the conditions. Lopez describes how Eskimo’s can survive with almost no possessions rebuilding their lives if everything they own is destroyed, but he doesn’t pretend that they are somehow super humans, capable of doing the impossible.
For this author, the arctic is a perfect example of how nature is interlocking. The Polar Bears depend on the seals, the seals are dependent on other animals to eat, other animals depend upon the tides and weather freezing the water in particular ways, to encourage or discourage the formation of microscopic plants and animals. All of this is subject to change (sudden and gradual) and all of it is affected by the presence and actions of man.
In fact it is when it comes to man that Barry’s writing really comes into its own. The last few chapters dealing with the history of man’s conquest of the arctic – in search of financial gain in the most part, is a breathtaking story of voyage, exploration, accident and bravery. Imagine being trapped in the ice with several hundred sailors for over a year, but it’s precisely this that happened to many who braved the icy lands.
This is not to say that the natural writing isn’t as interesting – the chapters on the Narwhal and Polar Bears are particularly fascinating….. I liked the explanation of why the Narwhal’s tusk is covered in a spiral pattern for instance.
Ultimately, even if Barry Lopez’s florid writing gets on the readers nerves occasionally, this is nothing less than a wonderful explanation of how natural systems, depend upon each other in such a delicate way. It’s also a terrifying portrayal of just what we have to loose if any part of those systems are destroyed or displaced.