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The same, unmistakably, is true of Lopez's prose. Of all the great landscape writers, Lopez's austere style seems most purely to embody the terrain it describes.
Arctic Dreams - National Book Foundation
Before writing Arctic Dreams, Lopez travelled for five years as a field biologist in the Canadian Arctic. In that time, he moved through the different territories of the region. The orange and ochre badlands of Melville Island. The wild canyons of the Hood River. The slow jostle of big tabular bergs in Baffin Bay. Pingok Island in the Beaufort Sea, where the tides are so slight that "it is possible to stand toe-to at the water's edge, and, if one has the patience, see it gain only the heel's of one's boots in six hours".
When he began to write about the Arctic, Lopez was faced with the problem of purchase. How can language grip a landscape so close-toned, which specialises in "great, unrelieved stretches of snow and ice" and "plains of open water"? How to describe a place whose immensity and capacity for self-replication is peerless? What Lopez understood, or came to discover through experience, was that detail anchors perception in a vast space.
So his prose is varifocal. Again and again, he evokes the reach and clarity of an Arctic panorama, and then zooms in on a close-up: the gleaming and "chitinous shell of an insect" found in a tuffet of grass; "broken spider-webs", signifying "irretrievable events"; the affinity of form between "the bones of a lemming" and the "strand of staghorn lichen next to them on the tundra". The effect for the reader of these sudden shifts of perspective is exhilarating, as though Lopez has gripped you by the shoulder and pressed his binoculars to your eyes.
Lopez's scientific training also helped him. Through it, he came to realise the importance of fact as a carrier of wonder. Arctic Dreams is packed with data: about the crystallography of frazil ice, or the thermodynamics of polar-bear hair.
However, this information is deployed not to summarise the landscape and its organisms, but to make them more astonishing. Science, for Lopez, finesses the real into a greater marvellousness. Arctic mirages were once thought to be the work of angels; they are now known to be the work of angles. For Lopez, the two are never far apart. Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them.
Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The book makes a passionate plea for the Arctic region to be better understood. He paints a vivid picture of the region and its biodiversity.
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While the region is often depicted as barren and lifeless, Lopez encourages us to think otherwise. In loving detail, he explains how the process of freezing and thawing affects the soil of the Arctic. Another section discusses ice: how it forms and changes over several years; how it breaks up again; icebergs, pack ice, and field ice.
He narrates the duel of two male narwhals with their ten-foot horns, explaining why these horns have a spiral shape. He follows a polar bear and her cubs over ten months, watching the adult personalities of the young bears emerge. The distance between my body and my thoughts slowly became elongated, and muffled like a dark, carpeted corridor…I knew I had to get to dry clothes, to get them on.
But desire could not move my legs or arms. They were too far away. As his subtitle perhaps suggests, his writing is attenuated and overly metaphysical at times. For the most part, however, the high seriousness is a gamble that pays off.
ARCTIC DREAMS : by Barry Lopez (Scribner’s: $22.95; 464 pp.)
At its best, this is much more than a travel book. Like John McPhee, Lopez is a conservationist as well as an excellent writer. Unlike McPhee, Lopez is uninterested in anecdotes, seldom describing either his human companions or the technological support-systems that make his presence in such a remote and forbidding landscape possible. His most memorable descriptions are of animals: arctic foxes, migrating musk-oxen, sea-birds.
Self-consciously rejecting a human-centered viewpoint, Lopez instead shows things as they might appear to the creatures them-selves.
Of the whales hunted in Baffin Bay during the 19th century 38, were killed by the British fishing fleet alone; some remain today , Lopez writes: ""The blowhole. The fiery pain of a harpoon strike can hardly be imagined. In the apparently unchanging landscape of the Arctic, he sees many signs of degeneration and loss. While acutely receptive to beauty--whether a spectacular display of Northern Lights or an uneasy encounter with the beady eye of a vigilant ground-nesting bird--Lopez sees even such moments of ""Hyperborean"" calm as only respites from the encroachments of history and human expansion.
This is a polemic, then--and at its best moments, something more. Combining his heightened, notably ""literary"" style with his objective desire to see things as they are from the viewpoint of his ""primitive"" or ""wild"" subject-matter, Lopez often succeeds in transmitting a unique and powerful vision.