ARCTIC DREAMS; Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. By Barry Lopez. Scribners. 464 pp. $22.95.
BEING, by temperate standards, an exceedingly foreign place but also a fairly accessible one, the Arctic for some centuries has enchanted romantics of both the sit-by-the-fire-and-fantasize and the grab-the-old- parka-and-get-some-epiphanic-experience sorts. Since such people are notable producers and consumers of travelers' tales, there is a sizable body of what might be called borealophilic literature. However, on examination much of it turns out to be, in the main, not about the Arctic but about the sensitivities of the tellers of the tales, the manner in which they were affected by polar temperatures, bears and stars, the moments of truth they found through these experiences.
This tradition is so long and strong that t is now difficult for Arctic authors not to respond to it. Often the response is to demonstrate, by laying on drifts of evocative prose, that one is at least as deeply moved by northern verities as any of his or her predecessors. In consequence Arctic writing tends to be stylized and predictable like stories about dogs or professional football.
Though it is called Arctic Dreams (which along with Polar Passions would be a suitable title for approximately 77 percent of the published Truenorth yarns), Barry Lopez's book is substantively different from, more engaging and instructive than, most contributions to this genre. His approach is to select a particular subject -- a northern place, creature or happening -- tell what he has personally seen or learned of it, refer to the reports of more knowledgeable observers, and then to speculate modestly on its relationship to larger matters of Arctic history and ecology. As a result each chapter stands as an informative guide to and graceful essay about some interesting aspect of the animate or inanimate north: narwhals, avian and mammalian migrations, ancient and modern Arctic explorations.
His style is to enter a subject by anecdote. Thus he gets into polar bears by describing a meeting with one as it climbed out of the open sea and walked across the pack ice. As it did, Lopez says, he used the insight of whalers who called this animal the farmer because of its "very agricultural appearance as he stalks leisurely across the furrowed fields of ice." Later he recalls an Eskimo expression, that to follow polar bear tracks is to "really know something." This is figuratively how Lopez proceeds, having done an impressive ammount of research on the history and habits of the bear, its recent relationships with humans and conservation efforts on its behalf. The results substantiate the Eskimo prediction: this is the most complete and accurate popular essay on these animals that I have read. (Another unusual -- for this type of book -- feature is that Lopez provides a useful general bibliography, intelligent notes on his sources and a pertinent listing of the proper botanical and zoological names of the species discussed.)
WHILE HE is obviously and admittedly another borealophile, Lopez blessedly goes very easy on his own raptures and concentrates on describing the nature of things external to himself. Readers are politely permitted to find or make their own metaphors if that is their pleasure. For example, there is a good account of a trip Lopez made through the eastern polar seas on a small supply ship which serves installations in the high Canadian Arctic. He introduces this passage by remarking, "If I had a desire simply to be with anything in the North, it was to be with icebergs." This declaration frankly establishes his romantic credentials and motives, but thereafter he comments informatively about what icebergs are: their creation, composition and dynamics, with asides on ice crystals, light patterns and qualities in the icy regions. When he gets around to writing about the ice-related trials and tribulations of some of the early Arctic explorers, these vignettes are more understandable and dramatic because rather than carrying on about the explorers' -- and his -- emotions, Lopez has made the effort to learn about and explain some of the properties of ice itself.
For the same reasons Lopez is very good on muskoxen, the subject of many other and many indifferent essays. These animals -- ancient beasts standing in perfect circles, valiantly defending themselves against wolves, blizzards and whatever -- have become an Arctic clich,e. Again, Lopez does better by them, choosing to write about real muskoxen rather than about their metaphoric impact on him. "At the approach of a threatening animal . . . muskoxen begin to draw near to each other, sometimes quickly, sometimes in response to the sudden bellow of a herd bull. (The herd bull is more often distinguished, however, by being the last to respond, and the first to relax, in these situations.) This defensive formation is not always symmetrical, nor do muskoxen always take this position when challenged -- sometimes they just run off."
To return to the -- at first -- suspicious title, Arctic Dreams, it is not exactly a spoof, for Lopez is essentially a very earnest writer, but there is a nice mildly ironic and self-deprecating touch to it. It serves to identify one of the most interesting phenomena of these regions and a central theme of the book -- the manner in which the North stirs the imaginations of southern romantics, the natural and social history of some of these stirred people. This is a good book for any one sated with ain't- the-Truenorth-inexpressibly-grand musings and who is more interested in how some Arctic things are than in how Arctic travelers feel.