the life of the Arctic in the dreams of one of its travellers.
Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986) by Barry Lopez
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 deal with particular species native to the Arctic, and although Lopez’s writing is excellent, his attitude sympathetic and humble, and his observations fascinating, I didn’t take many notes until the latter chapters. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in living in harsh climates, the Arctic, or our relationship to the world around us. I am better for having read this.
p 29 “Virtually all of the earth’s biological systems are driven by solar radiation.”
“The Arctic receives, strangely, the same amount of sunshine in a year as the tropics, but it comes all at once, and at a low angle of incidence.”
“The average temperature fluctuates over a period of 365 days, not twenty-four hours…”
p39 “[Eskimo] call us, with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, ‘the people who change nature.'”
2. Banks Island – Ovibos moschatus
rough notes: muskox and American bison survived the ice age, unlike the mammoth, dire wolf, North American camel, short-faced bear which are all extinct.
3. Tornarssuk – Ursus maritimus
p96-7 “[Eskimo] are uneasy they manage to say, about the irrevocability of decisions made by people who are not sensually perceptive, not discriminating in these northern landscapes, not enthusiastic about long-term observations.”
p97 “…in spring [polar bears] would not cross melt pools, where needle ice can puncture a bear’s foot.”
p110 “…a harsh land where life took insight and patience and humor.”
4. Lancaster Sound – Monodon monoceros
5. Migration – The Corridors of Breath
p154-5 “What absorbs me in [lesser snow geese], beyond their beautiful whiteness, their astounding numbers [250,000], the great vigor of their live, is how adroitly each bird joins the larger flock or departs from it. And how each bird while it is a part of the flock seems part of something larger than itself. Another animal. Never did I see a single goose move to accommodate one that was landing, nor geese on the water ever disturbed by another taking off, no matter how closely bunched they seemed to be. I never saw two birds so much as brush wingtips in the ar, though surely they must. They roll up into a headwind together in a seamless movement that brings thousands of them gently to the ground like falling leaves in but a few seconds. Their movements are endlessly attractive to the eye because of a tension they create between the extended parabolic lines of their flight and their abrupt but adroit movements, all of it in three dimensions.”
p162 “Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them south in the fall.”
p174-5 “…fluctuations in the arctic climate that were responsible for shifts of land and sea animals north and south over prolonged periods were tied to a lunar cycle of 18.6 years (the time it takes the moon to intersect the earth’s orbit around the sun again at the same spot). Because the length of this lunar cycle is not a whole number, the maximum and minimum effect it has on the earth’s tides (and therefore on ice formation and weather) can occur at different seasons of the year, in successive 18.6-year periods. This led [Danish Scientist Christian] Vibe to posit a primary period of 698 years for the Arctic’s weather pattern, with secondary periods of 116.3 years, and what Vibe calls a basic ‘true ecological cycling period’ of 11.6 years.”
p200 “A fundamental difference between our culture and Eskimo culture, which can be felt even today in certain situations, is that we have irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy. We have turned all animals and elements of the natural world into objects. We manipulate them to serve the complicated ends of our destiny. Eskimos do not grasp this separation easily, and have difficulty imagining themselves entirely removed from the world of animals.. For many of them, to make this separation is analogous to cutting oneself off from light or water. It is hard to imagine how to do it.”
p201 “A second difference is that, because we have objectified animals, we are able to treat them impersonally. this means not only the animals that live around us but animals that live in distant lands. For Eskimos, most relationships with animals are local and personal. the animals one encounters are part of one’s community, and one has obligations to them. A most confusing aspect of Western culture for Eskimos to grasp is our depersonalization of relationships with the human and animal members of our communities. And it is compounded, rather than simplified, by their attempting to learn how to objectify animals.”
“Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiak, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a par of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A Central Eskimo shaman named Aua, queried by Knud Rasmussen about Eskimo beliefs, answered, ‘We do not believe. We fear.'”
p201-2 “To extend these thoughts, it is wrong to think of hunting cultures like the Eskimo’s as living in perfect harmony or balance with nature. Their regard for animals and their attentiveness to nuance in th landscape were not rigorous or complete enough to approach an idealized harmony. No one knew that much.. No one would say they knew that much. They faced nature with fear, with ilira (nervous awe) and kappia (apprehension). And with enthusiasm. They accepted hunting as a way of life – its violence, too, though they did not seek that out. They were unsentimental, so much so that most outsiders thought them cruel, especially in their treatment of dogs. Nor were they innocent. There is murder and warfare and tribal vendetta in their history; and today, in the same villages I walked out of to hunt, are families shattered by alcohol, rugs, and ambition. While one cannot dismiss culpability in these things, any more than one can hold to romantic notions about hunting, it is good to recall what a struggle it is to live with dignity and understanding, with perspicacity or grace, in circumstances far better than these. And it is helpful to imagine how the forces of life must be construed by people who live in a world where swift and fatal violence, like ivu, the suddenly leaping shore ice, is inherent in the land The land, in a certain, very real way, compels the minds of the people.”
6. Ice and Light
p210-11 “In the absence of any wind or strong current, sea ice first appears on the surface as an oily film of crystals. This frazil ice thickens to a kind of gray slush called grease ice, which then thickens vertically to form an elastic layer of ice crystals an inch or so thick called nilas. Young nilas bend like watered silk over a light ocean swell and is nearly transparent… When it is about four inches thick, nilas begins to turn gray and is called young ice, or gray ice. When gray ice finally becomes opaque it is called first-year ice. And in these later stages it thickens more slowly.”
“by spring, first-year ice might be four to six feet thick. If it doesn’t melt completely during the summer, it becomes second-year ice in the fall, tinted blue and much harder. … Second-year ice continues to thicken… If it remains unmelted, … it is simply called multiyear ice, or polar pack ice.. A formidable version of multiyear ice, paleocrystic ice forms in the open polar sea and may be 50 feet thick.”
“Pack ice may be consolidated in great expanses of rubble called field ice…”
p211 “If a swell comes up in a sludge of grease ice, for example, the crystals congeal in large, round plates that develop upturned edges from bumping against each other – a stage called pancake ice.”
[Note: also needle ice, candle ice, shorefast ice, polynyas, embayed ice – I don’t know how many words we may have for snow, but we certainly have a lot for ice. It is crucial for surviving the changing Arctic landscape.]
p221 “It is snow that cuts some animals off from their food, makes heavy energy demands on others, and insulates a third group.”
p228 “The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle tha we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an unalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery. Within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”
p235 “[Aurora] easily evoke feelings of awe and tenderness; the most remarkable effect they seem to have, however, is to draw a viewer emotionally up and out of himself, because they throw the sky into a third dimension, on such a vast scale, in such a beautiful way, that they make the emotion of self-pity impossible.”
Fata morgana – mirages
7. The Country of the Mind
p257 “In the modern age, one of the most irksome, and ironic, of political problems in North America is the promulgation of laws and regulations from Washington an Ottawa that seem grossly ignorant of the landscapes to which they apply. We all, however, apprehend the land imperfectly, even when we go to the trouble to wander in it. Our perceptions are colored by preconception and desire The physical landscape is an unstructured abode of space and time and is not entirely fathomable; but this does not necessarily put us at a disadvantage in seeking to know about it. Believing them to be fundamentally mysterious in their form and color, in the varieties of life inherent in them, in the tactile qualities of their soils, the sound of the violent fall of rain upon them, the smell of their buds – believing landscapes to be mysterious aggregations, it becomes easier to approach them.. One simply accords them the standing that one grants the other mysteries, as distinguished from the puzzles, of life.”
p278-9 ‘[Yi-Fu Tuan]: a culture’s most cherished places are not necessarily visible to the eye – spots on the land one can point to. They are made visible in drama – in narrative, song, and performance. It is precisely what is invisible in the land, however, that makes what is merely empty space to one person a place to another. .The feeling that a particular place is suffused with memories, the specific focus of sacred and profane stories, and what the whole landscape is a congeries of such places, is what is meant by a local sense of the land. The observation that it is merely space which requires definition before it has meaning – political demarcation, an assignment of its ownership, or industrial development – betrays a colonial sensibility.”
p279 “For some people, what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses into the lan. If the land is summarily disfigured or reorganized, it causes them psychological pain. Again, such people are attached to the land as if by luminous fibres; and they live in a kind of time that is not of the moment, but, in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime.”
p296 “The stories that unfold against the local landscape, and that give expression to the enduring relationships of life, said [Amos] Rapoport, are as critical for people as food or water. The mythic landscape is not the natural landscape, Rapoport concluded, but the mythic and natural landscapes overlap at certain visible point in the land. And the limits of the local landscape, he emphasized, are not something that can be politically negotiated; they are fixed in mythology. They are not susceptible of adjustment.”
p297-8 “The place-fixing stories that grew out of the land were of two kinds. The first kind, which was from the myth time and occurred against the backdrop of a mythological landscape, was usually meticulously conserved.”
p298 “The second kind of story included stories about traveling and what had happened to everyone in the years that could be recalled.”
“The undisturbed landscape verifies both sorts of story, and it is the constant recapitulation in sacred and profane contexts of all of these stories that keeps the people alive and the land alive in the people. Language, the stories, holds the vision together.”
8. The Intent of Monks
p313 “what every culture must eventually decide, actively debate and decide, is what of all that surrounds it, tangible and intangible, it will dismantle and turn into material wealth. And what of its cultural wealth, from the tradition of finding peace in the vision of an undistrubed hillside to a knowledge of how to finance corporate merger, it will fight to preserve.”
p313-4 “It seemed clear to me that we need tolerance in our lives for the worth of different sorts of perception, of which the contrasting Umwelten of the animals on the island are a reminder. And we need a tolerance for the unmanipulated and unpossessed landscape. But what I came to see, too, was that we need to understand the relationship between tolerance and different sorts of wealth, how a tolerance for the unconverted things of the earth is intertwined with the substance of a truly rich life.”
“Voyages of a very different sort were undertaken eight years later by John Davis, perhaps the most highly skilled of all the Elizabethan navigators, a man of a more seren disposition than the volatile Frobisher, much less the disciplinarian among his men, less acquisitive and less self-promoting of his achievements – part of the reason that he, of all the West Country mariners, was the one never knighted.
“With the backing of adrian Gilbert, a prominent Devonshire physician, and William Sanderson, a London merchant-adenturer, and under the patronage of the Duke of Walsingham, Davis outfitted two small ships, the Sunneshine and teh Mooneshine, the former with a four-piece orchestra, and sailed from Dartmouth on the Devon coast on June 7, 1585.
“Their first landfall was near present day [mid-1980s) Cape Walloe on the southeast coast of Greenland, but fog and the ice stream in the East Greenland Current held them off. “[T]he irksome noyse of the yse was such, that it bred strange conceites among us, so that we supposed the place to be vast and voyd of any sensible or vegitable creatures, whereupon I called the same Desolation.” The two ships stood out from Cape Farewell (Davis would so name it on his second voyage) and came to shore, finally, near th eold Norse settlement at Godthab on July 29. And here took place one of the most memorable of meetings between cultures in all of arctic literature.
“Davis an several others were reconnoitering from the top of an island in what Davis had named Gilbert Sound when they were spotted by a group of [Inuit] on the shore, some of whom launched kayaks. They made “a lamentable noyse,” wrote John Jane, “… with great outcryes and skreechings: wee hearing them thought it had bene the howling of wolves.” Davis called on the orchestra to play and directed his officers and men to dance. The Eskimos cautiously approached in kayaks, two of them pulling very close to the beach. “Their pronunciation,” wrote Jane,” was very hollow through the throate, and their speach such as we could not understand: onely we allured them by friendly imbracings and signes of curtesie. At length one of them poynting up to the sunne with his hande, would presently strike his brest so hard, that we might hear the blowe.” John Ellis, master f the Mooneshine, began to imitate, pointing to the sun and striking his breast. One [Inuk} came ashore. They handed him pieces of their clothing, having nothing else to offer, and kept up their dancing, the orchestra playing the while.
“The following morning the ships’ commpanies were awakened by the very same people, standing on the same hill the officers hand stood on the day before. The Eskimos were playing on a drum, dancing and beckoning to them.
“(Davis’s courteous regard for the [Inuit] is unique in early arctic narratives He found them “a very tractable people, voyde of craft or double dealing….” He returned to the same spot on his second voyage; the moment of mutual recognition, and his reception, were tumultuous.)”
p337 “Between 1769 and 1868, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold at auction in London, among other furs and skins, the following: 891,091 fox, 1,052,051 lynx, 68,694 wolverine, 288,016 bear, 467,549 wolf, 1,507,240 mink, 94,326 swan, 275,032 badger, 4,708,702 beaver, and 1,204,511 marten. During parts of this same period two other companies, the North West Company and the Canada Company, were trading furs in numbers as large.”
p339 “Teh yearbooks of the Sung dynasty record a much earlier journey in the [Bering Straight]. In AD 458 a Buddhist monk, Hwui Shan, together with four other monks, sailed north past the Kuril Islands and up the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, then east through the Aleutian Islands to mainland Alaska.”
9. A Northern Passage
p405 “One of the oldest reams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And oe of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. .The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility mus find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails. “
“The dignity we seek is one beyond that articulated by Enlightenment philosophers. A more radical Enlightenment is necessary, in which dignity is understood as an innate quality, not as something tendered by someone outside. And that common dignity must include the land and its plants and creatures. Otherwise it is only an invention, and not, as it should be, a perception about the nature of living matter.”
Epilogue: Saint Lawrence Island, Bering Sea
p411-2 “We tend to think of places like the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave, as primitive, but there are in fact no primitive or even primeval landscapes. Neither are there permanent landscapes. And nowhere is the land empty or underdeveloped. It cannot be improved upon with technological assistance. The land, an animal that contains all other animals, is vigorous and alive. The challenge to us, when we address the land, is to join with cosmologists in their ideas of continuous creation, and with physicists with their ideas of spacial and temporal paradox, to see the subtle grace and mutability of the different landscapes. They are crucibles of mystery, precisely like the smaller ones that they contain – the arctic fox, the dwarf birch, the pi-meson; and the larger ones that contain them, side by side with such seemingly immutable objects as the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. These are not solely arenas for human invention. To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.”
p413 “No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. one must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”
331 Days to Dec 21st 2012