Arctic and Orphic

Chauncey Loomis

  • Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez
    Macmillan, 464 pp, £14.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 333 42244 9

Late Medieval philosophers, knowing from their study of Classical cosmography that the earth is a globe, often speculated about what lay at its poles. Most believed them uninhabitable, ‘the darkling end of a failing world’ in the bleak words of Adam of Bremen. According to Cardinal d’ Ailly, ‘at the Poles there live great ghosts and ferocious beasts, the enemies of man.’ Opinion was divided, however, and if some Medieval philosophers believed the Arctic must be a hell, others believed it must be a heaven. Roger Bacon thought that north beyond a rim of ice at the Arctic Circle was a paradise where flourished the Hyperboreans: ‘a very happy race, which dies only from satiety of life, attaining which it casts itself from a lofty rock into the sea’.

For many centuries the Arctic has been a playground for the imagination. In Classical Greece and Rome and in Medieval Europe, the imagination could romp virtually untrammelled by fact: only late in the Middle Ages did actual information about the Arctic, filtering down from the Norse, begin to circulate among the intellectuals of Europe. In the centuries since then, it has been thoroughly explored: in the 16th and 17th centuries, by men either attempting to get through it to Cathay or hoping to find in it some fabulous source of wealth, a northern E1 Dorado; in the 18th and 19th centuries, by men who wished to make geographical discoveries for the sake of science, or national glory, or personal advancement; most recently, by a new kind of explorer, the geologists, geographers, anthropologists and naturalists who re-explore rather than explore, some perhaps with the purpose of economic exploitation, others perhaps with the purpose of intellectual exploitation. Even fully explored, however, the Arctic remains at least partly a world of fantasy. In Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez writes at length of the Arctic as it is now seen by scientists. Lopez is a professional writer with a near-professional grasp of the natural sciences and anthropology: his book is rich in fact, perhaps the best survey of the Arctic environment ever written. But it is also a meditation on the Arctic as it has been dreamed by scientists, explorers, whaling men, sportsmen, merchants, artists and writers – the Arctic as it has been shaped by the ‘desire’ and ‘imagination’ of the subtitle.

As a survey of the Arctic environment, Arctic Dreams is an excellent example of recent scientific journalism, what is sometimes called ‘the literature of fact’: like others in the field, John McPhee for one, Lopez makes what could be dull textbook material appealing. He displays an almost god-like command of multitudinous fact, but he prevents it from becoming too abstract and lofty by constantly grounding it in personal experience. To demonstrate some astronomical facts early in the book, for example, he gives us a guided trip from the North Pole down the 100th meridian to the Equator on 21 June, the summer solstice, and then a return trip from the Equator to the Pole on 21 December, the winter solstice. He describes the changes of light we would experience – the lengths of the days, the angles and intensity of the sun – and the effects of such changes on environments at different latitudes. In the Arctic, he explains, a relative lack of solar energy affects vegetation in various ways. It reduces photosynthesis in plants, and it also is one cause of permafrost (the permanent frost a few feet under the ground in the Arctic – some scientists take the southern limit of permafrost as the boundary between the Arctic and the Sub-Arctic). It slows the process of decomposition and the recycling of nutrients in the soil, and it creates a considerable temperature differential between the surface of the ground (the dark Arctic soil intensifying solar radiation) and the air just a few feet off the ground, which can be 15°F colder. These factors and others he discusses cause the stunted growth of Arctic vegetation: it is shallow-rooted and clings to the ground. Lopez concludes this discussion with a passage that typically brings it all to a telling point made memorable because he renders it as personal experience:

Trees in the Arctic have an aura of implacable endurance about them. A cross-section of the bole of a Richardson willow no thicker than your finger may reveal 200 annual growth rings beneath the magnifying-glass. Much of the tundra, of course, appears to be treeless when, in many places, it is actually covered with trees – a thick matting of short, ancient willows and birches. You realise suddenly that you are wandering around on top of a forest.

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