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.

The first half of the book concentrates on natural phenomena. The first chapter is a general survey of the Arctic ecosystem; the second focuses primarily on the musk ox; the third on the polar bear; the fourth on the narwhal; the fifth on migrations, including the migrations of Eskimos; the sixth on ‘ice and light’, and the many forms of ice and its meteorological phenomena. The second half of the book, beginning with a chapter entitled ‘The Country of the Mind’, shifts to a focus on human responses to the Arctic and includes a survey of its exploration. The divisions in the book are not as clear-cut as this outline implies, however, and there is considerable overlapping. In the chapter on ice and light, for example, Lopez deals with the aesthetics as well as the science of light and discusses the painters of the Arctic. And in his chapter on the polar bear, he concentrates on the polar bear but also discusses the ringed seal (the polar bear’s main prey), the arctic fox, which partly depends on the polar bear’s leavings (a healthy polar bear eats only the seal’s blubber), and other animals and birds in relationship to the polar bear. And the chapter includes sections on experiences of explorers with polar bears and the relationship between Eskimos and polar bears.

Although much of the book is devoted to scientific fact, finally it is a personal essay. Lopez is constantly present. He is present bodily as an individual, often placing himself like a 19th-century painter in the landscape he describes. Characteristically he begins chapters by locating himself in a particular place: ‘I am standing at the margin of the sea ice called the floe edge at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet, northern Baffin Island, three or four miles out to sea.’ He is also present as a somewhat disengaged source of the facts, and he is present as a very much engaged mind meditating on those facts. He is the author of the book, and he does not conceal his authority.

Although he is not an explorer in the usual sense of the word, he has something of the authority of the explorer. The space through which old-time explorers moved was by definition unknown, and those at home depended on them not only to describe but also to interpret it. Explorers could speak and write with almost orphic power: their voices seemed to come from other worlds, geographically of this world, but often so remote as to seem otherworldly. Like orphic priests, they sang another world, another nature, into being. No wonder they were avidly listened to by men of affairs, by poets, philosophers and dreamers, and by the public at large.

Even fully explored, the Arctic remains one of those parts of the globe that are still remote and romantic for the general public. Although tourism has thrived in Arctic Canada and Alaska during the past decade, and one may now take cruises on Baffin Bay or picnic on Alaska’s North Slope, most people will never see the real thing. But they have images of it in their minds. Ever since the early 19th century, when exploration revived after the Napoleonic wars, the Arctic has been a favourite subject for the mass media and the popular arts. Its appeal to the imagination has been so pervasive, in fact, that it is difficult to trace the images in our minds to specific sources: they are just there, a part of our cultural heritage, irrelevant to our lives, but nonetheless alive, vivid and fascinating. So when those who have replaced the explorer – natural scientists and anthropologists in particular – speak and write about the Arctic, they have something of the explorer’s almost orphic power and authority. They speak and write about another world, a world so remote from the familiar that it may be said they bring it into being for us. Lopez seems to feel this power in himself, and his voice becomes at times orphic in quality.

The Classical and Medieval cosmographers who polarised the Polar regions, believing them to be either a hell or a heaven, were only the first to do so. During the past four centuries, imaginings of the Arctic have tended to be extreme, oscillating between the hellish and the heavenly. During the age of discovery in the 16th and 17th centuries, merchants and explorers gathering funds for expeditions celebrated its commercial possibilities: it was a part of the New World, with all the blossoming, edenic promise that optimists saw in the New World. But experience also taught them its unforgiving ferocity: many ventures went bankrupt, and many explorers died or disappeared for ever. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans, however, simply accepted the ferocity of the environment and the heroics involved in its exploration: they did not set out to dramatise them. That was to come much later.

During the 19th century, culminating with the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition and the epic search for it, the dominant image of the Arctic was of a terrifying and sterile wasteland of snow and ice. That image was at least partly the result of desire: in a peculiar twist of thinking, most people wanted the Arctic to be as hellish as possible. By the middle of the century Arctic exploration had become mainly scientific and nationalistic in purpose, but underlying these motives was something less clearly defined. It had become a way of testing ingenuity, courage and hardihood: desire and imagination had made the Arctic a stage on which to act out an allegorical drama of Western Man encountering and overcoming Nature at its most brutal and indifferent. The Arctic was allowed a frightful beauty – a sublimity that stretched men’s souls – but essentially it was seen as an antagonist, and the more ferocious the antagonist, the better the test. By early in the 20th century, the Antarctic had begun to replace the Arctic as a testing ground: it became ‘the last place on earth’, the site of ‘the worst journey in the world’, and a stage on which to prove the nobility of man.

The substance and style of Arctic Dreams are partly explained by the fact that this fierce image of the Arctic has been dominant for more than a century. Most of us know that in fact the Arctic is not an icy hell, but the image is still there in our imaginations, probably because some part of us wants it to be there, and Lopez is aware of the fact. Like many others who have recently written books and essays or produced films on the Arctic, Lopez is a revisionist. Some of these writers and producers have done what was done in the past, switching from one extreme to the other: if the Arctic is not a hell, then it is a heaven. For example, most of the innumerable television documentaries on the Arctic environment in the last decade give the impression that it is essentially benevolent, an austere paradise that supports masses of wild-life, which in turn supports the Eskimos, who live in perfect harmony with their surroundings – a paradise that will remain innocent and beautiful as long as it is not corrupted by nasty Western technology. Such an image, as much the result of our sense of cultural guilt as the earlier image was the result of our cultural arrogance, may be slightly closer to actuality than the icy hell, but it is as sentimental as the other was romantic. And those who create this image are as much role-players as the old-time explorers were, even if the roles have changed. Nineteenth-century explorers were expected to be macho: the tougher and more stoic they could be, the better. The new explorers are expected to be sensitive: the more delicate and humane their reactions to nature, the better. The second role is probably an improvement on the first, but it is a role too, and it has its problems.

When he meditates, as he does throughout Arctic Dreams, Lopez himself is sometimes perilously close to sentimentality, although usually he avoids it; in his case, ‘mysticism’ may be a more accurate and kinder word. He begins the book by describing a key incident. Walking on the tundra, he came on hundreds of nesting birds; with his customary taxonomical precision he names golden plovers, horned larks, Lapland longspurs and snowy owls. Suddenly he found himself instinctively bowing from the waist to the birds and to the life in their nests, ‘because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down on the land like breath, like breathing’. That bow is a foreshadowing of the entire book, which is an extended bow to the Arctic and the life it contains – a bow that implies a vision going beyond the scientific to approach the mystic or the orphic.

Lopez’s grasp of scientific fact is one of the strongest aspects of Arctic Dreams, and sometimes his more mystic vision comes into unresolved conflict with his grasp of fact. Wandering through the tundra, he notes the differing ‘microhabitats’ of tiny wet and dry places: ‘I turn the pages of a mental index to arctic plants and try to remember which were the ones to distinguish these borders: which plants separate at a glance mesic tundra from hydric, hydric from mesic? I do not remember.’ That ‘I do not remember’, with its implication that remembering such trivia is not important, is almost ludicrous coming from the Master of Fact who plays such a large role in the book. When he undercuts the sciences that are so obviously important to him, he subverts the very disciplines that give him much of his strength. At times he wants to believe that we murder to dissect, but at other times he wields the scalpel with delight. Perhaps this tension between the scientific and the orphic is a virtue in the book, Lopez deliberately revealing a duality in man, but at times the orphic gets out of hand. Gazing down at some plants, Lopez asks: ‘What do these plants murmur in their dreams, what of warning or desire passes between them?’ To a sour rationalist, such a question may seem more a sentimental rhetorical flourish, the pathetic fallacy revivified, than mystic insight.

But generally Lopez avoids such sentimentality. He has travelled extensively and intensively in the Arctic and he has studied its literature thoroughly; he knows its ferocity as well as its mildness and beauty. One of the earliest revisionists of the icy hell image was the American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson; the title of one of his many books, The Friendly Arctic, suggests the thrust of his writing. Lopez admires Stefansson, but he corrects him by emphasising the fact that the Arctic is ‘friendly’ only in the right place at the right time. Lopez draws a parallel between the Arctic and deserts with their oases: particular places at particular seasons, such as the Bering Sea in the spring, seethe with life, but most of the time much of the Arctic is essentially barren. He also cites biologists on the Arctic ecosystem being ‘stressed’ or ‘accident-prone’, vulnerable to natural as well as man-made catastrophe. In the autumn of 1973, rain formed a layer of ice that prevented musk oxen from feeding; almost 75 per cent of the musk ox population in the Arctic Archipelago died that winter. Occasional spring storms in the Greenland Sea kill hundreds of thousands of harp seal pups. On Wrangel Island a decade of late spring snowstorms reduced the population of snow geese from 400,000 to 50,000. Lopez sounds the usual and justified warnings about man’s capacity to damage this delicate ecosystem, but unlike many other revisionists, he knows that the natural environment there can create its own disasters.

When writing about the few Eskimos who still pursue their traditional way of life, Lopez, again, is generally balanced, avoiding new versions of the noble savage. He admires their toughness, ingenuity and patience – qualities that make them superb hunters able to live in their austere world. What he admires most about them, however, is their intimacy with their environment, and their total engagement in it. He notes that when they sit indoors, they usually arrange to face a window and spend much of the time gazing out of it. On ice, sea or land, their eyes are never still: unlike most Western peoples, they are concerned more with space than with time. And Lopez believes they do not draw the same distinction between man and animal that we do, not sharing what he calls ‘our Aristotelian and Cartesian sense of animals as objects’ or ‘our religious sense of them as mere receptacles for human symbology’. They are highly sensitive to the fact that the animals and they live in the same environment. They know that they are not entirely separate from the animal world, and in particular they identify themselves with the greatest of Arctic hunters, the polar bear.

Like many others before him, Lopez finds the Eskimos remarkably attractive, but he also knows the dark side of their lives and their culture. They are a laughing people, but, as anyone who has spent time with them knows, they are also vulnerable to profound melancholy. They even have a word for the particular kind of depression they suffer in winter: perlerorneq, ‘the weight of life’. At one point in the book, Lopez describes the weird phenomenon the Eskimos call ivu: ‘Suddenly in the middle of the winter and without warning a huge piece of sea ice surges hundreds of feet inland, like something alive.’ In 1982, archaeologists found the remains of a family of five that had been crushed by an ivu. They live in danger of arbitrary and gratuitous violence from the very land that supports them, and that danger is reflected in their folklore: it is full of horror, ‘images of grotesque death, of savage beasts, of mutilation and pain’, Lopez writes. He quotes a chilling assertion made by a shaman when Knud Rasmussen asked him what Eskimos believe in: ‘We do not believe, we fear.’

As Lopez comments, the land ‘compels the mind of the people’. For Eskimos, the land is all-in-all; it not only surrounds them, it is also within them, shaping their intellects and sensibilities. We are all shaped by our environments, but most of us do not live in an environment as austerely natural, as extreme or as overbearing as the Arctic.

Arctic Dreams has flaws. It is too long and becomes repetitious; in places, its lyricism is self-conscious and strained, its orphic mysticism opaque and portentous. At times it verges on sentimentality. And it is irritating to have a book so rich in allusion to the work of explorers, scientists, historians, artists and writers with virtually no documentation and only a cursory bibliography. Nevertheless it is one of the most ambitious and successful books yet written on the Arctic, and it is also a thoughtful and effective essay on man’s relationship to the natural world. Lopez knows feelingly that we are a part of nature yet somehow separate from it, and that our separation has led us to look on it too much as an object to be manipulated, and through manipulation to be possessed, the process of manipulation and possession further increasing the separation. ‘We need a tolerance for the un-manipulated and unpossessed landscape,’ he writes. And the book is strengthened, rather than weakened, by an irony of which Lopez does not seem fully conscious: the book itself is an example of manipulation and possession. That irony is a strength, because through it the book demonstrates its own message. As Lopez lays out the mass of scientific facts that plays such an important part in his work, and as he meditates on those facts and implies their inadequacy in his moments of orphic lyricism, he himself is constantly trying to manipulate and possess. His failure to manipulate successfully or to possess wholly further demonstrates our separation from the natural world, and dramatises its elusiveness and mystery. The natural world as a whole, not merely the Arctic, remains in part a dream.