Nature made the house

William Fiennes

  • Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
    Harvill, 464 pp, £7.99, January 1999, ISBN 1 86046 583 8
  • About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory by Barry Lopez
    Harvill, 275 pp, £12.00, January 1999, ISBN 1 86046 565 X

Many of the 17 ‘essays’ in Barry Lopez’s About This Life are fragments of memoir: snapshots of the day of a mother’s death from cancer; early road trips up and down America; Jesuit prep school in Manhattan; childhood years in California; a tributary career in photography. The book begins with a series of travelogues. Lopez dives the coral reef off the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, finding the patterns and colours of reef life ‘displayed like Persian rugs in glycerin hues’. He describes a trip through Hokkaido, northernmost of the Japanese islands; an expedition to McMurdo Station in Antarctica and a voyage through the Galapagos Islands. His research into the human and physical geographies of these places, their flora and fauna, the stories of their colonisation, is assiduous. His observation is acute. Inspecting the frozen corpses of Antarctic seals, he notes that ‘the peculiar cheek teeth, ornate with tiny, interlocking cusps, stand out boldly in their highly evolved but useless efficiency.’ But these pieces remain examples of high reportage, lacking the concentration and burnish of essays.

The book takes off with a piece called ‘Flight’. Intrigued by the sight of ‘windowless air freighters lumbering by on taxiways’, Lopez resolves to fly around the world in the company of freight. He reads up on the history of flight. He watches the assembly of a 747 freighter. The finished plane gleams ‘like an ideal ... an exquisite reification of the desire for beauty’. He notices that it has ‘the curved flanks of a baleen whale, in an identical scale, exact to the extended flukes of its horizontal stabiliser’. He flies with freight from Amsterdam to Cape Town, north to Anchorage, and east on the Tashkent Route across Russia to Uzbekistan, Kabul, Karachi, Singapore and Jakarta. The freighters carry the coffins of returning nationals; a matching set of four blue Porsche 911s; a complete prefabricated California ranch-style house; a tropical hardwood bowling-alley from Bangkok. Lopez flies from Santiago to Japan with 175 penguins, and from Chicago to Japan with a cargo of thoroughbred horses – Appaloosas, quarter-horses, a Percheron stallion. The horses are left unshod to give them a better hold on the stall floor. The essay brings out the bizarre in the modern world – its speeds and collapsed distances, its ‘starkly different renderings of the valuable’.

Another essay, ‘Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire’, is the biography of a potter’s kiln in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon: a wood-burning Anagama kiln of Korean and Japanese design, in which firings can last as long as a month. Lopez’s research is characteristically thorough. He has investigated the history of the kiln and the physics of each firing. He has read Jack Troy’s Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, Gaston Bachelard’s writings about fire and the work of the ceramics historian Daniel Rhodes. He has learnt that ‘most clays derive from the disintegration of granitic and feldspathic rock and consist of silicates and aluminium oxides bound with water molecules.’ He knows that ‘the way the kiln is loaded sets up wind currents that affect the circulation of the flame and ash, sometimes creating strong back eddies that will accentuate the asymmetric glazing typical of anagama pottery.’ The essay’s latent analogy is that of the kiln as the imagination, the transforming fire.

Arctic Dreams, which was first published in 1986 and won the American National Book Award, was written after ‘four or five’ years of travelling in the Arctic; its cargo of observation and research is colossal. It describes the history of settlement in the Arctic: how the first colonists of North America crossed from Asia on the Bering land bridge 25,000 years ago and were succeeded by the early cultures of the far north – the Arctic Small Tool tradition, the Pre-Dorset, the Punuk, the Thule, the Polar, Central and Caribou Eskimo. Lopez retells the history of Arctic exploration by the ‘Western’ world: the sixth-century journeys of the Irish abbot Saint Brendan; the later expeditions of Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson (who became a bay), William Baffin (who became an island) and Vitus Bering (who became a strait). He describes Robert Peary claiming the North Pole for America, and how, to keep up the morale of his men, Richard Collinson erected a billiard table on the sea-ice of Cambridge Bay. The table was fashioned from snow blocks, the cushions from walrus skin stuffed with oakum. The table surface was a finely-shaved sheet of freshwater ice; the balls were hand-carved from lignum vitae.

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