Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – Review

A wholly excellent synthesis of nature writing, biology, anthropology, environmentalism, and history, alongside a deeply personal reflection upon the Arctic that is entirely deserving of its classic status.

Lopez writes with decades of experience, with this opus being a culmination of his passion for the (Canadian/American) hyperboreal. First published in the 80s, Dreams still feels fresh, displaying a modern sensibility in its approach to its subject, sensitive to the “Umwelten” of the “native eye” – both human and non-human – and even in approaching the land itself (Lopez begins and ends the narrative with him literally bowing to the landscape).

Despite his background in biology, Lopez never privileges scientific methodology, instead balancing the rationalism of “Western science” with a more holistic understanding that draws upon a multitude of disciplines, perceptions and experiences. I was particularly interested in his discussion of the “mythic landscape” and its intersectional “surfacings” with empirical topography.

The delight in reading this book comes from absorbing the sheer passion and awe Lopez exhibits towards his subject. He never tires of walking and being within this land, and I even found the chapter on muskoxen to carry my interest, such is his enthusiasm.

My edition also had an introduction by Robert MacFarlane, who cites Dreams as one of his touchstone texts for his own writing – and I was certainly struck by the similarity. Anticipating quite a dry read, it was gratifying to read prose that thrilled to the stark and startling beauty of its subject. Moving anecdotes and images that leap from the page suffuse the narrative. Lopez’s description of the red-splattered afterbirth on the pack ice after a walrus colony has birthed and moved on – to cite just one example – was an image that really stayed with me.

Eye-opening both in how Lopez reveals his subject and in his approach to it, Dreams is a seminal and important text.

Rating: 5/5


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