Oregonian, Barry Lopez, has pretty much eclipsed everybody else on my list as favorite writer. I just finished Arctic Dreams, winner of the 1986 National Book Award, last weekend, and its still percolating. Despite Lopez becoming my new favorite author, this was not my favorite book (I got bogged down in the last third of it, I’m not a big history guy), but it is unbelievable in the breadth of understanding and longing it inspires for a place most of us will likely never see.
I traveled to the Arctic, years ago with my dad and brother to hunt caribou, unguided in the Nunavut territory. It will go down in my personal history as one of the biggest adventures of my life. Take two kids with the attention span of the average house cat, arm them with 7mm rifles and drop them off with their dad in a remote Arctic basecamp and hope for the best! I’ll see what I can dig up from my memories and photos of that trip for another post… But back to Lopez.
Arctic Dreams was great, and I love it when really good writers deal honestly with the morality, philosophy of hunting. I excerpt some segments in this post; it felt good to type in Lopez’s footsteps. Here are some of his thoughts on hunting:
We had been hunting seals intensively for three days without success. Twice we had seen a seal, each time for only a split second. We moved slowly, steadily, through the ice flows, without conversation, occasionally raising a pair of field glasses to study a small dark dot on the water — a piece of ice? A bird? A seal breaking the surface of the water to breathe? It is not so difficult to learn to distinguish among these things, to match a “search image” in the mind after a few days of tutoring with the shading, shape, and movement that mean seal. Waiting in silence, intently attentive, was harder to learn.
Another: All of ones faculties are brought to bear in an effort to become fully incorporated into the landscape. It is more than listening for animals or watching for hoofprints or a shift in the weather. It is more than an analysis of what one senses. To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it, one so absorbing that you cease to talk with your human companions. It means to release yourself from rational images of what something “means” and to be concerned only that it “is.” And then to recognize that things exist only insofar as they can be related to other things. These relationships — fresh drops of moisture on top of rocks at a river crossing and a raven’s distant voice — become patterns. The patterns are always in motion. Suddenly the pattern — which includes physical hunger, a memory of your family, and memories of the valley you are walking through, these particular plants and smells — takes in the caribou. There is a caribou standing in front of you. The release of the arrow or bullet is like a word spoken out loud. It occurs at the periphery of your concentration.
Lopez’s description of the arctic animals is probably my favorite part of the book. Polar bears, narwhal and walrus… And the rhythm is really poetic.
If you were to stand at the edge of a sea cliff on the north coast of Borden Peninsula, Baffin Island, you could watch narwhals migrating past more or less continuously for several weeks in the twenty-four-hour light of June.
He also covers some anthropology, making really interesting observations on Eskimo culture. FYI, images from this post are from a Google Image search for Dorest Culture Art:
[Eskimos] have a quality of nuannaarpoq, of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive; and they delight in finding it in other people. Facing as we do our various Armageddons, they are a good people to know.
The way he describes things is absolutely illustrative, explicit:
Eskimos quickly grasp the essence of any mechanical problem and solve it. Even when the object is something they’ve never seen before, they will select from “scrap” or “waste” material something with the right tensile strength or capacity for torsion or elasticity, something with the necessary resistance to heat, repeated freezing or corrosion, and shape it with simple tools into a serviceable if not permanent solution.
The horror and struggle of early arctic survival is visceral:
At 3:30 A.M. on the 26th of April 1832, the whaler Shannon of Hull, running before a southeast gale, slammed bow first into an iceberg. The captain ran forward in the darkness and laid his hands on the wall of ice even as it continued past them, ripping open the ship’s starboard side. They were awash in minutes. Sixteen men and three boys were swept away. The survivors clung to each other beneath a sail, on a part of the ship that kept afloat by trapped air. They were without food or fresh water. They survived, with the death of but three more, by bleeding each other and drinking the blood from a shoe. A man who left their deck shelter to commit suicide spotted two Danish brigs on the 2nd of May.
I’ll end this post with some of the profound philosophy that Lopez builds on throughout the book:
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.