Sunday, December 12, 2010

Barry Lopez – ‘Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape’

A recommendation from Jay Griffiths’ Wild, Arctic Dreams gives a more balanced account of somewhat similar ground: the profusion of life in what appears to be wilderness, and the conflict between cultures when west meets north. Lopez does look with regret at what industrialisation has done to the wildlife and people of the Arctic, but he is careful not to dismiss everything that white man has done. Some statistics:
The Canadian historian W. Gillies Ross cautiously suggests that as many as 38,000 Greenland right whales may have been killed in the Davis Strait fishery, largely by the British fleet. A sound estimation of that population today [1986] is 200. There are no similar figures for the number of native people in the region who fell to diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and other diseases – historians have suggested that 90 percent of the indigenous population of North America is not an unreasonable figure. (p. 10)
Confronted with this, Griffiths’ rage does seem entirely reasonable. But Lopez refuses to ignore the point of view of the perpetrators:
The desire to understand what is unknown is great. And the wish to create some human benefit out of new knowledge, however misconstrued, is one of the graces of Western civilisation. Few historians can say precisely where the special interest of a [John] Barrow or a Robert Peary ceased to serve society and served only the man; or where plans for industrialization cross a line and become of greater service to a nation’s economy than the wellbeing of its people. (p. 357)
It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is an attempt to understand the motives of explorers and entrepreneurs, and even to allow that they may include (alongside fame and fortune) a kind of altruism.

This moral complexity gives Arctic Dreams a novelistic feel, though there is no plot. Like Wild, it is divided into long, themed chapters which take a single aspect of the subject (the seasons, musk oxen, polar bears, explorers), which cross-pollinate to some extent, and which build into an overview. Lopez moves through environment and wildlife before he gets to people, and as with Wild, western cultural references (Rockwell Kent, Frederic Edwin Church, the Irish imramha) are dotted throughout: personal and artistic responses are almost as important here as the geography. ‘To grasp the movement of the sun in the Arctic is no simple task’ (p. 21) he says, then undertakes it by suspending time at the summer solstice, and taking an imaginary walk south from the pole, where ‘the sun is making a flat 360° orbit exactly 23½° above the horizon’. As he proceeds down the 100th meridian, the sun’s orbit tilts, until it touches the horizon (at the edge of the Arctic Circle), and ‘You would say, now, that the sun seemed more to move across the sky than around in it.’ He takes us right down to the equator, then back again. ‘Virtually all of the earth’s biological systems are driven by solar radiation’ (p. 29), he says, contrasting rainforest and tundra.

The musk ox (pictured above) and the polar bear get a chapter each. I was delighted to find that ‘oomingmaq’ is the Eskimo word for a musk ox, and dug out the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand to give ‘Oomingmak’ a spin. These were my favourite chapters: lively, detailed descriptions of behaviour and physical characteristics, taking in the odd bit of personal observation. Lopez describes the musk oxen’s layers of insulating hair, their horns, their ancestry, their behaviour when rutting or when protecting their young. As no other species do, they sometimes form a ‘rosette, rump to rump, with calves and yearlings wedged between the adults’ (p. 61), which was a problem when zoos became interested – ‘the only practical way to secure a calf was to kill all the adults in a defensive formation’ (p. 74). Lopez doesn’t hesitate to condemn this, his fairness is not neutrality. Female polar bears build maternity dens of snow, designed to allow good air flow with an ‘upward-sloping tunnel’ (p. 89) for an entrance and a ventilation hole in the chamber. They keep it warm (-ish – 32°F) by ‘radiating a small amount of heat, about as much as a 200-watt bulb’ (p. 90). When the cubs are three months old, they and their mother will emerge – she to hunt and eat for the first time since entering the den. And here they come, from a den way up on a slope:
They learn to imitate their mothers, who slide down rump first, looking over their shoulders and braking with their claws; or on their sides, leading with all four feet; or headfirst on their bellies. Mothers at the bottom catch cubs veering out of control. (p. 92)

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