Lopez eloquently describes four years of wanderings in the Arctic Circle, from Baffin Island to the Bering Sea. As his...

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ARCTIC DREAMS: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

Lopez eloquently describes four years of wanderings in the Arctic Circle, from Baffin Island to the Bering Sea. As his subtitle perhaps suggests, his writing is attenuated and overly metaphysical at times. For the most part, however, the high seriousness is a gamble that pays off. At its best, this is much more than a travel book. Like John McPhee, Lopez is a conservationist as well as an excellent writer. Unlike McPhee, Lopez is uninterested in anecdotes, seldom describing either his human companions or the technological support-systems that make his presence in such a remote and forbidding landscape possible. His most memorable descriptions are of animals: arctic foxes, migrating musk-oxen, sea-birds. Self-consciously rejecting a human-centered viewpoint, Lopez instead shows things as they might appear to the creatures them-selves. Of the whales hunted in Baffin Bay during the 19th century (38,000 were killed by the British fishing fleet alone; some 200 remain today), Lopez writes: ""The blowhole. . .is so sensitive to touch that at a bird's footfall a whale asleep at the surface will start wildly. The fiery pain of a harpoon strike can hardly be imagined."" He goes on to tell of a whale harpooned by the Truelove in 1856--it dove 1,200 feet to the ocean floor in less than four minutes, breaking its neck and ""burying its head eight feet deep in blue-black mud. ""Lopez, then, affords no armchair escape from life's harsher realities. In the apparently unchanging landscape of the Arctic, he sees many signs of degeneration and loss. He quotes, for instance, anthropologists' estimates that 90% of the Eskimo population has died out since its first contact with European trappers and explorers in the 19th century (lack of immunity to such diseases as tuberculosis and diphtheria is the probable cause). While acutely receptive to beauty--whether a spectacular display of Northern Lights or an uneasy encounter with the beady eye of a vigilant ground-nesting bird--Lopez sees even such moments of ""Hyperborean"" calm as only respites from the encroachments of history and human expansion. This is a polemic, then--and at its best moments, something more. Combining his heightened, notably ""literary"" style with his objective desire to see things as they are from the viewpoint of his ""primitive"" or ""wild"" subject-matter, Lopez often succeeds in transmitting a unique and powerful vision.

Pub Date: March 11, 1986

ISBN: 0375727485

Page Count: -

Publisher: Scribners

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1986