Stephen's Reviews > Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

Arctic Dreams by Barry López
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's review
May 26, 2009

really liked it
Read in May, 2003

Perhaps it was the fascination of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” on television or Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” on the big screen but ever since I was very young, I’ve had a sweaty-palm attraction for the Far North. The Arctic, a place so alien, so harsh, and yet so beautiful, it defied my imagination. It’s an allure that has killed many and made heroes of others.

Winner of the 1986 National Book Award, “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” by Barry Lopez is considered perhaps the best book ever written on that wondrous, yet intrinsically deadly place. Lopez spent years traveling there and writing about its animals: polar bears, narwhals, beluga whales, musk oxen and caribou and the indigenous people that must survive in the unforgiving vastness of it all, day after day.

Lopez writes about the Inuit:

“Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an ‘umiak,’ not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A Central Eskimo shaman named Aua, queried by Knud Rasmussen about Eskimo beliefs answered, 'We do not believe. We fear.'”

“To extend these thoughts, it is wrong to think of hunting cultures like the Eskimo’s as living in perfect harmony or balance with nature. Their regard for animals and their attentiveness to nuance in the landscape were not rigorous or complete enough to approach an idealized harmony. No one knew that much. No one would say they knew that much. They faced nature with fear, with ‘ilira’ (nervous awe) and ‘kappia’ (apprehension). And with enthusiasm."

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