Ms.pegasus's Reviews > Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams by Barry  Lopez
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bookshelves: ecosystems-nature, history, nonfiction
Recommended for: anyone with a serious interest in Arctic ecosystems

The Arctic.... We think of it as a location. It's an inconsequential cap perched on the crown of the familiar Mercator projection of the world. It's a glacial mass anchored in a frigid sea. It's a circular expanse with the magnetic north pole at it's center. It's the area above 66°33' N (the Arctic Circle). As Lopez points out, the magnetic pole is slowly drifting; and there are areas in Scandinavia lying north of the Arctic Circle inhabited by at least one species of lizard and of snake, thanks to the ameliorating effect of the Gulf Stream. Instead, he proposes that we consider the Arctic as an idea to be explored in all of its varied historical and ecological meanings.

Elevation, variations in salinity, wind direction, and ocean currents define sections of the Arctic. Commonplace phenomena like soil formation, rainfall, and even the movement of the stars are either missing or transformed resulting in a distorted sense of reality. Extreme cold, scarcity of organic material, and lack of organisms that feed on decaying matter result in thin, impoverished soil. Fox dens and owl perches are a significant counterbalance, their “organic dumps” marked by grass and wildflowers. Rainfall in some areas is no greater than in the Sahara Desert. Twilight is so lengthy a period, its phases are categorized by astronomers. Atmospheric refractions produce mirages so realistic they have confounded Arctic explorers of the past, and caused phantom land masses to be mapped.

The animal and plant life are notable not so much for their reduced diversity as their unique adaptations. Plant heights are stunted because the air is significantly warmer closer to the ground. Fish and beetles produce glycoproteins which act as a biological antifreeze. The eggs of Arctic cod have enlarged yolks to provide enhanced nourishment for the embryos in compensation for the brief period of plankton bloom between spring and fall. Many birds retain heat by an adaptive circulatory system that channels cooling veinous blood through a coil of warm arterial blood before circulating it to the body core. The Narwhal's circulatory system enables it to withstand the pressure from its dives and to store carbon dioxide until the animal resurfaces. Its acoustic system enables it to detect the direction of sound waves under water, unlike humans.

Such different ways of perceiving their environment lead Lopez to consider the concept of Umwelt – a term also mentioned in John Vaillant's THE TIGER. How does a fox find its way in a white expanse of seemingly identical hummocks? “One can only speculate about how animals organize land into meaningful expanses for themselves. The worlds they perceive,their Umwelten, are all different. The discovery of an animal's Umwelt and its elucidation require great patience and experimental ingenuity, a free exchange of information among different observers, hours of direct observation, and a reluctance to summarize the animal. This, in my experience, is the Eskimo hunter's methodology. Under ideal circumstances it can also be the methodology of Western science.” (p.268)

Lopez's travels take him to a number of specific ecosystems, areas where both the animals and their connections to the land can be studied. Banks Island lies at 120° W. It is north of Canada's Northwest Territory and bound on the north by the M'Clure Strait, to the south by the Amundsen Gulf, and to the west by the open waters of the Beaufort Sea. The landscape is barren and brown for the most part, but dotted by meadow grass. Lopez chooses this locale to describe the region's scattered herds of musk oxen, an animal whose ancestors came from northern China. He wonders how one might identify areas that would be perfect for musk oxen even if the animals are absent.

The next site he examines is Barrow on the north coast of Alaska. To the northwest is the open Chukchi Sea. This is where Lopez introduces the polar bear, “a creature of Arctic edges.” (p.79) It is a creature designed for frigid waters, but who lives on land. Hollow guard hairs keep the fur from matting and permit the bear to shake off water before it freezes. The hairs also appear to capture short-wave light to help warm its skin (which is black). A layer of blubber insulates it from aquatic heat loss. To counter overheating, its circulatory system channels excess heat to its foot pads. The polar bear has many names: Nanuq (“master of bears”), Pisugtooq (“The Great Wanderer”), Tôrnârssuk (“helper” or “companion”), and Kokogiaq (“10-legged bear” who lured and ate men according to myth). In the ancient Dorset culture, the polar bear is depicted as a so-called “flying bear.” The polar bear is at once both an iconic symbol of the Arctic and a wanderer who is known to frequent the south end of Hudson Bay at 53° N – far from the Arctic Circle. These bears ride the ice floes south, and then make the famed trek north through the town of Churchill, Canada. Polar bears are emblematic of a human connection to the Arctic. There is an Eskimo anecdote about a polar bear that pushed a block of ice ahead of himself to sneak up on a seal. In a world where chimps use sticks and ravens use stones as tools, the listener might be inclined to say: “Why not?” Somehow, it's comforting to dream that polar bears and humans have that much in common, even if we cannot share each other's Umwelt.

Dividing up the Arctic into these separate areas helps to offset the visual distortion of the region created by the Mercator projection. Lancaster Sound is a passage with Baffin Island and tiny Bylot Island to the south, Devon Island to the north, and Greenland far to the east on the other side of Baffin Bay. Ice floes four feet thick are slowly moved by the current and then suddenly blown in the opposite direction on a collision course with other floes, propelled by sudden gusts of wind. They freeze together or crack apart, or even slip over each other. The northern end of Baffin Island is cut by Admiralty Inlet which in turn sprouts finger-like inlets where water meets towering walls of rock. The area is one of the most densely populated of the Arctic. Glacial runoff from Devon Island and up-swelling nutrient rich currents are the basis for a unique ecosystem which hosts some 3 million seabirds, 30% of the North American population of the belukha whale, ¾ of the world's Narwhal population, and dens of polar bears and Arctic fox. Above the ice, sea birds roost in cliff wall rookeries; below the ice, fish, algae and zooplankton thrive.

Migration paths define yet another large swathe of areas connecting the Arctic to temperate regions. Snow geese travel between Tule Lake in northern California and the western Arctic: Wrangel Island north of Siberia, and Banks Island. At sea, animals congregate, poised for the unpredictable Arctic spring to open leads in the ice. Finally, there are the vast caribou migrations.

This is a sprawling book which straddles poetic description and scientific observation. As a reference book, it is indispensable. Not only is there an index and numerous maps, but there is an appendix of locations giving degrees of latitude and longitude. However, its lack of coherent theme make it difficult for casual reading. It could just as easily fit into a structure of loosely related essays, so wide-ranging is the content. While the sections on geography, biology and anthropology were interesting, the later chapters on exploration felt superfluous. An overabundance of events is condensed into a litany of explorers, routes, dates, and disastrous events. A reader interested in Arctic exploration would, I think, find Anthony Brandt's THE MAN WHO ATE HIS BOOTS, and THE TERROR, a fictional book by Dan Simmons, more interesting. The book's copyright date is 1986 – 2 years before the Exxon-Valdez disaster and before media coverage of global warming had ascended to headline status. These events tend to cast a pall of pessimism over the author's hopes for a lasting “dignified relationship” with the land. Yet, without hope, what remains?

Some images of the “flying polar bear sculptures”:
A recent article looking back at the book:
An excellent review of the book in the New York Times:
An excellent source for maps:
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 20, 2014 – Shelved
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: ecosystems-nature
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: history
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: nonfiction
June 20, 2014 – Finished Reading

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