Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Arctic Reads

The toughest part about any backpacking trip is deciding on that single paperback you can justify wedging into your already all-too-heavy pack. What if it sucks, and you're tent-bound for days with nothing worth reading except the washing instructions on your Gore-Tex jacket?

On my trip into Auyuittuq National Park and up past the Arctic Circle, I managed to pack the perfect literary match for the land we traveled through. Granted, it didn't take a lot of head-scratching on my part. A cheap paperback copy of Barry Lopez's well-known Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape had been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple years now, unread despite the other essays by the author that I'd enjoyed (and even taught), mostly because the book's subject seemed so distant (figuratively and geographically) from my own immediate concerns (could it teach me how to change a diaper? grade a paper?).

Now I had no excuse. But would it live up to its reputation?

It did and then some. What a wonderful marriage of science and travelogue, of memoir and poetry, of the history of exploration and the anguish of exploitation. What a glimpse into the lives of the Inuit who have lived in the region for four millennia and the strange, ethereal creatures who have stalked the Arctic's desert plains and unfathomed waters for even longer.

There are so many memorable passages:
This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration.
If we are to devise an enlightened plan for human activity in the Arctic, we need a more particularized understanding of the land itself—not a more refined mathematical knowledge but a deeper understanding of its nature, as if it were, itself, another sort of civilization we had to reach some agreement with.
Lying flat on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without animals, without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in the halo of a snow-crusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.

You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it.
Lying flat on your back in a tent, amid the endless light of the Arctic summer, reading Barry Lopez can inspire a similar (if less eloquent) state of contemplation even in a trail-worn, toxic-smelling, slightly over-the-hill trekker. I couldn't imagine a better guide to lead me through that landscape and back again.

1 comment:

richard said...

Clearly I've got to give Lopez more of my time. I sooo didn't like Desert Notes - but I'm prepared to try something different!