Of all the books I’ve read over the past few years, few have moved me as deeply as Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez’s beautiful, clear-eyed, and quietly passionate account of the wildlife and landscape of the Arctic. Lopez’s book was published in 1986, at which point the complex and delicate interrelationships of Arctic ecosystems were already significantly endangered by irresponsible and unsustainable human development. Now, twenty years later, the effects of global warming have left the Arctic as Lopez knew it teetering on the edge of oblivion. These days Arctic Dreams reads like a catalog of loss, and after reading it, it’s hard not to feel a keen sense of grief.
Today the National Books Critic Circle’s Critical Mass blog is running a brief essay on Arctic Dreams by Cleveland Plain Dealer book critic Karen R. Long, in which she points out one of the key ideas in Lopez’s book:
[Lopez] coaxes us to see these caribous and arctic foxes, polar bears and cod not as objects, but as mysteries, vibrating with behaviors that resemble the uncertainty described in particle physics.
After finishing Arctic Dreams, I found myself with a newfound reverence and awe for the Arctic and its inhabitants as wonders existing entirely apart from any human use or even from human comprehension. Long quotes Lopez: “The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it.” However much we might study and ponder the natural world, it will remain irreducibly itself; it doesn’t exist so that we can observe it or make use of it, and thus is of great value purely in and of itself. In Arctic Dreams, Lopez conveys on both an intellectual and emotional level the full depth of the loss involved in environmental change: it’s a death, absolute and final, after which point unique, wondrous, irreducible creatures and places will never again exist on earth.