Review: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams, the late Barry Lopez’s masterpiece, is many things: an exploration of the beauty and ecological wonders of the Arctic; a journey through time and ice; a recognition of the power and scope of indigenous wisdom; a lyrical elegy for a changing and disappearing world.

More than any of these things, it’s a profound search for the beating heart of the land and man’s place in it.

“"To view the North is to think about the Earth. To think about the Arctic is to think about the essential themes in natural history, about origins and endings."

-Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
Arctic Landscape

Enduring Influence

Arctic Dreams has had a deep impact on the field of nature writing and environmental consciousness since its publication in 1986.

It melds natural history, personal essay, mythical storytelling, and travelogue into a single cohesive narrative. This was a profoundly new approach to nature writing, and it still feels fresh and vibrant today.

British author Robert Macfarlane calls Lopez “the writer who made me a writer” and credits his first reading of Arctic Dreams at 21, while solo hiking through the Canadian Rockies, as “[changing] the course of my life: it showed me how to write” (Landmarks, 210).

Arctic Dreams is more than a book about the Arctic – it served as trumpet blast in the early days of a growing awareness about the environmental challenges faced by the Arctic, particularly the impacts of climate change and the growing industrial interest in the natural resources to be gleaned from the land.

“Passing through villages, even traveling across the uninhabited land, one cannot miss the presence of upheaval, nor avoid being wrenched by it.”

-Barry Lopez

A Life-Affirming Journey

And yet, one of the most irrepressible features of the book is its boundless sense of wonder and exploration.

Lopez loves the Arctic. You can’t read of a single page of Arctic Dreams without drinking in his passion for the landscapes, the animals, or the indigenous people of this place. This love is part of what makes the book so painfully compelling.

Lopez's poetic prose and keen observations take readers on a journey through the frozen wilderness, revealing its hidden life and instilling a deep sense of awe and respect for the natural world.

Despite the seeming barrenness of the Arctic, Lopez reveals its teeming life and untouched beauty. He encounters reclusive wolverines and follows caribou herds across the tundra. He studies the habits and personalities of polar bears. Snow geese, lemmings, and narwhals mark the migrations of the Arctic seasons.

Lopez’s research and intimate personal knowledge of the North are evident throughout. He paints vivid images of the region's stark landscapes, describing the multicolored expanses of ice, the luminous dance of the auroras, and the harsh but beautiful lives of wildlife.

While the book is rich in facts, Lopez's prose never becomes dry or academic. Instead, his writing is imbued with a sense of wonder and reverence, making the reader feel like an active participant in the author's journey

“I felt a calmness birds can bring to people; and, quieted, I sensed here the outlines of the oldest mysteries: the nature and extent of space, the fall of light from the heavens, the pooling of time in the present, as if it were water.”

-Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams Quote

An Interconnected Landscape

Through his keen observations, Lopez delves into the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, shedding light on the delicate balance that exists within this seemingly harsh environment.

Each plant and animal, large and small, is dependent upon reliable cycles – seasons, migrations, sunlight and darkness, the extent of sea ice. Small changes in those cycles – a late migration, a delayed thaw, or the endangerment of a single species – threatens a domino effect on the other interdependent species.

"In the Arctic, life hangs on a delicate thread, a delicate balance. It reminds us of our interconnectedness with all living things and our responsibility to protect and preserve the fragile web of life."

-Barry Lopez

More Than Simply Science

One of the book's greatest strengths lies in Lopez's ability to combine scientific knowledge with philosophical musing and ethical consideration. He seamlessly weaves together topics such as anthropology, geology, ecology, and history, creating a multifaceted exploration of the Arctic.

Arctic Dreams is not merely a travelogue or a scientific treatise; it is a meditation on humanity's relationship with nature. Lopez contemplates the impact of human presence on the Arctic and raises crucial questions about the responsibility we hold as stewards of the planet.

The author's deep respect for the indigenous cultures of the North is also evident. He explores their unique perspectives and the ways in which they have adapted to this cold and unyielding environment. There is much to be learned, Lopez infers, from the intimate and respectful interplay between indigenous Inuit cultures and the natural world.

Arctic Dreams is a triumph of nature writing that leaves a lasting impression. It is a book that invites reflection, provokes curiosity, and fosters a deeper connection with the natural world.

Decades after its initial publication, Arctic Dreams continues to inspire readers and spark important conversations about our relationship with the natural world.

Barry Lopez's eloquence and insights make this a must-read for anyone seeking to understand and appreciate not just the wonders of the Arctic, but humankind’s place and responsibility in the ongoing story of our planet.

"The literature of the Arctic will change, because the reality is changing. The way we live in the Arctic will change. But even though the Arctic is disappearing, I will not let it vanish. I want the Arctic to survive."

-Barry Lopez