Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

“Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

Barry Lopez

Valorie Hallorin

This quote sits on the home page of one my favourite blogs, Books Can Save A Life and it is also where I came across the non-fiction writer Barry Lopez. Not just in this quote, but in her reviews of a number of his collections, reading about Barry Lopez makes me want to read every book he has written.

From the essays I review below, it may appear he is a nature writer, but he can not be categorised so easily, he  writes about humanity and could I am sure turn his pen towards any subject and make it an engaging read.

About This Life

Valories shares this quote from her review of About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory and the following conversation gives us a flavour of the diversity of his observations and subsequent learnings about life.

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she’ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Arctic dreamsHowever, it was her review Arctic Dreams – gathering words that had me chasing up this book, because it was not only a powerful book of nature essays, but as she says, it is a source of “the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.”

Valorie is “into words” and does Lexicon Practice, inspired by the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Pricilla Long. Lexicon Practice involves compiling new words encountered in books into a notebook, noting the original sentence and creating a new one. It inspires our vocabulary which may otherwise degenerate into those overused phrases we read every day in various media. And Barry Lopez exposes us to an abundance of wonderful new words!

Arctic Dreams was originally published in 1986 and won the US National Book Award for non-fiction. It is a compilation of around 10 essays, which can be read separately, each one focusing on a different subject, as Lopez focuses on the inhabitants, visitors and four-legged, two-winged migrants of a frozen territory in the North.

Reading his work is a little like being mesmerised by a compelling narrator in a nature documentary, for it is not just the images of the animals and the landscape that are interesting, but his recounting philosophical thoughts of our interaction with nature and  local populations, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic peoples.


The Narwhal

I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages in one book, as I have in Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, it is a privilege to walk in his footsteps, to figuratively look over his shoulder and see inside a compassionate mind as he whispers words onto the page of this incredible collection of observations of natural life.

I recognise that change that can come over us, when we spend long enough in an environment completely foreign to our norm, long enough that our behaviour starts to change, something primal occurs and so it is no surprise to me when Lopez mentions that on his evening walks, he starts bowing to the birds he encounters. This ritual will inspire his own questions into how humanity imagines the landscapes they are in and how in turn the land shapes the imaginations of the people who dwell within it. And so he journeys into the unknown to find out.

“I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”



And so I find myself immersed in chapters that expound on characteristics and behaviour of musk-oxen, polar bears, the narwhal, the influence and importance of ice and light, the great migrations and more.

“Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”

Barry Lopez has a unique voice, on the page and in person. Even you never read his words in a book, listen to him here speaking for less than two minutes about the gift of story in our lives.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

20 thoughts on “Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

    • I don’t think I can do the man justice with my words, I am sure any of his books that are available will be an interesting read, I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of his essays, such accessible non-fiction, it’s great. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂


  1. Claire, this is a wonderful post, I’m so glad you like Barry Lopez. You’ve chosen some of the best of his passages…migration like the land breathing, isn’t that wonderful? I feel as though I could make a slow study of Barry Lopez’s work over the course of a year or two. Interesting, there has just been published a new book, The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert about the masses of animals becoming extinct – there is currently a review of it in the NY Times. I have not yet read it – I’d love to know what Lopez thinks of it.


    • Thank you Valorie for introducing him, I am just at the beginning of discovering his work and it feels good to know there is much more to read over time.

      The other book you mention sounds terribly sad, I have been watching the rhino numbers diminish rapidly with horror and seeing the culling of dolphins in Japan and more, it is good that it is being written about, but it may be too late for so very many species.


    • Actually I’ve been slow reading this book for some time and was re-inspired to pick it up again after listening to a BBC radio 4 podcast ‘Frozen in Mawson’s Footsteps’ about the recent failed and controversial visit to the Antarctic. Lopez has much respect for the environment and it is much a pleasure to follow in his footsteps on the page.


  2. P.S. There’s something so telling about the things we make note of when we read. I went back to my copy of ‘Arctic Dreams’ and randomly opened to this quote:

    ‘A Yu’pik hunter on Saint Lawrence Island once told me that what traditional Eskimos most fear about is the extent of our power to alter the land, the scale of that power, and the fact that we can easily effect some of those changes electronically, from a distant city.’


    • Telling indeed, it was interesting to read some of the more recent comments and reviews that say, while things have changed somewhat since Lopez wrote this book, scientifically and in terms of biological understanding, there is much that he shares that continues to be appropriate or even as in this comment, is a foreshadow of the future. We think we live in more enlightened times, but in many senses we are less so than we have ever been and so much more capable of wanton destruction on a large scale.


  3. Pingback: Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez | Bristol Bookworm's Reviews

  4. Pingback: Top Reads 2014 | Word by Word

  5. Pingback: Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson | Word by Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s