Last winter I went to live with and help Tinja Myllykangas in her place near Inari, where she lives with seventy-six dogs, seven horses, and no electricity/running water/central heating, Muotkatunturi Wilderness Area starting right on her doorstep. Barry Lopez’s book “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” was one of two books I took with me for those few weeks in the wilderness, which I read under candlelight in the darker hours of the day, often accompanied by the smell of smoke and sounds of fire slowly burning away, the wind, the howls of seventy-something dogs, and, for a whole week, the lights of the aurora borealis coming in through the window.
I first saw the title of this book in the bibliography of Jay Griffiths’s phenomenal travelogue/political-humane treatise “Wild: An elemental journey” and it has since remained in the back of my mind, only three years later actually making a move to buy it, and keeping it on my shelf for a few months before taking it with me on that trip (which felt like the perfect book to take and read)
The book as a whole is an incredible account of everything Arctic, focused mostly (through his own experiences) on the North American and Greenlandic Arctic. Through the eyes of a biologist by profession, equipped with the heart of a native, the curiosity of an explorer, and candidness of a man who has been in the bush a lot, Lopez gives an overview of the history of exploration of the Arctic, an account of some of the indigenous peoples and their relationship to land, fascinating facts about Arctic ecology and biology, as well as anecdotes from his own experiences, accompanied by the occasional trains of thought which veer more to the philosophical and political.
Lopez has a simple, yet telling definition of wilderness, as a place that “makes us somehow ‘stumble’. It removes a step from our stairs, and thereby draws attention to the ‘narrow impetuosity’ of human schedules.” (p.xi) He talks a lot about land and place, and how we relate to them – through language (“language is not something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land”, p.277) and our own being there. He defines “hunting” as “simply being out on the land” (p.199), where “[a]ll of one’s faculties are brought to bear in an effort to become fully incorporated into the landscape. It is more than listening for animals or watching for hoofprints or a shift in the weather. It is more than an analysis of what one senses. To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing.” (p.199, my emphasis.)
Through such a fascinating and poetic definition, he taps not into an descriptive, literal definition of hunting, but an embodied experience of the process of hunting, the state of mind one enters when out hunting. The goal/purpose of hunting (food, tools etc) is, in this perspective, seen as the result of a deeper process of being in/with the land. He fittingly finishes the previous paragraph by saying that “the focus of a hunter in a hunting society was not killing animals but attending to the myriad relationships he understood bound him into the world he occupied with them.” (p.200)
This made me think about how we relate to land and food in different ways today – it is more difficult to be mindful of such processes and such interconnectedness to the rest of existence when we are physically removed from the origin of the meat and vegetables we eat, let alone the processes which lead to their cultivating and harvesting for production. One could argue that eating meat from a supermarket is ethically bad, not only because of how animals are treated (which “organic” would counteract) or environmental reasons (which “local” would counteract), but because it numbs our awareness of interconnectedness and leads to treating, by extension, all other dimensions of nature as objects which are ‘other’ than us, and which are subject to manipulation for the satisfaction of our goals. (That we have needs we need to attend to is natural, but the way we go about it makes all the difference in the world; you can get respect through either fear or love, and although either way you get respect in the end, the process changes everything.) Same here: the outcome is the same (we get food on our plates) but the process is radically changed, and through that also our relationship to our environment.
Returning now from that non-Arctic digression and returning to Lopez’s work. Another fascinating insight into the Arctic is through Lopez’s exploration of words of the local languages, and specific meanings that show that organic relationship between land and language: quinuituq, the Eskimo word for that “deep patience,” “this kind of long waiting, prepared for a sudden event” – “the long wait at a seal hole for prey to surface. Waiting for a lead to close.” (p.176); or nuannaarpoq, the feeling of “taking extravagant pleasure in being alive” and how “they delight in finding it in other people.” (p.202) Angakok, the “superhuman strength and unflinching intensity”, usually witnessed in people in the preparation of a hunt, or qaumaneq, “the shaman light […] the inexplicable searchlight that enables him to see in the dark, literally and metaphorically.” (p.243) And the darker aspect of living in such desolate places, perlerorneq, which can be translated as “[feeling] the weight of life. To look ahead to all that must be accomplished and to retreat to the present feeling defeated, weary before starting, a core of anger, a miserable sadness.” (p.243) Real feelings and emotions intimately intertwined with the land in ways us, as foreigners (to both language and land) can only scratch the surface of.
I could go on forever, as this book has touched me deeply and there are so many levels in it, but to finish up I want to shed a bit of light in Lopez’s view in attending to a landscape/land. He believes that “the land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life,” (p. 274) and that “each culture, it seemed to me, is a repository of some good thought about the universe; we are valuable to each other for that.” (p.40)
Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land […] no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there. (p.228)
Towards the end of the book he focuses on dignity, and a beautiful philosophy and conceptual framework for engaging with the land (and life) emerges out of all his experiences and apprehension of the Arctic, as naturally and lucidly as sun emerges out of darkness at dawn on a clear day:
In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate – perhaps only a gesture of the hands – one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge. From that dignified relationship with the land, it is possible to imagine an extension of dignified relationships throughout one’s life. Each relationship is formed of the same integrity, which initially makes the mind say: the things in the lavender fit together perfectly, even though they are always changing. I wish the order of my life to be arranged in the same way I find the lingo, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird, the heading of a seed pod I see before me. This impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself. (pp.404-5)
I find Lopez’s respect for land and his own humble and genuine affection for the planet on which we stand very admirable, and I believe that what is important about the arctic is that, due to its contrast to the rest of life on the earth, its fragility and resolution at the same time, it brings all this deep awareness, that embodied wisdom which Lopez so eloquently has managed to express in words, into high relief: helping us connect further to ourselves, to each other, to the land – “the only home we’ve ever known.” (Sagan, C. “Pale Blue Dot” 1997, p.xvi)