Northern Lights

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As travellers go, I am a wimp. I like comfortable transport and a bed to sleep in. But I would dearly like to be otherwise, and the travel books that appeal to me are those which give me vicarious experience of the sort of spartan roaming that I know I could never have undertaken.

Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died fifteen hundred years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.

Barry Lopez has worked as a landscape and nature photographer but is now known – rather better in the United States than here – as an essayist: ‘America’s foremost poet-naturalist’. Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986. At the start of the book we find him alone on the tundra in the endless evening of an Arctic summer night; he is bowing respectfully to birds – snowy owls, golden plover, Lapland longspurs. He is at it again on the last page, acknowledging grey whales, the wake of a seal. Now, I am a hard-headed woman and on the whole I cannot be doing with this sort of thing – anthropomorphism run riot. But somehow Mr Lopez gets away with it. Such is his enthusiasm, his erudition and application, his lyrical respect for the beauty and complexity of the Arctic eco-system that, a hundred pages in, you are right there with him – intoxicated and with all rational defences down.

In fact, despite the anthropomorphic streak, his approach is both scientific and historical. Much of the book’s fascination lies in its abundance of wonderfully arcane information. You learn of the interesting problem posed by the polar bear’s dark nose, so conspicuous for a hunter that depends on camouflage. Does the

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About the contributor

Penelope Lively lives in London; her travels take her mostly to west Somerset, where she enjoys watching birds, without going so far as to bow to them.

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