A while back I did one of those pieces for a newspaper about the books that changed me. Articles of that sort are always slightly weird exercises, as much about selling a version of yourself via your choices as really addressing the question, and I have to confess I don’t remember exactly what books I chose on the day in question (though it’s a fair bet Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion would have been on my list, since the experience of reading it was the thing that set me on the path to becoming a novelist). But I do know that if there’s one book that genuinely has a claim on having changed me, it’s Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a book which completely altered the way I thought about a whole series of questions about the environment and the way we understand it and our place in it.
Anyway – I wrote the following piece in 2001 for The Australian’s Review of Books, the forerunner to today’s Australian Literary Review, and I recently stumbled on a copy of it on my hard drive while I was working on a review I’ve got in the next issue of Australian Book Review. But what’s frightening about it is that the concerns it expresses were urgent then, eight years ago, yet we don’t seem to have moved any further towards addressing them.
Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams begins and ends with the same curious act of respect. A kind of bow, performed before the world he has encountered in the travels through the Arctic. “I took to bowing on these evening walks,” he writes. “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.”
Much later this gesture is repeated, this time on the tip of St Lawrence Island, but in its later incarnation the gesture has moved closer to a kind of stillness, a loss of the self into the land and its rhythms:
“Glaucous gulls fly over. In the shore lead are phalaropes, with their twiglike legs. In the distance I see flocks of oldsquaw against the sky, and a few cormorants. A patch of shadow that could be several thousand crested auklets – too far away to know. Out there are whales – I have seen six or eight grey whales as I have walked this evening. And the ice, pale as the dove-coloured sky.”
The lyric beauty of Lopez’s writing helps transform this simple gesture into a literary artefact of great power and resonance. In his words we glimpse a world that trembles with life, and apprehend, within its detail an otherness we might not otherwise see, a kind of presence which the land embodies, ancient, complete unto itself.
Lopez is first and foremost a visual writer, possessed of a poet’s eye, and his account of the Arctic is anchored in his observation of its terrain, its light, and the animals that inhabit it. Yet it is observation rendered so as to make each moment transcend its detail. Whether it is golden plovers abandoning “their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract . . . from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs,” eggs which “glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer”, or “herds of belukha whale glid[ing] in silent shoals beneath transparent sheets of young ice”, his writing seeks out the moments when the land reveals itself, where the whole can be glimpsed in the part.
To see in such a way is to contain politics within aesthetics, to transform epiphany into manifesto. It is to suggest a way of seeing that is simultaneously a way of being, as if by seeing clearly we might find connection, and for a moment at least, glimpse the land as something which exists independently of us, possessed of its own meaning. It is, as Lopez puts it, “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.”
“You know the land knows you are there.” A notion both simple and strange. Yet this sense of knowing and being known, of seeing and being seen is a way of allowing the imagination to begin conceiving of our relationship with nature as a dialogue, and of nature itself, whether embodied in an owl or the movement of light across the tundra, alive in its own right, “an animal that contains all other animals”, and not something given to us to do with as we desire. This is not science, but in its desire to understand nature, complementary to science, a poetics perhaps, able to contain both the scientific and the moral. Witness Lopez’s description of the intricacy of the polar bear’s physiology and behaviour:
“The interplay here among rest, exertion and nutrition that carries them comfortably through life is something that cannot be broken down into pieces. Like the skater’s long, graceful arc, it is a statement about life, the full exercise of which is beautiful.”
This transformation of aesthetics into politics is central to the tradition of nature writing Lopez is a part of. Ever since Thoreau walked his mile and a half to Walden Pond, writing about nature has been a political act, the expression and the embodiment of a homespun radicalism of peculiarly mystical bent. To see differently, to extend the reach of our imagination through contemplation into other ways of being is to be able to transcend our self, and by moving outside ourselves be granted a new perspective upon our place in the scheme of things. It is to sense the smallness of human history against the story of the planet, and to be made aware of our own impermanence.
There might seem something almost trivial in this appeal to imaginative contemplation given the scale of the environmental catastrophe that surrounds us. The biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that the “maximally optimistic conclusion” is that some 27,000 species become extinct each year, or 74 each day, 3 each hour. Similar estimates put the loss of biodiversity in the next century at somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent, that is to say, one quarter to one half of all species gone forever through human agency within the next 100 years. Given that we have catalogued only the tiniest proportion of this diversity, the vast bulk of these species will vanish unrecorded and unlamented, lost forever.
But it is precisely through the exercise of the imagination that we become able to see the world in such a way as to make sense of this loss, and to understand the cost to ourselves of the failure of imagination that has allowed it to happen. By attending to detail, by learning to see things as they are, we learn to dissolve our selves into the landscape, to become inhabitants of a shared world which exists in its own right, apart from our use of it, one to which we owe a silent respect, and an allegiance.
First published in The Australian’s Review of Books, © James Bradley