Today, an especially beautiful passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez describing tundra life in the western Brooks Range of Alaska:
"On the evening I am thinking about -- it was breezy there on the Ilingnorak Ridge, and cold; but the late-night sun, small as a kite in the northern sky, poured forth an energy that burned against my cheekbones -- it was on that evening that I went on a walk for the first time among the tundra birds. They all build their nests on the ground, so their vulnerability is extreme. I gazed down at a single horned lark no bigger than my fist. She stared back as resolute as iron. As I approached, golden plovers abandoned their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract me from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs. Their eggs glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer painting.
"I walked on to find Lapland longspurs as still on their nests as stones, their dark eyes gleaming. At the nest of two snowy owls I stopped. These are more formidable animals than plovers. I stood motionless. The wild glare in their eyes receded. One owl settled back slowly over its three eggs, with an aura of primitive alertness. The other watched me -- and immediately sought a bond with my eyes if I started to move.
"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 a breath, like breathing.
"I remember the wild, dedicated lives of the birds that night and also the abandon with which a small herd of caribou crossed the Kokolik River to the northwest, the incident of only a few moments. They pranced through like wild mares, kicking up sheets of water across the evening sun and shaking it off on the far side like huge dogs, bloom of spray that glittered in the air around them like grains of mica.
"I remember the press of light against my face. The explosive skitter of calves among the grazing caribou. And the warm intensity of the eggs beneath these resolute birds. Until then, perhaps because the sun was shining in the very middle of the night, so out of tune with customary perception, I had never known how benign sunlight could be. How forgiving. How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter."
I like to chose an author for a major re-read each winter -- by which I mean not the general re-reading that I'm always doing (in between reading books that are new to me, of course), but digging out a writer's entire backlist and reading it all at once. This kind of immersion creates a very different experience than my first encounter with those same books -- which, if the author is contemporary, took place more gradually over time as each text was written and published. Last year, you may recall, I was re-engaging with Terry Tempest William's work (oh, what a glorious re-read that was!), and this year it's Barry Lopez, starting (unchronologically, I admit, but because it's winter) with Arctic Dreams.
I find myself reading unusually slowly, savoring every page, every paragraph of his writing, which is poetic and precise in equal measure. In Japan, masters of various art forms are honored as National Living Treasures. Here in the West, surely Barry Lopez is one of ours.
Photographs above: snowy owl, golden plover with her clutch of eggs, Lapland larkspur, Lapland larkspur chick in a tundra nest, a caribou herd crossing the tundra, caribou crossing a river, a frisky caribou calf, and a golden plover nest on the tundra. The caribou herd on the tundra and the golden plover nest are by the wildlife photographer and activist Joel Satore, whose work I highly recommend. The other wildlife images come from Audubon and Arctic wildlife sites, photographers uncredited.