The stories that come out of silence
On change, loss, and myths of death & rebirth

Bowing to the Birds

Arctic Snowy Owl

In his now-classic book on the far north, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes 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.

Golden plover beside her clutch of eggs

Lapland larkspur

Lapland longspur chick

"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.

Snowy Owl and chick

Snowy Owl and chick

"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.

Caribou migrating across the Alaskan tundra by Joel Satore

"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.

Caribou herd crossing a river

Caribou calf

"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."

Four plover eggs on the tundra by Joel Satore

I first discovered Lopez's work when I was living in the Arizona desert and writing my desert novel, The Wood Wife. I read Desert Notes, then River Notes, and then everything else I could get my hands on -- changing my vision of the world and deepened my attention to it ever since. My personal favourites are his 1986 essay collection, Crossing Open Ground, and his magnificent latest book, Horizon -- and yet Arctic Dreams is a volume I have read and re-read more times than I can count.

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence,"  Lopez asks, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Pictures: The photographs above are of a snowy owl, a golden plover with her clutch of eggs, a Lapland larkspur, a 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. All rights reserved.

Words: The passage above is from Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986), winner of the National Book Award. All rights reserved by the author. 

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