Barry Lopez – Arctic Visions
1. Order of the Universe
Barry Lopez’s fine ecocriticism (“green” writing, if you will) was a pleasure to read. I’ve read him in other contexts — he is a superb writer, a modern St. Francis. Chapter 5, “Migration,” Lopez’s extended meditation on the migrations of humans, birds, whales, life, and time across the Bering Strait immediately calls to mind Chapter 87 of Moby-Dick, “The Grand Armada
” where Ishmael engages in a similar sort of meditation as the Pequod nears the straits of Sunda. My favorite line
from that chapter (as Ishmael is surrounded by an enormous pod of whales):
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
Lopez says much that is worth comparing.
Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall. (p.162)
Both Ishmael and Lopez come to feel themselves made tiny, suddenly sucked into something so much greater than themselves. For Ishmael, he is surrounded by a deistic calmly whirling clock of sperm whales — Lopez experiences something more mystic and deist, but fundamentally wedded to an understanding that the landscape is part of something much greater than anything contained within human reason.
2. Limits of Taxonomy
This is, perhaps, the most important quote to take from Lopez in relation to this exhibition.
We delineate the life history of the ground squirrel. We list the butterflies: the sulphurs, the arctics, a copper, a blue, the lesser fritillaries. At a snap [CAMERA]. We enumerate the plants. We name everything. Then we fold the charts and the catalogs, as if, except for a stray fact or two, we were done with a competent description. But the land is not a painting; the image cannot be completed this way.
Here Lopez quashes the uniquely human attempt to understand the universe by means of quantification, replication, documentation, etc. Fundamentally: you cannot photograph this: it is already gone. The limits of catalog quantification — I think of Melville trying to quantify the Galapagos Islands in The Encantadas only to show, by the attempt to do so, the failure of science, of taxonomy, of mere numbers, to really understand anything about the islands themselves. In doing this, Melville responds and mocks the efforts of Charles Darwin’s scientific catalogs of birds around the Galapagos — Melville wasn’t on board with the theory of evolution immediately. We see a similar sort of mockery of the limits of scientific quantification in “Cetology” — but this point is made constantly through the course of Moby-Dick, in which chapter after chapter attempts to explain what the heck whales are through the lens of just about every theory, methodology, discipline possible only to ultimately come up short. We can see Lopezand Melville poking holes in the attempts of the explorer, the scientist, the prospector, to understand the landscape. “No!” they tell us, “you need a poet.”
…Time pools in stillness here and then dissipates. The country is emptied of movement. George De Long called it “a glorious country to learn patience in.” Time here like light, is a passing animal. Time hovers above the trundra like the rough-legged hawk, or collapses altogether like a brid keeled over with a heart attack, leaving the stillness we call death…..But even here time is on the verge of collapse….the Arctic is a long, unbroken bow of time….it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come. (p. 171-2)
Lopez makes an important point, one that is closely wedded with the environmental/global warming aspect of this exhibition: we must respect the nonhuman conception of time. The geological conception of time. Time as fundamentally not operating on any human scale, but a time completely separate from humans and humanity. In this sense, the Arctic is a vast symbolization of the fact that the world existed without us, existed before us, will continue after us (as the white whale swims on), and is not subject to us. Lopez (and Ishmael) see in the whale and in the Arctic a separateness from us, and a oneness with something greater — both whale and the Arctic topple Humanity off its 19th century, puritan pedestal as master of the world, top of the food chain, king of the hill. Lopez sees in the Arctic that our ancestors (Dorset, Thule, Eskimo) too were a part of the very same migratory chain that carries whales birds caribou and porpoises north and south again every year.
4. Lopez as Ishmael
At the end of the chapter, we see Lopez transform fully into Ishmael as he asks himself:
“In moments when I felt perplexed that I was dealing with an order outside my own, I discovered and put to us a part of my own culture’s wisdom, the formal divisions of Western philosophy–metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic–which pose, in order, the following questions. What is real? what can we understand? How should we behave? What is beautiful? What are the patterns we can rely upon? As I traveled I would say to myself, What do my companions see where i see death? Is the sunlight beautiful to them, the way it sparkles on the water? Which for the Eskimo hunter are the patterns to be trusted? The patterns, I know, could be different from ones I imagined were before us.” (202-203)
If we can agree that Barry Lopez is a “Green Writer,” then we can certainly agree that Ishmael is too. The two are concerned not just with describing the outward appearances of the landscape around them, but also constantly coming to higher, metaphysical understandings of the universe and their place within it through their extended meditations. For both of them, the landscape becomes an inexhaustible fuel for the engine of their metaphors. The Arctic is a poetic landscape.
In Lopez descriptions of tools and ethnographic artifacts, I was overwhelmed by a divergence in Arctic and Western thought — these tools, objects, carefully crafted with utilitarian purpose. “A student working a Thule site on Ellesmere Island told me about a harpoon head she had found. ‘All they had to do with it was catch a walrus. But they made it beautiful.’ she said. The admiration one feels kneeling over the pathetic remains of an early ASTt campsite can be very deep. What tenacity. What courage. Another sort of feeling comes over one at a Thule site. One misses any sense of remoteness or separation and feels instead profound respect. A powerful, dignified people, one imagines. The delicate and robust tools, as the student said, are beautiful.” — for Westerners, God is in the details. Beauty is in the details. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted in such fine detail as no one below would have been able to see, God existed for Michelangelo in the details. But here, in these artefacs, we see the same concern for detail on a completely different scale. It is no longer God in the details, it is survival. Survival is in the details. In understanding the different freezing points of different types of caribou fat. In the careful craftsmanship of the harpoon head described by the student. And the museum-goer will be overwhelmed (I hope) just like the student, by that beauty in the details. The beauty of survival. This is am important point to convey in your exhibition when presenting the ethnographic artifacts.