The Last Book I Loved: Arctic Dreams


A few years back, when I was deciding between graduate school in history or anthropology, a tenured professor at one of the top-ranked anthropology programs explained to me over coffee the difference between the two disciplines: “When historians reach the top of their field, their writing becomes more accessible; but when anthropologists do the same, their writing becomes more unintelligible.” Despite his veiled advice, I chose anthropology.

Actually, I chose the path that would allow me to travel to Chile most often. Over the past decade I’d lived on and off in Santiago on a handful of scholarships, and was casting about for ways to return without having to take the daunting step of moving there. My application essay sketched out a vague and unpromising project about how Chilean youths experience politics in everyday contexts. But, then, midway through my second semester, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake shook southern Chile, and I was all too eager to scrap everything and venture to the disaster zones. I scrounged together funds from my fellowship and departed right when the sun was warming the East Coast again, headed for the chilly climes of the Chilean heartland. To prepare myself for a year of winter, I slipped a copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams into the stack of ethnographies that I brought with me.

I lived for several months in Constitución, a small city nestled between the Maule River and the Pacific Ocean. The one-two punch of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the downtown area and left over 10,000 people homeless. The only lodging I could find was ten miles outside of town in a vacant cabin tucked deep in a pine forest.

During the day I conducted interviews with people who had lost their homes in the disaster. Most of them had been relocated first to emergency shelters and then to mediaguas—one-room, prefabricated wooden shacks that, in the months following the quake, had sprung up like weeds across the crumbled urban landscape. The interviews were short and haunting and nearly always involved tears. Once, when I was walking to an interview by the river’s edge, a pack of street dogs lurking behind a pile of debris ambushed me from behind and ripped through my jeans. I limped through the mud to a collapsed hospital, now housed in three spacious tents erected by the Chilean armed forces. A doctor patched up my leg and then stated matter-of-factly, “I’ve seen worse.”

At night, the electricity in my cabin usually shut off around eight, so I read by flashlight while huddled close to a wood-burning stove. Periodically, my reading was interrupted by rippling aftershocks, as if my cabin were skidding over a stretch of loose gravel. In that context, the theory-rich, jargon-laden ethnographies that I labored through seemed not exactly unintelligible but rather as cold as the frigid temperatures outside. What I really wanted was a book that would help me come to terms emotionally with the devastation I was witnessing.

I found what I was looking for in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a book that I turned to during my second week in Constitución and then reread continuously throughout my stay. Simply put, Arctic Dreams paints a holistic portrait of the Arctic landscape, from the ice and the sea to the animals and peoples that inhabit them. As expected, there are beautiful depictions of narwhals and polar bears, and harrowing narratives about misguided explorers stranded in the winter darkness. But Arctic Dreams is more than just a travelogue or a natural history of the frozen north. The central question of Lopez’s book involves how individuals imagine and invest meaning in the landscapes in which they find themselves.

On several occasions I took walks with Constitución residents through their former neighborhoods. They pointed out the stores that they used to frequent, and told stories about specific houses or sites. Oftentimes, the neighborhoods were so decimated that my walking partners struggled to orient themselves; in those moments a deep sadness washed over them.

Lopez documented a similar sort of sadness in his encounters with Arctic natives who were dealing with the industrialization of their homeland. He writes eloquently about the emotional and spiritual connections that people form with familiar landscapes, and the psychological trauma they feel when those landscapes are ravaged or reorganized: “[Certain] people are attached to the land as if by luminous fibers; and live in a kind of time that is not of the moment but, in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime. To cut these fibers causes not only pain but a sense of dislocation.” Even though Lopez was writing about people on the opposite end of the earth, he could just as easily have been referring to those in Constitución who sobbed while describing their old houses and neighborhoods. I’ll never be able to comprehend fully the long-standing associations that people had formed with Constitución’s now-vanished landscape, but little by little I learned how to listen to the profound grief that accompanied their displacement.

I plan to return to Constitución soon, and I’ll undoubtedly carry Arctic Dreams with me again. As with all of Lopez’s work, the writing is so transporting that I never tire of rereading it. But most important, the book has become enmeshed with my own memories of Constitución. Since I’ve been away, construction teams have started rebuilding the downtown area. The physical and emotional landscapes that I came to know most likely have vanished. I’ll bring Arctic Dreams to help me remember them.

Luke is a former Fulbright Scholar to Chile whose writing has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker Book Bench, n+1, and The Millions. More from this author →