Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape – Barry Lopez

Stunning. Beautiful. Fascinating: The book, and the places and people, plants and animals, history and future threats it describes.

Don’t be put off by the thickness of the book. If you love ‘other places’ and beautiful, enlightening, thoughtful writing, I think you will love this book.

Robert Macfarlane named it as one of his favourite books, as this excerpt from FiveBooks Interview with Robert Macfarlane explains:

You have described Lopez as one of the most important writers about wilderness. Please tell us about Arctic Dreams.

This book changed my life and really made me become a writer, if any one book did. I remember finding a very battered secondhand copy of it in a bookshop in Vancouver while I was out climbing in the Rockies, in my early twenties.

Put most simply, the book is an account of the Arctic’s anthropological, cultural and natural histories. But it’s also, like all the books on my list, an investigation into how we imagine place, and the more complicated question of how place imagines us – how we are brought to think in certain ways by certain landscapes. It was a bestseller in the 1980s in America, and is still a legendary book for many people. It was part of a surge of extraordinary writing about landscape that occurred in America between the late 1970s and early 1990s.

Lopez is as at ease in explaining the migration paths of narwhals or the spiritual history of early Celtic Christianity as he is with writing in the pristine moment. That combination of an etched sharpness to his imagery – it’s modernist prose-poetry really – with a deep knowledge born of reading and being out in the environment, was utterly inspiring to me. I saw that non-fiction could be as creative and beautiful as any fiction.

Amazon.co.uk link: Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape – Barry Lopez

Findings – Kathleen Jamie

A set of short pieces written by Scots poet Kathleen Jamie, who I know better for her account of travels in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, Among Muslims.

In Findings Kathleen Jamie’s beautiful writing takes you on a tour of Scotland – from a winter solstice trip to Orkney, to the Atlantic’s flotsam washed up on the distant Monach Islands, to the adornments of Edinburgh’s rooftops and bird watching over the hills around her home in the Kingdom of Fife.

Amazon.co.uk link: Findings – Kathleen Jamie

Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

Phil bought this for me from Daunts as holiday reading for the Croatia-Berlin-Paris mini tour, in anticipation of a trek in Nepal later this year.

Not surprisingly the chapter on Everest particularly appealed. As it turned out, the account of Mallory’s expeditions to Everest resonated strongly as last year’s Himalayan Journey meant that I had followed in some of his footsteps through Tibet – and this section about mountain light rang particularly true:

There is the Midas light,the rich yellow light which spills lengthways across the mountains, turning everything it touches to gold. And there is the light which falls at the end of a mountain day, and unifies the landscape with a single texture. This light possesses a gentle clarity, and brings with it implications of tranquility, integrity, immanence. page 214

Covering a range of histories – geology, alpine travel, travel writing, tourism, mountaineering, Everest – plus poetry, psychology and philosophy, it is a fascinating read, although in parts the “testing out” as articles was a little too obvious. But the main theme of the book is why we are drawn to the mountains, and it is a book to read if this snippet rings true for you….

Returning to earth after being in the mountains – stepping back out of the wardrobe – can be a disorienting experience. Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy returning from Narnia, you expect everything to have changed. You half-expect the first people you see to grip you by the elbow and ask you if you are all right, to say You’ve been away for years. But usually no one notices that you’ve been gone at all. And the experiences you have had are largely incommunicable to those who were not there. I have often felt as through I were a stranger re-entering my country after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech. page 204

Amazon.co.uk link: Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

Late afternoon light brings out the colours of the landscape surrounding our campsite