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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams (1986) by Barry Lopez (1945) is a National Book Award winner. I have read many of Barry Lopez's books. Each one has it's reasons to be my favorite, he is that good of a writer, perhaps because he is such a calm and keen observer of life. Arctic Dreams is his naturalistic study of and reflections upon the far north of North America. The writing about the landscapes sparkle like new fallen snow, but it glows like a fire with the inner warmth of living and memory. In one of his essays here called The Country of the Mind, Lopez connects the inner and outer worlds he equally explores in his works. As a psychologist, I have always been a contextualist, seeing the unique meanings in our lives brought about by the unique environments, histories and relationships we experience. Lopez thus appeals directly to my own sentiments. In The County of the Mind essay Lopez explores tensions, similarities and differences between Native Eskimo and modern Western biologist ways of learning about and understanding the natural world. In this discussion Lopez comments:


"Many Western biologists appreciate the mystery inherent in the animals they observe. They comprehend that, objectively, what they are watching is deceptively complex and, subjectively, that the animals themselves have nonhuman ways of life... They know they can be very precise about what they do, but that does not guarantee they will be accurate. They know the behavior of an individual animal may differ strikingly from the generally recognized behavior of its species; and that the same species may behave quiet differently from place to place, from year to year."


Substitute "person" for "animal" in this quote and this has been a core of my view and teaching as a psychologist. That TRUTH as an unchanging form of knowledge is really not possible in science. This can be a very disconcerting idea to encounter and try to apply given the push for control, predictability, counting, measuring, accountability and efficiency in our contemporary world as science is often harnessed by politics or capitalistic objectives. Both biology and psychology run up against a deconstructive, productive mentality of immediate clarity and usability, accessible to be sold or taught to anyone, like so many interchangeable parts on a factor line. In my view and that of Lopez, our sciences of biology and its sister - psychology are not so easily confined for all people, all times, all places. Even when we have strong general ideas that provide a basis for further evaluation, intervention or policy, these never become hardened rules and the challenge of the true doctor of biology or psychology is to well understand the utility of general concepts, while never missing the greater complexity and even necessity of individual history and perception. As such, if free from external conflicts of interest, this view brings us Western trained scientists a little closer to the profound and necessary wisdom of Native peoples. Now, this little book review is beginning to feel like a full essay, so I will find my limit and stop. Please read any of the couple of dozen books by Barry Lopez. If you love nature, field biology, travel and adventure and yes, psychology, Lopez will never disappoint and will often surprise.

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