Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in an Arctic Landscape, Barry Lopez (1986)
I chose to alter a first edition of Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in an Arctic Landscape by Barry Lopez so that it might be read as a book of spells. The specificity of Lopez’s detailed descriptions of animals, land, light, temperature, navigation, and human lives may occlude or—depending on the reader’s access to her own sensory memories of the land— transport through vivid, dream-like clarity. The power of the text to move the reader depends on the renewal of her own lived experiences of nature. Lopez writes,
The Airplane, like the map, creates a false sense of space; it achieves simplicity and compression, however, not with an entered perspective but by altering the relationship between space and time... The plane is a great temptation but to learn anything of the land, to have any sense of the relevancy of the pertinent maps, you must walk away from the planes
Reading Arctic Dreams, I found myself relying on much earlier experiences of the land to contextualize Lopez’s descriptions of sound, rhythm, and other sensations specific to time spent in nature. It is difficult in the heavily farmed, suburban environment where I live in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to know the land in layered, dimensional ways or to find what Lopez describes as the land’s “innate rhythms.” Lopez articulates a familiar, nagging fear when he writes, “to consider human quest and plight and not know the land, I thought, to not listen to it, seemed fatal” (p. 138). I interpreted the text as a series of literal and metaphorical directives, using the process of altering the book as an opportunity to create my own encounters with the land where I currently live. Lopez suggests,
In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate—perhaps only a gesture of the hands—one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge (p. 404).
Responding to the sound, movement, and energy of the landscape through asemic writing and using dye from plants growing there to mark or practice ideas presented in the text became a gesture or ritual encounter with the land.
Vincent Bluffs Preserve, a small piece of land that is nonetheless the largest urban prairie remnant in Iowa provided a place to “listen.” Roadside gores representing even smaller remnants, disturbed yet unmanicured, provided places to gather plants for the project. Moving from the gravel shoulder to the gore to collect goldenrod and cattail requires pushing through grasses whining and rustling with grasshoppers and cicadas, thistle alive with butterflies and stinging wasps, selecting blooms from a field covered in beetles. One considers blackbirds, snakes, mud, unfamiliar plants, refuse, and the gaze of passersby. Gathering and processing such materials requires a level of discomfort or risk that brings focus to the idea of maintaining an appreciation for the “dark threads of life” (p. 405). Taking material from land and processing it by hand alerts me to the human relationships I exist within and reminds me to take great care in the creative choices I make. Incorporating such materials into the visual language I use prompts research and consideration of the risks I choose to take. Lopez writes, “To wonder which rhythms are innate, and what they might be, is related...to the survival of the capacity to imagine beyond the familiar” (p. 176). The imagination necessary for artistic creation, reading Lopez’s text, or knowing the land evolve through physical engagement with dynamic, meaning-rich materials and landscape—which sometimes become one and the same.
The original cover of the first edition book has been removed and re-bound by Chelsea Herman in goat skin and symbolically colored book ribbons that respond to excerpts in the text. Dyed, threaded bookmarks evidence lived, sensory experiences of prairie remnant or woodland and include asemic text documenting the sounds, movement, and other forces perceived in the land. The book ribbons tie to continuously growing strings of markers. The book was originally gifted to the artist and is kept as a personal prayer book or book of spells that may be re-gifted but not sold.
Chelsea Herman is based in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where she creates prints, artists’ books, and most recently, handmade paper. Her work explores the capacity of language to translate embodied experiences of nature. Chelsea serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Nebraska and is the proprietor of Flight Path Press in Council Bluffs, Iowa.