Time in the Arctic

* Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (New York, 1986).

I picked up the topic of mental time in my last post, and I predicted a few thoughts about nature writing. This summer I read Arctic Dreams, because I was on holiday in Canada and that felt kind of near the Arctic. In reality I was not at all near, but I had wanted to read the book for a while anyway. The book is rich with thoughts about how Arctic peoples interact with the landscape and its other inhabitants in ways that don’t always make sense to visitors, but which are specially tuned to the needs of all concerned. This includes ideas about time, space, and thought. Lopez makes a comparison with the non-Arctic Hopi language, drawing on the work of the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Hopi has only limited tenses, makes no reference to time as an entity distinct from space, and, though relatively poor in nouns, is rich in verbs. It is a language that projects a world of movement and changing relationships, a continuous ‘fabric’ of time and space. It is better suited than the English language to describing quantum mechanics. English divides time into linear segments by making use of many tenses. It is a noun-rich, verb-poor tongue that contrasts fixed space, more suited, say, to architectural description. All else being equal, a Hopi child would have little difficulty comprehending the theory of relativity in his own language, while an American child could more easily master history. A Hopi would be confounded by the idea that time flowed from the past into the present.

Not everyone follows Lopez (or Whorf, in the background) as far as this; there is even a Wikipedia article on the ‘Hopi Time Controversy‘. But the point is that such languages, thought processes, and experiences of the world, are different from the expectations of outsiders. Lopez elaborates the idea with reference to the work of the Arctic expert Edmund Carpenter:

Carpenter discerns a correspondence between the Inuktikut language and Eskimo carving: the emphasis in both is on what is dynamic, and on observations made from a variety of viewpoints. In our language, says Carpenter, we lavish attention on concepts of time; Eskimos give their attention to varieties of space. We assume all human beings are oriented similarly in space and therefore regard objects from the same point of view — the top is the top, the bottom the bottom; that direction is north and this south. In describing a distant place, however, says Carpenter, an Eskimo will often make no reference to the mass of the land in between (which would impress us, and which we would describe in terms of distance), but only to geographical points, and not necessarily as seen from the points of one’s approach.


What Lopez gets across most of all is the transformative effect of spending time in the North on him. The thing I want to pick out in this post is a quality of his writing style that connects with these observations about the native mindset and language. Arctic Dreams combines anecdotes of the author’s own experience, descriptions of scientific findings about the land, sea, peoples, and animals, accounts of historical exploration, and other kinds of writing, and it does this in what I found a very even way. In a way it seems to enact the continuity and harmony of the land-mind interactions he describes, with the same way of describing the privations of early European travellers, the adaptive resourcefulness of the fox and loon, what it is like to cross ice in a Twin Otter. It’s not that the style is transformed into a strange prose-poetry or anything like that; it’s clear, methodical, and well-informed. It’s the continuity and interconnectedness of its various interests that seems striking, and a way of opening up an unfamiliar ecology of thinking.
      This made me think about another burst of holiday reading, a few years ago. I was going to Yosemite, so I dutifully read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra on the flight over. My children can still remember me going on and on about how much I enjoyed it. After this I went on to read other Yosemite-related writings by Muir (The Mountains of California and The Yosemite I think) — I wasn’t so arrested. Part of the problem was repetition; I already knew he had a lot of respect for the sugar pine, and not much respect for the local peoples. But I think I also didn’t really respond to his version of the stylistic feature I’ve been describing in Lopez: a sort of even-ness whether the story is about him or the world around, a refusal to distinguish between the narratives of people, animals, and trees. I preferred the diary narrative of My First Summer, a simpler frame on which to hang things.
      In earlier posts about literature and mental time I’ve focused on smaller features, tenses and metaphors, but of course larger structures, narrative shapes and stylistics patterns, can also convey another way of organising the world.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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