Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Arctic Autumn:" Pete Dunne goes north

Folks who can manage to get to the Morris Arboretum today at 2 p.m. are in for a treat. Birder and author Pete Dunne is going to be there, talking about his latest book, "Arctic Autumn." For the rest of us, reading it will have to suffice. And what a great read it is.

"Arctic Autumn:" Pete Dunne goes north


Folks who can manage to get to the Morris Arboretum today at 2 p.m. are in for a treat. Birder and author Pete Dunne is going to be there, talking about his latest book, "Arctic Autumn." (More about the event here.)

For the rest of us, reading it will have to suffice. And what a great read it is.

Some natural history writers talk about what they see, what a landscape consists of, what the creatures in it are doing...very empirical, in a way. And, as a result, not all that engaging. Dunne writes about how it makes him feel. For me, that's the connection.

Here's his description of the sound of the long-tailed duck: "If you are unfamiliar with the call, then you have been cheated of one of the greatest sounds in nature. Its cadence is akin to the beating of a human heart. You many not know the sound, but the rhythm is in your blood. The tone has a nasal vibrancy that seems to hum in the soul, an Arctic om. It sounds, at once, both urgent and comical. It fills you with life and it makes you laugh."

Now that's a bird call.

Dunne and his wife, Linda, who took all the gorgeous photographs in the book, begin this tale on June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, at a remote area high above the Arctic Circle. After that, it's all downhill, daylight-wise, and thus what might be considered the real start of autumn. 

They have come to the high Arctic for many reasons -- partly to see polar bears,  partly to rough-legged hawks courting, partly to see caribou calves "braving their first river crossing," and more.

"If you want to stand on a frost-scoured hilltop, with the sound of utter silence pressing into your ears, and survey an area the size a Texas county that has not been compromised by a communications tower, an oil derrick, a jet contrail, there are very places on this earth you can still go."

One of them is here, although Dunne does at one point wind up at Prudhoe Bay, camping in a Superfund site. But that's another story....

The Arctic is also important, Dunne notes. "The Arctic might be distant, but it is hardly disjunct. And the impact from environmental changes occurring there now will most certainly strike close to home in the near and distant future no matter when on this planet your home may be."

(Sure enough, at one point he and his traveling companions, all in canoes, encounter a 15-foot wall of permafrost exposed by wave action.  "The overlying cap of tundra was coming off in peaty chunks, and water that had not bee liquid for thousands of years was running in rivulets into the sea. The Arctic was disappearing in front of our eyes.")

So much for the "age of the hairless plains ape," as Dunne calls humans.

The Arctic is a place that has been in Dunne's dreams. And now he's there...and sharing it with us.

It is rich with personal meaning. "If you want to make life seem really precious, set it against the unforgiving starkness of the Arctic."

Read this book, and you'll meet some of the most interesting characters going -- including Dunne -- and you'll see though his eyes some of the most amazing wildlife ever.

The book is the third in a series that began with "Prairie Spring" and continued with last year's release of "Bayshore Summer," a close-to-home treat about the Delaware Bayshore. It is published by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.

Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
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