Adventures in the World's Frozen Places
Little, Brown and Company, 304pp, $24.99
It's an early morning, in late September in Maine. I swing the door wide and step out anticipating the high sixties that I've been enjoying, that will warm the day into the seventies well before noon. Slap! Still dressing for summer temps, I dash to the car. Its thermometer read 54. While the heater runs I debate going back to the house for another layer or two but dismiss the idea. I'm already late and surely it will warm up.
I turn on the car radio and hear the interviewer say, "and whatever prompted you to jump into the Beaufort Sea in nothing more than your swimming shorts?" The male respondent replies, "You've gotta do it...it's the Beaufort Sea and you're there and you've..."
"Right," I think. "You've gotta do it," I say to Mr. Macho on the radio.
Oops, another jumped conclusion. It turns out that macho is not the motive for author, Streever's apparent dare-deviltry. It's scientific curiosity. He's a research biologist who currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska and runs an applied research program in the Alaskan North Slope oil fields. In the Alaskan Arctic where he took the plunge it was 51 degrees. The water was 35 degrees. He went in head first. It was July. Now, he's on the radio promoting his new book, Cold. I consider turning down the car heater.
The interviewer asks him why he chose to write about, well, such a cold subject. Being a scientist, his answers are reasoned and well-founded. Cold has been long neglected, it's got a "bad rap" and it's full of drama. Right on all counts. I turn off the heater and head for the library.
Cold is organized into monthly chapters which recount the author's activities, observations and ruminations on the subject, as the year passes. Beginning in July, he grabs the reader's attention with his plunge into the Beaufort Sea; he muses on historical accounts of the experience of cold by other people...Horace Greeley's, for instance. Career army man Greeley commanded the erection of thousands of miles of telegraph wires, many across Alaska and was running the Weather Bureau in 1888 when a January blizzard blew through the Midwest. He could not have predicted the fifty-five degree drop in temperature in less than five hours. One official estimated that perhaps 20,000 people were "overtaken and bewildered by the storm." An estimated 250 people died along with an uncounted number of livestock. Streever ends his opening chapter full of fun frozen facts with a few taut words from Emily Dickenson's After Great Pain: "As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--/First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--" a description of hypothermia. If this is July, what will January bring?
The answer is, more of the same. The book is a wide ranging compendium of facts, figures and events regarding the state of cold. He discusses premises, findings and conclusions, both dead on accurate and wildly off the mark of human investigators of the subject from earliest writings to present projects. He also examines in minute detail the survival techniques of the various plants and animals that live in the extreme cold. He takes us along on the frequent "business" trips he takes in the course of the book's year where he examines on site the heat retention abilities of London's abbeys and the muses on the dressing habits of the German infantry during the march toward Russia, marvels at Boston traffic and Indian grass crops. He quotes Mark Twain and the Navy Diving Manual. He traces the rise and demise of the ice trade which began with a frozen Massachusetts pond in 1806. He explains for the laymen such exotic scientific subjects as Hadley cells, the Coriolis effect and El Nino. Locally he freezes caterpillars in his fridge for the winter because they winter over naturally frozen and examines arctic topography, permafrost, mud and slush.
Toward the end of the book, my brain begins to feel as stuffed as my stomach after a Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps it's because I'm reading it while suffering from a mighty head cold. I consider recommending Cold as a bathroom book...to be picked up and put down after each exploratory/explanatory page or two...no way...Cold, though encyclopedic, is not trivial.
I think the way to read this book is to find your own pauses, since so many aspects of the subject of cold are presented in what appears to be helter skelter fashion. To me, the book exemplifies the thought bridges and jumps that a scientific mind habitually makes. The only recourse for ordinary mortals is to rest in between those jumps and ponder a while what's just been read. When you've reached your personal intellectual equilibrium again, dive in (as it were) for another mind meal.
As for style, Streever writes in first person present tense that opens this review, unless he's explaining a complex idea or event. Because the style sets up some intimacy with the reader, one expects to be given glimpses of his life and personal experiences that will add some warmth. Not so. He never names a name but calls his human company, "companions." Although he applies his mind ferociously, there is an equally ferocious withholding of personal involvement, reaction or opinion even conjecture. The book gives off, well, a feeling of coldness. I suspect that when he dived into that 35 degree water, his mind stayed ashore...a great talent for a pure scientist, not so great when writing a book for the undisciplined rest of us. No one wants to be left out in the cold.