Monday, February 4, 2013

Come in from the Cold

It is absolutely atrocious that I haven't been able to blog for an entire week. Again. What is up with that?

It was very cold in the Northeast for about a week, then it warmed up to a disturbing degree, then got "cold" again. Of course, "cold" now seems a very relative term: do you mean single digits kind of cold?

Because if you're talking temps in the 20's and 30's, that no longer seems like much of anything. That's just January.

I've been reading Bill Streever's Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places (2009).

It's extremely interesting, and it makes you respect and appreciate the phenomenon of cold--and its effects.

Streever organizes the book month-by-month, taking the reader to various cold (and not-as-cold) places and describing biological, geological and historical events involving the experience of cold. It isn't a series of autobiographical "adventures," per se (and really, so far, that's my only "criticism" of the book: the title strikes me as a bit of a misnomer), but a fascinatingly wide range of observations about human relationships with cold weather.

He talks about late-19th and early 20th-century Arctic and Antarctic explorers. I have no idea what they were thinking, heading to the frozen poles with nothing that even remotely resembles the knowledge and technology we have today.

What they endured (and accomplished) is beyond comprehension. They're the reason we now know what we know.

For example, Streever describes what U.S Army Lieutenant Adolphus Greely experienced over the course of a nearly three-year exploration of the Arctic. They ate caterpillars. They ate shoelaces. They boiled their sleeping bag covers into a broth and ate that.

As Streever points out, the colder it gets, the more calories you need to simply stay alive. Your body burns energy at an astronomical rate, trying to stay warm (that's why you shiver: your body is generating movement in an effort to warm you up). Streever notes, "A diet of six thousand calories per day is not unusual for explorers in the polar regions."

If you're wondering, "How on earth could you transport that much food with you on an expedition?", the answer is, you generally can't. Many died of a combination of hypothermia and starvation.

When a rescue party found the surviving members of Greely's expedition in 1884, this is what they saw:

It was a sight of horror. ... On one side, close to the opening, with his head toward the outside, lay what was apparently a dead man. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were open, but fixed and glassy, his limbs were motionless. On the opposite side was a poor fellow, alive to be sure, but without hands or feet, and with a spoon tied to the stump of his right arm.

Not all of Streever's accounts are so graphic and disturbing, obviously. His focus is on the ways in which humans and animals not only cope--but in some cases adapt and even thrive--in the cold.

Streever shows that what we tend to think of as an all-encompassingly single entity ("the cold") is actually a highly complex natural phenomenon.

Streever's book is a wonderfully informative and surprisingly engaging read, and if you've ever been in the cold, felt cold, or think you might be cold some day in the future, you should definitely read it.

His book Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places (2013) is next on my list.


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