By David Laskin
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Adventures in The World's Frozen Places
By Bill Streever
292 pp. $24.99
"The world warms, awash in greenhouse gases," Bill Streever notes in the first line of this fascinating contemplation of all things frozen, "but forty below remains forty below." He should know. By page three, he has stripped down to his swim trunks and stands poised for a summertime plunge in the icy waters of Prudhoe Bay well north of the Arctic Circle: "I go in headfirst. . . . The water stings, as if I am rolling naked through a field of nettles. . . . My skin tightens around my body. . . . I feel as if I am being shrink-wrapped, like a slab of salmon just before it is tossed into the Deepfreeze." Going in headfirst is Streever's preferred approach. An Anchorage-based biologist and outdoorsman, Streever demonstrates an amazing zeal for collecting cold facts. If it hibernates, shivers, glaciates, migrates to the poles, skis, feels compelled to reach Ultima Thule or absolute zero, Streever is hot on its trail. His attention span may be somewhat limited -- he prefers skimming along crystalline surfaces to probing gelid depths -- but his voice is so engaging and his writing so crisp that I was usually happy to keep him company wherever he zigzagged.
Certainly, I was never bored. After shaking himself off from his five-minute Arctic dip, Streever is running through the chilliest history, physics, meteorology, botany and zoology he can find. In the first chapter alone, he describes the polar voyages of Vitus Bering, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott; he ponders the cold-season habits of boreal frogs ("they overwinter in a frozen state, amphibian Popsicles"); traces the development of the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales; concurs with Dante's placement of the circles of ice even lower in hell than the circles of fire; and marvels at the distances a tern will cover to avoid winter (the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back over the lifespan of the average tern). The chapter closes with a moving account of the suffering of Midwestern students and teachers in the so-called School Children's Blizzard of January 12, 1888 (artfully extracted from, and duly credited to, a book I wrote on the storm a few years ago).
"Cold" is structured as a year of living frigidly, with a chapter for every month starting with July. But it soon becomes clear that rounding the calendar is more organizational whim than narrative necessity. Each chapter opens with a snapshot of an authorial exploit or journey and the temperature at which it was performed: In September he tours Windsor Castle at 73 degrees Fahrenheit; November finds him in Palawan in the Philippines at 82; in January he's trudging through frozen gravel pits in Alaska's North Slope at 20 below; and so on. Having planted his personal stake, Streever throws linearity to the winds and pretty much wanders where he will.
This method proves better adapted to the sprint of an anecdote than the cross-country trek of a book. I was intrigued to learn that one-fifth of the world's land area is within the permafrost zone; that yellow jacket wasps can survive temperatures as low as 4 degrees by resting perfectly still, but if they are tapped by so much as a snowflake, they flash freeze to death; that lemmings "thumb their noses at winter" with "snowbound orgies" that fill their subnivean tunnels with offspring; that 246 people died in a hailstorm in India in April 1888. But after a while I began to wonder where Streever was going with all of this. Not every work of creative nonfiction needs a narrative arc, but there's got to be something to propel the engine, some guiding mission or startling revelation or irresistible character. Streever has style and curiosity to spare. What he lacks is direction.
Another problem is the treatment of global warming. Streever opens with a nod at the greenhouse effect, and halfway through he curses an unseasonable mid-winter warm-up in Anchorage for ruining his cross-country skiing, but it's not until the last few pages that he addresses the issue of climate change head on. His discussion is (predictably) adroit, pointed, clipped and alarming -- but it doesn't connect the many scattered dots that came before.
"Warmth is not always a good thing," Streever declares heatedly. This connoisseur of cold set out to sample every frozen delight before it's too late. What he serves here is a banquet of iced hors d'oeuvres.
David Laskin is the author of "The Children's Blizzard" and the forthcoming "The Long Way Home: An Immigrant Generation and the Crucible of War."