Cold: adventures in the world’s frozen places – Bill Streever. Back Bay, 2009.
Streever, a biologist who works in Anchorage, writes about Alaska and other cold places. He discusses how animals deal with cold, as well as the tools, clothing, and techniques used by humans who work in and study cold places. He places that in context by discussing the science behind cold – what we know about extreme cold, how it affects life and molecules, and which scientists made the key discoveries.
You might finish the book actually feeling warmer, like I did – Milwaukee doesn’t seem that cold after you’ve read about places that are regularly tens of degrees below zero… before counting wind chill!
Streever lives in Alaska, so by visiting a lot of territories around there (including some places he visits for work as a biologist), he can delve into larger stories about experiencing cold. His book largely moves between science, discussions of cold, and discussions of landmarks in our knowledge about cold. He discusses those who contributed landmarks leading toward our discoveries of extreme cold and absolute, those who developed refrigeration techniques, and other valuable perspectives on cold. As a scientist, he focuses on understanding how different creatures and substances on earth react to cold through science. There is little on literature or art, little on how average humans experience or perceive cold.
From my perspective, this book remains a bit distant from my experiences. It does a good job discussing cold by focusing on the places which are the most cold. But I have not been to such places. The kind of cold we experience in the city appears pretty moderate, only a minor inconvenience, compared to the boundary-pushing chills he discusses. Again, he focuses on science, and on places where scientists are the key figures in helping us understand cold. Polar exploration and science is rarely undertaken by artists. And any sociological reflections on polar. conditions would have to acknowledge that it is discussing unusual conditions, not normal community life.
The text provides somewhat of a glimpse of adventures… though, admittedly, since he tends to focus on how cold people got – not other aspects of their excursions – it can feel more like a struggle to survive than a chance to experience something interesting. I admit that I have only a limited interest in the tales of polar explorers. What life is like in those regions – yes, I find that interesting. And I understand that many are fascinated by Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole, so it is an interesting touchstone to mention. But I wonder what other means he could have found to help us understanding the damage extreme cold can do than by discussing tragic failures of a century ago.
And I found it a bit unpleasant to have so much discussion of the dangers of frostbite and extreme cold early on in the book. Kind of a depressing tone, which I had to work through in order to enjoy later parts of the book.
I appreciated the ‘Reading Group Guide’ at the end. It conveniently presents some ‘next steps’ to take after reading this book.
However, I admit that that section (and other parts of the book) had a good practical function. The book leaves one well aware of the dangers possible from extreme cold – or even normal cold, if one is exposed to it for extended periods. That was something I could relate to more in my place, much warmer than the places he focuses on. Cold comes to visit us briefly, and we can use books like this to imagine what it would be like if it was a much larger part of our lives. I will ponder how to connect these visions of extremes… to how cold affects those of us in northern cities when it reshapes our experiences. That’s a subject for others to explore…