Take a pound of science, a slice of history, a cup of travel, three teaspoons of horror, a pinch of humor and — presto! — you have “Cold; Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places,” a book with appeal for young and old alike.
“Cold’s” author, a biologist who works for BP in Alaska, is the science teacher we all want for our children; a guide who introduces them to the natural world, enticing them away from their video games, I-Pods and cell phones with the magic of planet Earth.
I am giving his book to my adult children and teenage grandchildren, introducing them to what I hope is the first in a series of nature adventure books by Master Bill Streever.
Never a dull momentPart of “Cold’s” success lies in Streever’s ability to keep his reader’s attention. In addition to writing beautifully and being able to translate complex science into simple, appealing concepts, he maintains a lively pace by breaking up information and spreading it throughout the book.
For example, given the space he allots polar explorers, Streever could have devoted three solid chapters to them. Instead he seamlessly weaves their tales into several chapters, a few paragraphs at a time, drawing readers through the book to learn more about Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, Sir John Franklin, Frederick Cook, Robert Falcon Scott and their fellow adventurers.
The same is true of other subjects, such as, but not limited to, the Snowball Earth theory, avalanches, glaciers, the Little Ice Age, frostbite, blizzards, refrigeration, the Iceman of the Alps, musk oxen, absolute zero, the Industrial Revolution, the Ice Age that we live in today, and the magical navigation of migratory birds to warmer climes.
Topics that normally hold little interest for general readers are captivating under Streever’s anecdotal style of tutelage.
Frankenstein’s creator and an alchemistHis adventurers are not all polar explorers; he includes scientists, writers, philosophers, soldiers, businessmen, monarchs and others in the mix.
My two favorites are Mary Shelley, the creator of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, and Cornelis Drebbel, an alchemist-sorcerer-conman.
In 1620, Drebbel used science disguised as magic to create the first crude air conditioning for King James I of England, possibly employing a potion that was published 60 years earlier in “Natural Magick,” by Giambattista della Porta.
King James, Streever tells us, was 54, “barrel-chested but somewhat bent over with rickets, a child of the Little Ice Age … (and) did not do well in the heat. He overdressed, in part because he was a slave to fashion but in part to repel the knives of would-be assassins. Beneath his royal clothes, he tended to sweat. His skin itched,” thus being a likely candidate for Drebbel’s magic.
Mary Shelley “was holed up in Lord Byron’s lakeside retreat near Geneva in the summer of 1816,” the weather unseasonably cold because of a volcanic eruption the year before in Indonesia, which killed at least 53,900 people, most from starvation when the sun’s rays were cut off from the earth. The loss of 1,800 people in New England was attributed to freezing to death.
The weather during what people called the Year Without Summer, “kept Byron’s guests indoors. … He challenged them to come up with ghost stories.”
Shelley came up with “Frankenstein,” which was published two years later.
“The popular impression of the novel today is based on movies that share only a name and a monster with the book.” But Streever tells us that Shelley’s novel “starts with letters from an Arctic explorer,” who “spots a dogsled pulling a strange creature, the living thing mysteriously created by Dr. Frankenstein.” The doctor dies on the boat.
The creature, after saying farewell to Dr. Frankenstein and to all mankind, “leaps through a cabin window, landing on an ice floe, and drifts off into the Arctic night,” Streever writes.
Medieval Warm periodStreever segues from the Year Without Summer back in time to the Medieval Warm period, which “stretched from about 800 to 1300.”
During this time of unusual warmth, he tells us “vineyards thrived in a warmer England” and Norse colonists settled Iceland, the shores of which were often ice-free.
“Parts of Greenland’s coastal zone were as green as the name implies,” he writes.
Then sometime in 1300 it all changed, and the ice and cold moved back in.
Mountain glaciers expanded in Scandinavia, Alaska, China, the Andes and New Zealand: “Some European glaciers reportedly advanced hundreds of feet each month, even in the summer.”
A walk into the Beaufort Sea“Cold’s” first chapter, “July,” opens 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with the author taking a five-minute standing bath in the Beaufort Sea. As Streever tells us about the effect of cold on his physiology, he shares other thoughts, which include the adventures of polar explorers, who he says are “great keepers of journals. … (their history) one long accident report mixed with one long obituary.”
On a single page he introduces us to Vitus Bering, Adolpus W. Greely and Father Henry.
In 1741, Streever writes, “several hundred miles southwest of here” Bering “lay down in the sand and died of scurvy and exposure, while his men, immobilized by scurvy, cold, and fear, became food for arctic foxes. Some accounts hold that Bering spent his last moments listening to the screams and moans of his dying men.”
While we are contemplating the horrible deaths of Bering and his men, Streever adds a geography lesson-bite — the Bering Sea that separates Alaska and Russia, and the island where Bering died, “nestled on the international date line,” were both named after him.
Turn the page and we discover that frogs, whose northernmost limit is about five hundred miles south of Streever’s bathing spot, overwinter in a frozen state, “amphibian popsicles in the mud. Frogsicles,” he calls them.
Stalking wooly bear caterpillarsBut wooly bear caterpillars, the Gtnaephora rossii, do survive on the tundra next to the Beaufort Sea. In July the ground is frozen, starting 18 inches down: “It remains frozen for a third of a mile before heat from the earth’s innards overcomes the cold from above,” Streever tells us.
“Smaller than a (wooly) mammoth’s eyebrow,” the tiny wooly bear caterpillar freezes solid in the winter, then thaws out in the spring and resumes eating “between clumps of snow,” says Streever. He writes about the caterpillars in 14 different places in “Cold,” starting on page 9 and ending on page 234 of the 283-page book, intrigued by the fact that the creatures can freeze solid without dying, and live perhaps a decade before metamorphosing into moths.
“For a pet lover who travels, they could be the perfect solution,” Streever says. “Cute, furry, and quiet, and the freezer serves as a kennel.”
After searching (he describes it as stalking) for the elusive wooly bear caterpillars Streever adopts two of them.
He names one Bedford, after James Bedford, “the retired psychology professor who, immediately after his death from kidney cancer had his body immersed in liquid nitrogen. Bedford — the person, not the caterpillar — remains frozen in a facility in sunny Arizona.”
The other caterpillar he names Fram, after the boat that Fridtjof Nansen froze into the pack ice in 1893, letting the drifting pack carry him and 13 Norwegians across the Arctic.
Surviving on caterpillars and sea fleasNear the end of the first chapter, Streever writes about polar explorer Adolpus Greely for the second time. Greely’s name will appear on no less than 20 separate pages in “Cold.”
Streever’s first-rate research dishes up horror: In the summer of 1881, U.S. Army Lieutenant Greely led 25 men north in hopes of reaching the North Pole. Only seven would survive, including Greely, and they by eating the ancestors of Streever’s caterpillars, as well as shoe laces, sealskin lashings, and “hundreds of pounds of amphipods — sea fleas — using, among other things, the remains of dead comrades as bait.”
This tale of dreadfulness is intertwined with a mention of a 2002 scientific paper that estimated “the Greeley expedition was two million calories short of minimum survival rations,” which is likely 6,000 calories per day per person.
“Heat” is next“Cold” has a chapter for every month, each opening with an account of Streever’s own experience.
In September, Streever is touring England’s Windsor Castle at 73 degrees Fahrenheit.
November finds him on Palawan Island in the Philippines at 82 F.
In March it is 5 degrees below zero in Anchorage, where Streever is taking a winter survival course with a “crew of biologists headed north to look for polar bear dens.” At their research site on the North Slope the “temperature hovers around 47 below zero, not counting windchill.”
In April he is in San Francisco, despairing of overcrowding but delighting in 60 degree weather and the lack of frost-heaved roads, and thinking of Mark Twain, death and immortality, all the while giving readers a lesson-bite in the science and geography responsible for San Francisco’s weather.
Speaking of warmth, Streever is working on his next book, “Heat.”
He promises to include fire walking.