I hate being cold, so spending a year seeking out the world’s iciest places doesn’t exactly sound like my cup of (hot) tea, which is why I’m grateful for authors like Bill Streever, who does all the seeking for me in his New York Times' bestseller, "Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places," (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99).
It might seem like an impossibly boring feat to devote an entire book to chill and frost, but Streever is inexhaustible in his quest to reveal cold for what it really is, “the absence of heat, the slowing of molecular motion, a sensation, a perception, a driving force.”
From the beginning, the author plunges in head first, literally, by diving into Prudhoe Bay, an icy mass 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The water’s temperature? A brisk 35 degrees.
But this book isn’t simply a chronicle of Streever’s wintery stunts. Throughout the book, the author’s poetic-like storytelling masterfully links the history, myth, geography and ecology of sub-zero temperatures, delightedly leaving you with goose bumps.
Just one example of Streever’s poetry: “Cold freezes the nostrils and assaults the lungs. Its presence shapes landscapes. It sculpts forests and herds animals along migration routes or forces them to dig in for the winter or evolve fur and heat-conserving networks of veins. It changes soils. It preserves foods.”
Not exactly what you’d expect from a biologist who serves on a climate change advisory panel, right?
With each chapter divided into months, the author tackles every aspect of the cold, from the explorers and victims of sub-zero temperatures, to the amazing abilities of black bears, snapping turtles and even some birds to hibernate peacefully during the winter. In March, Streever contemplates the many types of clothing invented in an effort to keep the chill off, all the while searching for polar bear dens in 40 below weather. In February, he explores the cooling of Westminster Abbey and the scientists’ quest to achieve absolute zero.
And, much to my delight, the author provides many answers to questions that I have never really thought about, but realized I should know nonetheless, such as “What exactly happens to your body when you get hypothermia or frostbite? Or, “How did the invention of refrigeration result in the near extinction of the buffalo?”
Throughout the book, Streever’s tone ranges from the serious to the silly, which keeps the intricacies of cold from being as dry as, well, dry ice.
“Cold, really, is like malaria. If it does not kill you, it will help you lose weight,” he writes, tongue-in-cheek.
Somewhat surprisingly, Streever waits until the last chapter to truly call attention to the issue of climate change, an odd choice considering that the warming of the world threatens to take away the many splendors of cold that Streever writes about for 200 pages.
He writes, loathingly, “I am struck by the reality of Boston: traffic and heat and people in cars as big as fishing dories, all doing their level best to pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, all doing their part to warm the planet. They are killing what little is left of their ice age.”
Some critics were put off by Streever’s somewhat lackluster treatment of the global warming issue. But, by choosing to focus almost entirely on the wonders of sub-zero temperatures, Streever effectively portrays what’s at stake, creating a work that’s far more powerful than the typical doomsday list of global warming ills.
As Streever writes in the preface, “It is time to enjoy an occasional shiver as we worry about a newly emerging climate likely to melt our ice caps, devour our glaciers, and force us into air-conditioned rooms.”
After all, it’s only after you truly appreciate something, like the cold, that you can care enough about it to take action.
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