From My Commonplace Book - 50

from Winter: Five Windows on the Season

by Adam Gopnik


. . . [US naval master Dr. E. K.] Kane and his men, on their way to rescue four of their companions in the Arctic in 1854, suffer from hypothermia so severe that they fall asleep for hours at a time standing up, then turn and wake, then turn and mutter, delirious, as a group: [We] laughed immoderately, gibbered, uttered the most frightful imprecations. . . . After the lapse of a few minutes. . . the raving maniacs were changed to sullen and moping idiots, weeping and blubbering like children, and in this condition all would move on mechanically for perhaps a half a mile, when, as if all were actuated by one disorderly spirit, another outburst would take place, and the former scene of maniacal fury was reenacted. They would pause, fall asleep, or keep themselves awake by eating snow not as a frozen liquid, not for water, but because it burned their faces so intensely that it would keep them from that hypothermic slumber. And stumble on, and hallucinate, and sleep for a few minutes, burn their mouths awake, and stumble on again. On another voyage, rats sneak on board in New York, breed inside the ship, and then come out to ravage all the stores when the cold strikes in Frobisher Bay, and the rats ravage the stores so thoroughly that the men are then forced to eat rats as their regular diet! (The Inuit dance in and out of these stories in much better shape; an Inuit woman travels forty miles with a newborn baby just to see white men, and then she goes back while they shiver in wonder at her aplomb.)

. . .

There's no better place to get the taste, the vibe, of high Victorian virtue and nonsense than in the loneliness of the Far North. The Arctic, and later the Antarctic, explorers are prepared to face the snows in exchange for the absolute experience. They are also sponsored by Nabisco and Cadbury and Harrods. They go out to show what men can endure, and on board ship, as they winter in, they publish their own newspapers, one called the Polar Times. They put on pantomimes, they engage in burlesque cross-dressing, they perform puppet shows and Shakespeare plays. The intersection of Romantic and middle class values is never more comic than aboard the polar vessels. . . .



Adam Gopnik (American, born in Philadelphia, Penyslvania, 1956) grew up in Montreal, Quebec. He has worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1986. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures this year, Adam Gopnik was chosen as noted speaker and delivered five lectures in five Canadian cities based on his book Winter.

One hundred years ago this week Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole, more than a month ahead of Englishman Robert Scott and his team.

Comments

Delightful Merry - the thought of Harrods and Cadburys in polar regions - what is about the Victorians so very sure of themselves - at least Scott didn't eat his dogs I hear so as failures in the race to the pole we Brits comfort ourselves slightly. But of course exposure to extreme cold brings on awful things.
 
Thank you, Enid, for your comment.

I wish I had worded the last sentence differently so it didn't suggest I might be denigrating the efforts of Englishman Robert Scott and his team. Robert Scott and the other four men died on their return journey.

I'm just finding this out. I can't say why I've never been interested in polar exploration. Well, I could say, but I best not go on and on in this little box that reminds me of a block of ice.
 
Let's think of warm things Merry - I'd never have made the arctic - preferring warmth of Africa - a geat let down to Victorian ancestors certainly.! Except mine involved in temperate european gardens - could that be wiser and more comfortable. And better for your winter moss garden.
 


Just an experiment here, Enid, to see if I can post a photo in the comment box.

Yes, I agree: let's just stay in our temperate gardens and enjoy ourselves.

Ok, that did work. Here are the bathtub toys mentioned previously in the blog, Enid, plus a wooden frog in a swing (on a spring) and Jane Austen action figure. Also the moss garden in the little rectangular dish, recently brought in from the back step. These were all gifts. Why other people thought I need these I'm not sure. The moss, of course, made a gift of itself, a volunteer to the container where another plant had died.

This is my team. Consequently I don't foresee that we will be setting off on a polar expedition anytime soon.
 

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