Saturday, October 11, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

I finished this book last week, a thriller for armchair adventurers. I guess I can claim that soubriquet, but I read such like for more than the sensation of my hair standing on end. The book concerns an attempt to sail to the North Pole, back in the yeasty end of the 19th century.

I shan’t speak overmuch about the book. Suffice that the narrative rollicks, and that depth and scholarship show clearly. What gets me is the craziness of the undertaking.

The publisher of the New York Herald subsidized the expedition. He is the one who subsidized Stanley’s search for Dr Livingston (who was not exactly lost and didn’t exactly need saving). The Stanley expedition was a publishing coup—it stirred the public—and the polar one struck a public chord as well.

The polar expedition, led by Captain De Long, held the central idea that the polar sea was warm. Leading scientists and cartographers felt sure that an open sea existed in the polar region. One theorized that a Pacific current similar to the Gulf Stream drove warm water thru the ice to make a passageway to the North, and kept the ocean there in a liquid state.

I don’t know, speaking definitively, if this idea is hypothesis or theory. Hypothesis (if I understand the term rightly) is an idea to be tested; theory has faced tests and has yet to be disproved. Scientists actually had some reason to believe that the Arctic Sea could be warm. For instance, the warm northerly-tending current does exist. None of the whalers and others who have found their way to the region ever found hint of such a situation, tho. That whalers never found a warm sea does not mean one didn’t exist. It ought to, however, have tempered the theories.

The USS Jeanette, then, pretty quickly seizes up in ice, the ship remains stuck for two years, until finally crushed and sunk. The expedition slogged across 1000 miles of ice before reaching Siberia. Many died. Like I said, a hair raising story.

I know hindsight gives me strength, but it is hard to believe that so much was risked on the advice of so little knowledge. I guess that defines the human condition. Out of ignorance we sometimes find the light switch.

Poe, interestingly, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, writes of a warm southern polar region where dark-skinned natives help fulfill a scurvy vision of a master race. Poe had a brilliant mind but here his swipes never quite hit the light switch. The hardest challenge is to listen to yourself.

Poe of course took many crazy undertakings. Imagining the tale-telling heart or the pit with the pendulum with such unsettling closeness shows a daring many of us can’t match. Likewise Lovecraft. One can lose one’s way, by which I mean, one loses the generative understanding. That is, if you can imagine a bleak and lacking race—frankly if you can imagine race at all (scientifically speaking, the term is a whole lot less settled than most people understand)—then perhaps you look for the light switch in the wrong place.

Theories should be placed within the coven of proof. Another book read recently, Into the Silence by Wade Davis, recounts the experiences of those who made the first attempts to climb Mount Everest. Most of them survived, somehow, the intensely stupid and foolish commands of the opposing armies during World War I. Commanding officers nowhere near the front were designing elegant plans that murdered millions and millions and millions. Was that just the olden days? Let’s talk climate change, let’s talk fracking, let’s talk…

So anyway, castles made of sand.

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