Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter Garden: My Own Private Antarctica

            How many degrees do we have tonight? Eight? Six? How low is it supposed to go? Four, two, zero? These aren't temperatures, they're hockey scores. 

            This weekly descent into nether region, or northern regions, or arctic regions, has already happened a few times this winter. Here it is again this week, and a repeat performance of this descent into Negativity is predicted for next week as well.

            Polar vortex? It feels more like the collapse of civilization is just around the corner -- what happens when the fires go out? Have we all been trapped in some dystopian fantasy? Is nature trying to show us what it would be like to be characters in some spectacular, special-effects, scare-'em-to-death disaster movie that plunges us into a new ice age? Or maybe some bad-trip extraterrestrial adventure story that strands its victims on a very inhospitable planet. If so, it's working. I'm freaked.

        Hey, Earth!, we used to get along better than this. I used to like it here.

            Too much really cold weather for us southern New England softies feels distressingly like the end of the world. And that end of days will be a cold day in hell if this trend keeps going.

            It was a sign when a phalanx of snowy owls from the Arctic found their way south in early December, turning our barrier beaches, golf courses and school playgrounds into tundra moments. The puffy white picturesque fowl apparently had a hunch they were going to feel perfectly at home in New England in a couple of weeks. If there's a small rodent shortage for the foxes, coyotes and native owls next spring, we'll know why.

            When I hear daily predictions for the kind of temperatures and strangers on a train (or, more likely, social media) pile on with the wind-chills, I think we must be talking about distant, less peopled places. Single digits are for other places: Single digit land. The world's famous cold places. Russia, Siberia, Alaska, the Arctic Circles, and OK (let's be honest), states I've never been to, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, almost all of Canada -- and, frankly -- some scarily remote parts of New York and New England. But not eastern Massachusetts; not the balmy South Shore.

            Naturally (perfectly awful timing), even my escapist entertainment options, an essential for getting through even ordinary winters, are going south this winter. Not "south" as in sunny, but as in that frigid circle at the bottom of the earth. TV, for instance, is nothing but cold comfort. My own private Antarctica.

            Public Broadcasting has chosen this moment to share a closely observed documentary account of a bunch of hairy fellows, old enough to know better, who decided to dress up in Edwardian cold weather clothing and replicate the premier cold climate adventure of the early twentieth adventure: British explorer Ernest Shackleton's miraculous rescue of his Antarctic voyage of exploration that set off in 1914.  

            Shackleton's survival heroism is legendary stuff. The ship carrying his ambitiously named Trans-Antarctic Expedition got caught by an earlier ice-over than expected (though what can you expect in the Antarctic Ocean?). Trapped by an expanding ice islands, his ship The Endurance was crushed by ice and plunged below the icy depths while the crew stood on the ice and watched. Shackleton then made the decision to take a few of his best sailors on a desperate small boat voyage across hundreds of miles of freezing, storm-tossed water in the hope of reaching a tiny island -- easy to miss these tiny islands in a vast ocean -- where a whaling station might provide help. He left the bulk of his 27-member crew behind with most of the food and supplies to shelter under lifeboats and whatever else they could rig up from the stuff they saved from the ship.

            The voyage was impossible enough; then when they land on the island they had to climb across a glacier with a vast, steep crevice to reach the whaling station. There, the climate trapped them. In all, it took them 500 days to return with a rescue ship for the rest of the crew.

            The heroism is in the leadership: Shackleton's entire crew survived.

            PBS's 21st century re-enactment explorers were not doing quite so well. They got blown off course trying to reach the island. One guy was later injured on the climb and had to be flown off by helicopter.       

            I'm not passing out medals to PBS for sharing these chilly scenes of Antarctic experience with viewers in the midst of a serious cold spell. How about a skinny dipping party at Downton Abbey instead?

            The other piece of my private Antarctica is my own choice to listen to Patrick O'Brian's masterful adventure-literary novel "Desolation Island" on CD. It's one of the near 20-book British naval series based on the earlt 19th century exploits of a fictional capatin Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon, scientist and master spy Stephen Maturin. When Aubrey and company, in the midst of the long voyage to Australia, suffer a murderous pursuit from an enemy man of war, guess where they have to go? Straight into the frigid waters at the bottom of the earth, to encounter harrowing storms, deadly icebergs, a bare escape from the guns of the enemy, shipwreck from collision with submerged ice; after which they are forced to seek succor from a place called Desolation Island.

            This is the kind of book where you encounter sentences such as "He was chilled through and through" with distressing frequency.

            I'm no hero when it comes to cold. Next book I choose will definitely have to take a walk on the warm side.