Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!

winter.jpgWe’ve been enduring a prolonged cold snap here in the heart of the bleak Canadian winter, complete with frozen water pipes and killing wind chills.

Things break down or just get sluggish in these conditions, including cars, snowblowers and bloggers. Lassitude creeps in; maybe it’s brought on by having to wear long underwear much of the time, or twice daily blow-drying the ice out of a pipe in the basement. We scurry from house to bus to work, heads bent earthward to escape the searing cold. Where has the horizon gone? Is it still there?

Then there’s been news of an absolutely stupefying sort. Two little girls, ages 3 and 15 months, froze to death on a Saskatchewan native reserve earlier this week; details are still emerging, but it appears to be a case of neglectful parenting.

The heart breaks; the blood runs cold. Man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self?

It’s gotten me thinking about quite a few things, but among them, winter. And I mean the good old-fashioned it’s-so-cold-it-hurts-to-breathe Prairie winter.

There is some great cold weather writing out there, which surely begins with Jack London and “To Build a Fire.” For many of us this is an early reading favourite straight out of grade school. Here is a description of the story’s main character:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Oh dear. You can see what’s coming next, can’t you? Still, after all these years, a gripping read…

Another personal favourite is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which aside from being great adventure/biography, is also a terrific book on leadership. It’s about the race for the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Here’s a passage about Scott’s attempted return from the pole after finding Amundsen had already beaten him there.

The five men were crammed into a tent made for four. It was an eerie experience to live cheek by jowl with one of the number losing his reason. They could not know if Evans would turn violent, but most of the time he seemed sunk in a stupor, scarcely conscious of what was happening around him. In any case, they were all tired, hungry, weak and sluggish with cold and malnutrition. Nobody — least of all Wilson, the doctor — had any desire to face mental derangement at close quarters, when they could not bear to look too deeply into their own minds.

Maybe we’re all nursing a mild stir-crazy depression in conditions like these. I’m sure it probably taxes us more than we care to admit.

I’m going to keep looking for a few more passages about the cold, but now that it’s warmed up to minus 20 celsius, my interest is waning. Maybe you can help me fill out the list. The pipes, the pipes are calling….

Stay warm. Hug somebody. Don’t put your tongue on a lamppost.

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3 Responses to “Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!”


  1. 1 Marsha February 7, 2008 at 1:50 am

    I nearly froze when reading your account of existing in such cold weather! Jack London’s story–a classic about how life in the wilderness can get down to basics, where one mistake is fatal. Another ‘cold’ story is Ursula Le Guin’s classic sci-fi novel, Left Hand of Darkness. The story is set on a planet called Gethen, meaning Winter. In an interview, Le Guin said she read a book called ‘Winter in Finland’ so that she knew more about ‘what one does when it’s 30 below zero for a month!’
    I remember feeling cold the whole time I was reading the book. And for my next book to read, I chose something with a TROPICAL setting!
    Marsha http://writingcompanion.wordpress.com

  2. 2 Marsha February 7, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    PS–After I wrote, I started thinking about rain because the east coast here is being deluged, the effect of La Nina. Nearly all of our short summer here in the mountains has featured rain, clouds and fog.
    I can think of two lit pieces about rain. From memory, Ken Kesey’s book, Sometimes a Great Notion, starts with a depiction of how incessant rain (plus the rust and mold) can unhinge a person not used to it. And an unforgettable short story, perhaps by Ray Bradbury, is set on a rainy planet where the sun appears only every few years. Most of the colony’s schoolchildren have never seen it, so they don’t believe the new girl from Earth when she tries to tell them about it. One momentous day they lock her in a closet moments before the planet’s sun briefly appears. The sun is a miracle to the kids and they run outside, mesmerised by its warmth and light. When the sun too quickly disappears again for years, they suddenly remember the new homesick girl, who has missed it all. It’s one of those short stories that keep you reflecting on what may have happened after the story itself ends.
    Marsha http://writingcompanion.wordpress.com

  3. 3 proseparsed February 8, 2008 at 6:23 am

    Hi Marsha,

    I fondly recall reading both LeGuin and Bradbury back in the day, though not the two pieces you mention. I suppose that in science fiction in particular, setting is often much more than just the place where stuff happens. It can almost become a character in the story, or at least an element around which the story partly revolves.

    It works best, I think, when it’s a deeply woven part of the fabric of a story — an inseparable part of the organic whole. In other words, you shouldn’t be able to separate the place from the story. Sometimes stories and novels arrive as failed recipes, in which the writer has taken some characters, a plot and larded on a bit of weather or other environmental what-have-you. The result doesn’t hold together very well.

    Stay dry.

    Greg


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