Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure by Richard E. Byrd (9/81)

C1938 296pages 4 stars

In 1934 Admiral Richard Byrd set up an observation station near the South Pole "where weather is born". The original plan had been for a three-man team to occupy the base but seeing how short the supplies were, and yearning for introspection, Byrd made the decision to stay there alone. This book is an account of the six months he spent in the polar night, without sunshine or the warmth of human companionship. We are with him as he struggles with the brutal cold, his loneliness and the realization that his only source of warmth is slowly killing him.

I picked up this book at a Friends of the Library sale. I knew absolutely nothing about Admiral Byrd but as I browsed through its pages I was immediately taken with his lyrical prose. Even though it was a far cry from my normal reading fare, I purchased the book and brought it home, telling myself it was the perfect book to read in winter. I fit this book into my Travelogue category although it's really more of a memoir.

"The horizon line was a long slash of crimson, brighter than blood; and over this welled a straw-yellow ocean whose shores were the boundless blue of night. I watched the sky a long time, concluding that such beauty was reserved for distant, dangerous places, and that nature has good reason for exacting her own special sacrifices from those determined to witness them."

Reading this journal made me physically cold. I could not get warm enough. Blankets, hot baths, nothing could take away the pervasive chill I had acquired. I think I identified with Byrd too thoroughly. Honestly, how the man lived, much less slept, in those temperatures is beyond my comprehension.

"Cold does queer things... Below -60 degrees... If there is the slightest breeze, you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like that of Chinese firecrackers."

"There is something extravagantly insensate about an Antarctic blizzard at night. Its vindictiveness cannot be measured on an anemometer sheet. It is more than just wind: it is a solid wall of snow moving a gale force, pounding like surf. The whole malevolent rush is concentrated upon you as a personal enemy. In the senseless explosion of sound you are reduced to a crawling thing on the margin of a disintegrating world; you can't see, you can't hear, you can hardly move. The lungs gasp after the air sucked out of them, and the brain is shaken. Nothing in the world will so quickly isolate a man."

It is hard to fathom a man who would want to spend half a year in a small, one-room shack buried in the snow in Antarctica. Much less, a man who would leave that shack several times a day to adjust weather machinery, even in the blinding snow. He was a scientist, an adventurer, but also a romantic, taking long walks on still nights under the stars. This journal puts the reader directly inside Byrd’s head as he searches his soul, as he witnesses the beauty of nature as few ever will and as he struggles with his own mortality.

"April 7th. The six months' day is slowing dying, and the darkness is descending very gently. Even at midday the sun is only several times its diameter above the horizon. It is cold and dull. At its brightest it scarcely gives light enough to throw a shadow. A funereal gloom hangs in the twilight sky. This is the period between life and death. This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies."

"I was learning what the philosophers have long been harping on - that a man can live profoundly without masses of things. For all my realism and skepticism there came over me, too powerfully to be denied, that exalted sense of identification - of oneness - with the outside world which is partly mystical but also certainty."

"The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy...All that need be said is that eventually my faith began to make itself felt; and by concentrating on it and reaffirming the truth about the universe as I saw it, I was able again to fill my mind with the fine and comforting things of the world that felt irretrievably lost."

As his health declines, the journal becomes more utilitarian and sparse. Even so, it seems to heighten the suspense of the book, to make you feel both his desperation and his hope at the same time. I found the passages where he affirms his faith to be beautifully written. He must have been a very strong man.

"The sun is now twelve days nearer...I have always valued life, but never to the degree I do now. It is not within the power of words to describe what it means to have life pulsing in me again. I've been thinking of all the new things I'm going to do and the old things I'm going to do differently, if and when I ever get out of here."

I would recommend this book to readers of memoirs, biographies or travel books.

1 comment:

Cindy B said...

It made me feel cold just reading the review!