I used to subscribe to Outside magazine. Not that I needed the tips on hiking boots or information on cutting edge mountain bike technology — what I really liked were the tales of either horrible death or I-survived-but-I-am-now-missing-a-few-toes. There was always someone getting trapped on the side of a mountain, or having to walk 50 miles out of the Amazon after their homemade lightweight aircraft crashed. I’m sure there are people who read these stories of bravery and adventure and thought, “I am totally hiking in Brazil for my next vacation,” but I always read the stories curled up on the couch, under a blanket, eating a stack of Saltine crackers, and thinking cozily to myself, “This is something I will never, ever have to deal with.”
It’s the same way I read Sara Wheeler’s “The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle,” which was just nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction writing. She wraps her baby in calf pelts and trundles him off to Lapland, witnesses the effects of global warming from the farthest reaches of Greenland, and battles bureaucracy to be admitted to regions of Russia that are normally closed off to foreigners. She travels across the Arctic Circle, blending Norse myths, personal travelogue, journalism, history and literature to give you a sense of a place you will probably never see.
Her own stories are not lacking in adventure, but they are mild compared to the stories of others she tells, including polar explorers who became trapped in ice and had to eat their shoes to survive. “Pollution, plunder, the gleeful killings of the Norse sagas — the Arctic is not a white Garden of Eden,” she writes. There are survival tales of another sort as well, those of the men and women still trying to live in these regions, despite governments trying to “modernize” their lifestyles, settle them into permanent housing and get them jobs. Alcoholism, poverty, malnutrition and despair all follow.
This is vicarious reading, of the best sort. Wheeler tells us that at -97.8° F, “trees explode with a sound like gunfire and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a tinkle of crystals.” While you might want to hear her story of how she knows this exactly, it’s not something you want to experience for yourself. Unless you’re looking to become a feature article in Outside magazine.