Book Review: Land of Wondrous Cold

Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Land of Wondrous Cold combines the stories of three lesser known (but no less important) Antarctic explorers with continental history and future implications on a rapidly warming planet Earth. In a book that is both science and adventure story, Land of Wondrous Cold weaves together the human and natural history of the Antarctic by connecting early Victorian explorers and their discoveries with ancient and modern geological findings. 

The journeys of French explorer Durmont D’Urville, British explorer James Clark Ross, and American Charles Wilkes may not be as well known as the adventure tales of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton, yet they are no less vital to the continent’s history. Among their discoveries are places and penguins recognizable to all who visit or study Antarctica: for example, the Adélie penguin, named for D’Urville’s wife; Wilkes Land; and the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf.

While this is a book about science, its language is highly accessible, especially in the stories of the expeditions. Wood’s prose offers a vivid look at what life was like for these explorers heading south, detailing the ocean’s wonder and wrath, which is the same today as it was two hundred years ago:

As the last of the ocean warmth ebbed away, the mist parted, and a scene of melancholy beauty emerged: immense blocks of ice with sheer walls, here an arch hollowed out by the waves, there a perfectly rounded scoop … Bubbles rise to the sea’s surface like frozen rivers melting at the end of winter. Stinging spray broke from each crest of the swell. When the wind rose, the sea pounded the ice. The waves unfurled across the ice rafts with a violent flop and a crash, like over a coral reef.

The details of explorers’ journeys make it impossible to glamorize them, as well as impossible not to admire the tenacity of these captains and their crews. Wood’s descriptions of the ubiquitous and capricious ice, in particular, bring these expeditions to terrifying life for readers: 

During the brief night came sounds D’Urville had never heard in a lifetime at sea. The first was a deep boom, as if someone had struck a giant drum reverberating through the ship. The shock threw him onto the floor of his cabin. It was the sound of a ship helplessly beating itself against a rocky shore. Then came a cacophony beyond all description: a prolonged tearing noise as if some great sea monster were ripping the hull of the ship to pieces, plank by plank.

Of course, it was not just the ships that were battered but the crews as well; they suffered everything from frostbite to “fractured ribs, body bruises, and hands in bloodied shreds from hauling on icy ropes.” As well, Wood describes the emotional toll of being away from their homes and families. And scattered between the main chapters are relevant “interludes” on such topics ranging from ice and geology to petrels and penguins. 

Land of Wondrous Cold brings together the legacy of these three nineteenth-century explorers with the continent’s history and future, emphasizing the importance of this region for the entire planet as we face unprecedented climate change: “The Victorian explorers’ greatest legacy…lay not in national conquest but in their shared commitment to scientific discovery. These were the first humans to properly encounter the seventh continent’s icy grandeur, and their mixed feelings of wonder and terror mirror our own growing awareness of an existential threat issuing from the polar south.”

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