Today we had round -20C in my town. The crisp air and the cold did not bother me, since I had planned my walk in the forest thoroughly and was dressed in warm winter clothes.
Many years ago I read the wonderful short story To Build a Fire by Jack London. If you haven’t read it, then DO! It is one of the best short stories I have ever read. Here’s a link to the full text:
I learned from reading the story long ago that whatever we think we accomplish, we never win a competition with Nature! Jack London tells his story from the point of view of a man who decides to leave the main trail and seek another way, thinking maybe it will be a shortcut… London lets us know that the protagonist is new in the area. He has never spent a winter in Yukon Territory before. Then the author adds:
”The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.”
That is all information we need, really… We understand that he will not be fully prepared for what he will experience in this unfriendly and cold whiteness. When London describes the extreme cold, we understand the danger, but does the man?
”He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air.”
The man does realize that it has to be below fifty, but that doesn’t lead him into the conclusion that he will not manage in this weather for long. Throughout the story several situations point out how unaware the man seems to be of the hidden dangers in the surrounding landscape. The man chews tobacco and his beard is filled with ice and along the telling of the story we notice how the beard is slowly built up like an ice-muzzle. If he will take a pause, he will not be able to eat or drink…
London describes many aspects of the Yukon winter that this man is not familiar with and as he paints the icecold scenario the reader slowly comes to the insight that this will lead to a disaster of some sort. The protagonist is followed by a dog, a native husky that knows enough of this weather as to wait for the man to soon build a fire… but the man does not stop to build a fire… As the dog once breaks through and wets his forelegs when being forced by the man to cross over at a hidden creek, the man first admires the dog’s instinct to quickly get rid of the wet and ice, then he foolishly removes his own gloves to help the dog…unaware of the risk for his own sake. His fingers instantly turn numb and that is in a way the beginning of the end…
When I took a walk today, I was taking one single step aside of the track, because I was searching for a better angle for my photo… Afterwards, my boots were filled with snow that first melted for a while, then re-froze and from being perfectly comfortable with my situation I was now slowly getting more and more cold. I was however lucky to know I was only fifteen minutes from home. I didn’t even need to think of building a fire… Instead I went indoors, thinking I was lucky who lived in the middle of a town and not in Yukon Territory, but also remembering this wonderful short story by Jack London with warmth. What a great piece of literature that is!