Cold places have been the setting for some of the most formative moments in human history. In the highest, snow-covered peaks and the vast, circumpolar tundra; in the icy Arctic seas and the frozen landscapes of Antarctica: here, humans have formed civilizations, struggled for survival, come to terms with the limits of nature, and pursued the unending quest for knowledge. Cold places have inspired reflections about the place of humans on earth, rivalries for personal and national glory, desperate attempts to extract resources and wealth from the edges of the globe, and, more recently, concern about the health and future of the planet. Despite the centrality of cold places to the human experience, they are poorly understood by scholars and citizens alike.
In this course, we explore human relationships with glaciers, the tops of mountains, Antarctica, and the Arctic region as means of addressing essential questions about nature and culture. How do physical environments condition the possibilities for life, whether plant, animal, or human? Given that other places can claim similar characteristics of remote, harsh, and sparsely populated, what sets Cold Places apart? How have humans thought about Cold Places over time, and why have these ideas changed? In other words, how have Cold Places maintained cultural cache as both barren and full of resources, dangerous to humans yet endangered by them, and distinct from the rest of the globe and yet connected with it? Especially given the rapid changes in Cold Places today, how does the history of human interactions with these regions bear on the present and future?
As a seminar, this class is focused on reading, discussion, and writing. Course sessions investigate various forms of thought and practice, from art to science to politics. Our journey takes us through our own field experience with cold; documentaries by Werner Herzog and other film-makers; literature by Barry Lopez and Jack London; works of history and geography centered on exploration, science, technology, and the environment; and visits from glaciologists, anthropologists, and historians.
The semester wraps up with a half-day symposium, in which you will present the results of your independent research project on Cold Places.