It was only during the last century or so that any outsider truly set out to record the culture and traditions of native Greenlanders. The person who gets (and deserves) most of the credit is Knud Rasmussen, who was determined to record as many oral histories, songs, and stories as he could; he and his polar exploration team set out during the early 1900s and, over the course of seven different expeditions, made their way across Greenland and over to Alaska. His notes and journals are now treasured sources that researchers utilize to this day.
From 1993 to 1999, Gretel Ehrlich traveled solo to Greenland, traveling paths few outsiders ever take, oftentimes traveling the same lonely paths that Rasmussen and his crew took. She was there so long that she got to experience the country during every season, from the sunless days to the sun-filled nights. She traveled by dogsled with experienced hunters, tagging along for hunts — everything from seals to polar bears — and experienced the same threats they did: falling through thin ice, snowblindess, hunger, blizzards. Like Rasmussen, she collected people’s stories and recorded their modern-day struggles.
Up until the last couple of decades, many of the people of Greenland were living according to customs and routines that have been practiced for thousands of years; death and hardship are facts of life. Unlike Alaska, where snowmobiles have long been common, Greenlanders have fought to keep to the old ways of hunting by kayak and dogsled. There’s a common ideology in the people Ehrlich interviews: to stick to the old ways is to be free; should they switch to modern machinery, they’ll need to start devoting themselves to a capitalist system in order to afford things like gas.
This Cold Heaven is part travelogue, part Rasmussen retelling, part nature book. Ehrich’s prose is mesmerizing, almost timeless (her use of “Eskimo” does date the book a bit). But truly, her writing is stunning. The book’s timeline jumps back and forth between Rasmussen’s expeditions in the early 1900s to Ehrlich’s in the 1990s. One would think that there wouldn’t be much to talk about when describing dogsled rides (you get on a sled for days and go, right?), but through Ehrlich’s eyes, there are endless terrifying and magical things to discover. Her musings are gorgeous:
The night was windless, the fjord was glass. Mountains floated, were water-made. The sun’s wide halo in July made an elliptical orbit that widened every day. Clouds blew in from the south and hovered over a glacier’s crammed nursery of calf ice, turning icebergs into black shields that rose from a darkening mirror.
A front pushed through. I longed to be set adrift.
That said, it can be brutal to read. I do have tree-hugging hippie tendencies — I’m a vegetarian, I currently have a zoo at home because I refused to take a litter of (now-adult) baby kitties I found to the kill shelter, etc. — and so I was cringing at the thought of reading about seal and polar bear hunts. And I did cringe (holy hell, that polar bear chapter). But at the same time? That’s life. Unless you’re in a place with food and necessities coming in regularly (and have the money to pay for it), every living being in Greenland is in a fight to survive. By the time you get to any hunts in the book, that’s just something you intimately understand.
It’s not always the easiest thing to read, but This Cold Heaven is actually one of my favorite books so far this year. It’s unique, fascinating, well-researched, and culturally enlightening in a way that so many other travel books just aren’t.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland was originally released in 2001 by Pantheon.