Darkness Visible:Uummannaq, Greenland, 1995
Our country has wide borders; there is no man born has travelled round it. And it bears secrets in its bosom of which no white man dreams. Up here we live two different lives; in the Summer, under the torch of the Warm Sun; in the Winter, under the lash of the North Wind. But it is the dark and cold that make us think most. And when the long Darkness spreads itself over the country, many hidden things are revealed, and men's thoughts travel along devious paths.
"Do you see that coming?" the old woman Arnaluaq asked.
"That-out there over the sea. It is the Dark coming up, the great Dark!"
The glaciers are rivers, the sky is struck solid, the water is ink, the mountains are lights that go on and off. Sometimes I lie in my sleeping bag and recite a line from a Robert Lowell poem over and over: "Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise."
I sleep by a cold window which I've opened a crack. Frigid air streams up the rock hill and smells of minerals. In a dream I hear the crackling sound that krill make under water. Earlier in the day the chunk of glacier ice I dropped into a glass of water made the same sound.
The ice came from the top of a long tongue that spills out at the head of this fjord, as if it were the bump of a tastebud that had been sliced off, or a part of speech. Now it has melted and looks floury, like an unnecessary word that adds confusion to insight. But when I drink it down, its flavor is bright, almost peppery, bespeaking a clarity of mind I rarely taste but toward which I aspire.
This January morning a sundog-a rainbowlike ring around the sun-loomed so large it seemed to encircle the visible world. As I moved, it moved. I watched it slide across something stuck: a ship that had frozen into the ice of Frobisher Bay. I was taking off from Iqaluit, a town in Arctic Canada where I'd been stranded for several days. As my plane taxied out onto the runway, the sundog billowed and shuddered, dragging itself across black ice, too heavy to leave the ground. Then the plane did rise and so did the sun's halo-a bright porthole into an Arctic winter's permanent night.
Some Eskimos say such a ring around the sun represents the hand drum used by a shaman to invoke other worlds. They believe there are multiple realms within this one located beneath the sea ice, inside the mountains, at the edge of the ice cap, and up in the sky where other kinds of beings live and interact with us. Some are half human and half animal; some are transparent-pure spirit. Stories are regarded as living things, and the shaman's trance is brought on by the beating of the drum and the slow strobe of seasonal darkness and light.
My plane from Baffin Island to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, had made an unscheduled, early-morning departure. Every seat but two held strapped-in cargo; the steward and I were the only passengers. It was 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, made colder by a hard northwesterly wind. In the cabin we wrapped ourselves in wool blankets and sipped coffee while a mechanic swept snow from the wings. As the plane rose, it passed through the wavering hoop and the sun dog broke.
Below, Baffin Bay was a puzzle that had been shattered. There were disks, plates, slicks, crystals, frazil ice, grease ice, and pancake ice-Arctic lily pads across which seals, polar bears, and hunters leaped. Between tiny islands, broad sheets of ice as big as billboards bumped up into frozen Hiroshige-like waves.
People always ask, Why do you want to go north in the dark time of year? There's nothing up there. But Greenlanders know the opposite is true: "Summer is boring. Nothing for the dogs to do. In winter and spring the fjords and bays are ice. We go for long trips on our sleds-hunting every day, living wherever we want, and visiting friends in villages. That's when we are happy."
Below we flew over an intricate labyrinth of floating plinths. Clouds increased, light waned, yet it was morning. A glow marked the spot where the sun was trying to rise, but we veered north, away from it. Behind us, in the mountains, a river's fast-moving riffles had frozen in place. Everywhere the shifting ice was saffron, then pink, then indigo-the Arctic's austerity both a physical clarity and a voluptuousness.
The hunters I was to travel with said the dogsled trip to Thule would take a month or longer. Imaqa. Maybe. Clocks and calendars were still considered irrelevant in the far north, where there were no roads, only frozen fjords and seas traveled by dogsled, where weather metered out time in its own currency, where, in one Eskimo dialect, the word for "winter" also means "a year." Up here, the ephemeral is the only constant; time has not been decimated by the second hand, itself a foreign splinter looking to rejoin the living tree from which it came.
Two years earlier, in 1993, on a similar flight, I had met a young couple, Ann and Olejorgen, who befriended me. Now I was returning to Greenland to spend part of an Arctic winter with them before taking off by dogsled for places north.
Olejorgen is Inuit but born in Nuuk, the capital city below the Arctic Circle, and Ann is a Faroe Islander who had immigrated to Greenland years before. They were on their way home to Uummannaq, a small town on a tiny island halfway up the west coast of Greenland. When they asked what a lone American was doing on the plane, I held up a thick volume by Knud Rasmussen, one of ten compendiums of ethnographic notes from one of his expeditions. Half Inuit, half Danish, Rasmussen had made a three-and-a-half-year epic journey by dogsled
in an effort to trace the Eskimos' original migration route from Siberia to Greenland. On the way, he recorded their material and cultural
history-including firsthand accounts of how they traveled, lived, and hunted, their shamanic rituals, songs, dreams, drawings, and stories-without which we would know very little about the Greenland, Netsilik, Caribou, Copper, Mackenzie, and Alaskan Eskimos as they lived a hundred years ago.
Olejorgen was surprised that I knew about Rasmussen. Dark-skinned and almond-eyed, he had a slow, soft voice and enough Danish blood mixed into what he called his Eskimo genes to make him tall. Those genes linked him by blood to Rasmussen through one of Greenland's most famous families.
"It's because of Rasmussen that I am going north to live," Olejorgen said. He had never been that far up the coast, never driven a dogsled, never used a harpoon, never killed a seal. "I have quit law school and want to learn to be a hunter. I am an Eskimo. Now I shall learn how to be one."
"Rasmussen . . . ya . . . he is the national hero," Ann said. Buxom and voluable, she spoke in a loud voice, switching effortlessly between Danish, English, Faroese, and Greenlandic-a boon for me since I am a shy traveler. Now she was sorting through a huge bag of presents from Denmark. She was both a collector and a giver, constantly transforming what might have become avarice into unstinting generosity. As a social worker in charge of a regional orphanage and halfway house for children in Uummannaq, giving was a way of life for her. "My family in the Faroe Islands was wealthy. Shipping . . . that's why my professors at university said I wouldn't be good at my job. But I told them that if I'd never known love, how could I give it?"
Ann was returning to Uummannaq with her new companion. She'd met Olejorgen during her sabbatical in Copenhagen and became pregnant with his child. Olejorgen was following her to Uummannaq-a place in Greenland he had never seen, but which for five years had been her adopted home.
When we climbed out of the Twin Otter at Nuuk, I'd found I had no money-no Danish kroner, that is-and there was no place to change currency. The thick volumes by Rasmussen proved to be the only currency I needed: Ann had insisted I come with them to Olejorgen's parents' house.
We sped into Nuuk, Greenland's capital city, in a Toyota pickup-taxi. It was pouring rain. Well below the Arctic Circle, Nuuk has no dogsleds, only apartment buildings, a hotel, a museum of Eskimology, and the House of Parliament. Greenland, a Danish overseas administrative division, gained limited independence in 1979 and is now governed by home rule.
Olejorgen's parents, Motzflot and Maritha Hammekin, were in their late seventies and spoke no English. Greenlandic is an Eskimo language, and is the first language of Greenland. Motzflot was a pale-skinned vicar with a gentle voice and keen eyes. Olejorgen's mother was small and dark, slightly stooped but with thick strong hands. As she took the
volumes from my arms, she told me she was related to Rasmussen through a Polish-Jewish-Danish-Greenlandic family named Fleischer. She wanted to show me the treasures she and her husband collected during their travels throughout Greenland. The small rooms were filled with soapstone and walrus ivory carvings and paintings of ice-choked fjords. On the dining room wall behind the vicar's seat hung the long tusk of a narwhal.
West Greenland was colonized by the Danes in 1721 and the entire population was Christianized by zealous Lutherans from Scandinavia. Intermarriage was common, a tool for assimilation, and though the population of Greenland is 85 percent Inuit, there is little pure blood left. What makes the far northern corner of the island unique is that colonization only went as far north as Tasiusaq, leaving the Polar Eskimos who lived along the Melville Peninsula all the way north to Siorapaluk largely unaffected by Europeanization for another two hundred years.
Beneath a chandelier we drank French Bordeaux and ate boiled seal and potatoes. This was the capital city, after all, with a prosperous-looking population of 14,000. Olejorgen's sister, Esther, doe-eyed and high-cheekboned, joined us with her Danish friend, Poul. A midwife, she had already delivered 285 babies that year and was about to set out by skiff to visit outlying villages where she would teach women how to deliver babies. Poul looked on, complacently smoking his pipe. He had left his own Danish family to join this one, and had lost all interest in returning home to Denmark; he had happily settled in with his job as editor of Greenland's bilingual (Danish-Greenlandic) newspaper, and with his Inuit "wife."
The next morning Ann asked where I was going, and I showed her on the map. "Awwkk . . . you can't go there," she said, making a face. "No, no. You must come north with us on the ferry to Uummannaq, the real Greenland, the one that Knud Rasmussen writes about." And I did.
We took the ferry-though it carried no cars, there being no roads between villages-and made a slow passage north. Women smoked and played cards, children ran, and Danish-style food was served in a cafeteria. I spent my time up on deck. Halfway up Viagut Strait, we passed an iceberg with a hole burrowed into its flank like a telescope through which I felt I could see the origins of green and blue, of ice itself.
Ice is what Greenlanders longed for and loved. We careened through pavilions and amphitheaters of ice, past mesas that had been halved and rejoined by summer's heat, exposing a central rift that was all azure rubble. As we proceeded north the ship's wake seemed to close over what was left of time.
A thousand years ago the hunter's world was made of ice and darkness, water and light, meat eaten raw and dried, and skins-dog, seal, polar bear, reindeer, Arctic hare, and eider duck-that were sewn into clothes, tents, and sleeping bags. The seasons rocked back and forth between light and dark and the ice was always moving: the top of Greenland is jostled by 52,000 square miles of Arctic sea, most of it ice. Polynyas-areas of open water-were created when surging tidal currents broke the ice, and stayed open like unhealing sores in midwinter. The land was an ocean that broke against bodies of water, shattering into islands big and small. Tides arm-wrestled pack ice until it accordioned up against itself, finally falling onto the mainland's shore. Glaciers calved great slabs of ice as big as convention centers and as fanciful as the Taj Mahal, and these sailed down the fjords all summer, their arches, towers, and shoulders collapsing in sudden heat as if from a fit of laughter.
Up on deck I met an old woman who had been napping. She asked if I spoke Danish. Nye, I said. American. A floe exploded on the starboard side and bits of ice avalanched down into foaming, churning water. "Now we are going north," the old woman said, standing at the rail, her chin greasy with seal fat because, earlier, she had shared a rack of seal ribs with her grandson. The ice rubble that hit the hull made a thunking sound and the ship veered. "This is not the same world as the one you come from. Even now you are being deceived," she told me. "In early times the people said the land was thin and all kinds of talk between things and animals was possible because all things and all beings were the same; everything was interchangeable." A pod of ringed seals burst out of the water, then dove, leaving in their place a piece of green ice shaped like a harpoon.
Just before dawn, I went out on deck and found Olejorgen standing in the bow. He looked nervous and excited and his cheeks were red.
I wondered if he had a fever. He complained of "a polar headache." "Rasmussen used to get them too," he said. A tower of rotten ice collapsed as we glided by. "When I get to Uummannaq I must find an elder who will explain things to me, who will be patient and teach me about using dogs, about the ice, about how to hunt the animals." Neither of us could have imagined then how much he would have to learn just to survive his years of instruction.
Olejorgen had left a wife, a son, and an unfinished law career behind to start a new life with another woman, a child on the way, and a burning desire to claim an Inuit hunting life that, because of geography, he had been denied...
Copyright © 2001 by Gretel Ehrlich. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.