Gretel Ehrlich ventures into the north of Greenland during the Arctic summer of no sunset, and reminisces on her surreal journey.
“Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought… So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” -T.S. Eliot
Rain in the night is a form of sleep-I don’t have to close my eyes. Alongside me in a car is a Buddhist monk from Thailand and a young Canadian who has been working in a diamond mine. We are being driven by the airline company to Ottawa because our plane couldn’t land in Montreal. The monk tells me that every morning at four a.m. he sings the Diamond Sutra to help cut away the projections of ego. Now he wants to know everything about mining for diamonds. He listens to what the young miner has to say. What I want to know from the monk is how to push through the impasse of modern heartlessness. The young miner tells us only that the price of diamonds is going up and the food in the mining camp is bad.
The plane to Arctic Canada, a 727 configured for cargo and twenty passengers in the rear, is small and swift enough to nose-dive down out of a hole in the clouds to land on a dirt strip. The passengers are recognizable-Inuit and Canadian hunters, petroleum geologists, a few hikers, Inuit families, and the same steward who was weathered into Iqaluit, Canada with me the winter before. “Back again?” he asks. We don’t really know each other, but our paths keep crossing. The whole expanse from Alaska to Greenland is one small polar town.
A deep exhalation of relief slides through me as we fly north. The passengers fall silent. Below, roads and towns disappear, and trees become smaller and smaller, more widely scattered, until they disappear. The rocky barrenlands that extend north through Quebec, Labrador, and surround Hudson Bay sprawl below, a gray carapace slit open by narrow lakes that shine like eyes. The fluted surface of the rock is the result of ice age ice scraping out narrow valleys and molding elongated ridges. From the air it looks like a corrugated roof. This is perhaps the most remote part of the polar north. On the Great Fish River once lived the least known Eskimos. They held a curse against white people. The nearest white settlement to their village took half a year to reach by dogsled.
On my lap is a map of the entire polar north. My finger follows the squiggling green dashes that mark the treeline where it undulates across the top of the world. From Point Hope in Alaska, it runs above the Brooks range, then trends southeast through the Central Arctic, follows the Coopermine River in the Northwest Territories, dips below Hudson Bay, rises in Quebec, but never touches Baffin Island or Greenland. The line looks like a snail’s track, then a skirt being swirled, the hemline dropped hard by a storm.
In the lower forty-eight, we associate treeline with altitude, since trees die out in the mountains around 10,000 feet. But altitude by itself has nothing to do with tree growth. Instead, it is a lack of summer heat that sets the northern limit. Trees need enough heat to stir up photochemical reactions in plant cells, produce leaves and a root structure, and last of all, wood, from which a tree acquires its height. The sun shines in the Arctic, but you can count on your fingers the hours it feels hot.
In Iqaluit we change to a thirty-year-old prop plane and cross the icy chessboard of Baffin Bay. Making this crossing six months earlier I’d been filled with dread. The polar dark was visible ahead of us on the horizon and as we flew into it, I feared I would lose my bearings as I had once when my heart rate dipped to 20, then 10, and I was almost dead.
Now, flying into what the Inuit call the Land of Day, I read the initiation song for a Hudson Bay (Lyons Inlet) child going on his first journey:
I rise up from rest, moving swiftly as the raven’s wing.
I rise up to meet the day. Wa-wa.
My face is turned from the dark of night,
My gaze toward dawn, toward the whitening dawn…
The Land of Day is thought to be the heaven where people who have been murdered or drowned go. In death all people are happy and never hungry-the place is full of caribou-and play ball with the skull of a walrus. “It is this game of the souls playing at ball that we can see in sky as the northern lights,” the legend goes.
Pawing through my rucksack I come on the battered, mimeographed pages meant to serve as an English-Greenlandic dictionary and look up the word for the month of July. No name is listed. Only June, Timmissat erniviat, meaning “they lay eggs,” and August, Innanit aarsarniartalerfiat, “the newborn birds fly south.” The process of hatching has been completely left out.
In Ilulissat, Greenland, I board the northbound ferry bound for Ubenkendt Eyland-Unknown Island-by way of Uummannaq, where I stayed the winter before. The ship is so big there is no sense of being moved by water; we move it: as we leave the harbor, the double-walled bow nudges chunks of pancake ice aside. They call this boat a ferry, but it carries no cars-there are no roads between towns and villages in Greenland. Rather, it serves as a link between communities, one of two ships that carries supplies and people up and down Greenland’s west coast from June through September, or until ice closes the fjords.
To get out of the wind I retreat to the stern and lie down on a metal bench in the cold sun. The bench is white, the deck is red, and the bollards are bright green. The boat’s engines churn softly. I close my eyes for the moment but the brightness penetrates my eyelids. Light peels my skin; the hole in the ozone stares at me. There is nothing more to lose or gain. Empty-handed, I climb out of my own hole to some other kind of observation post: exposure implies vision. Isn’t that the point of travel? To stumble, drop one’s white cane in a blizzard, and learn to see.
The ship follows the Viagut Strait northwest toward Baffin Bay. We plow through the remnants of a deconstructed iceberg. The broken ice looks like cartoons of animals, ships, buildings, bits of history, all reduced to litter as if to signify an academic disinterest in the past. Or else the floes are facades, glacial nuclei with no margins, or, all margin with no center.
The Karjak glacier at the head of Uummannaq Fjord drains directly from the inland ice. From this glacier and two others in Disko Bay are cleaved most of the icebergs that enter the Labrador current. Having passed from Uummannaq Fjord into Baffin Bay, I look back and see the crenulated edge of the ice cap. Behind Uummannaq, the ice is 5,587 feet thick whereas, at its center, the cap is 11,184 feet thick, depressing the land beneath it over a thousand feet below sea level. The farther away we go, the more ice I can see: its convex upward profile is a conical hat cut from a diamond.
Ice sheets are self-regulating. Glaciers affect climate; the low temperatures help stabilize ice caps and encourage glacial growth. The island of Greenland is a bowl carved by ice to hold ice; it is a mountain barrier that separates people, birds and animals. Only the Arctic fox has been seen high on the ice, though it’s not known if they migrate all the way over. An East Greenland saying is, “If the soles of your feet itch, it means that a fox is walking in your footprints.”
Light moves toward earth at 186,282 miles per second. The view from the ship’s bridge through its nine panavision windows is a perfect place to get knocked in the head by the Arctic light’s persistence. Kurt, the captain, turns to bend over maps. “Are we lost?” I ask, joking. “Ya, we may be lost,” he says, without looking up. “But I’ve never hit an iceberg yet.”
We come alongside the southerly end of a huge island rising brown and dry from the water. I tell Kurt where I am trying to go. He looks up: “There it is-your island. That’s Ubenkendt Eyland. It was named by a Dutch whaler in the 1830’s. It means Unknown Island,” he tells me. “Too bad we don’t go there.”
In Uummannaq I seek a fishing boat that can take me to the island. I go to the post office and call my friend, Aleqa, in Nuuk. Because she is from Uummannaq district, she knows everyone here. Perhaps she can call someone and ask if a fishing boat is going to Illorsuit and if they will give me a ride. She does this, and there is a boat arriving sometime in the evening. The fisherman’s name is Kristian Moller, but that’s all she knows-not the color or size of the boat, nor the call numbers; and he doesn’t speak English.
I walk to the government office and ask a woman to write out a note in Greenlandic which will explain to Kristian who I am and where I am going, and if he would be so kind as to give me a ride on his boat to his village. Afterward, I sit on a bench in front of the Grill Baren-a Greenlandic hotdog stand-with a view of the whole harbor and wait. Every time a boat rounds the bend of the harbor’s breakwater, I run to it and ask the captain in crossed up Greenlandic-Danish if he is Kristian Moller. No. No. No…comes the reply. I can’t even say his name properly. I finger the note in my pocket, then it occurs to me that Kristian-if he does appear-might not be able to read.
Another hour goes by. I jump at the arrival of every fishing boat while a drunk looks on, amused. The sun is hot. Young Greenlandic women parade by with permed hair, movie star style shades, tiny skirts, and heavy makeup, like gangsters’ molls-but there are no gangsters here.
At five in the evening a blue fishing boat rounds the breakwater at the far side of the harbor, a hundred yards away. I stand, but cannot read the name on the wheelhouse. In Danish I ask the drunk, Naym? and point. He looks. Why have I even asked? He is so drunk that I doubt he can see anything. “Kristian Moller,” he says confidently. I thank him and smile.
The note is not necessary. When I come alongside the boat, Kristian looks up at me with kind eyes. I say the name of his village, the name of the family with whom I am to stay, point in the direction of Illorsuit and he extends his hand to take my small rucksack, then looks at his watch and indicates seven p.m., departure time.
When I return an hour later the boat has been moved to the dock on the other side of the harbor, in front of the Grill Baren where Kristian visits with his friends. The air begins to cool. A man with the dark face of a Tibetan warrior sits down on the wooden plank across from me. He is wearing red coveralls over an immaculate white Faroe Island sweater closed up with silver buttons under his chin. He has thick black hair, a heavy brow, and high cheekbones. His eyes pierce me: they are turquoise.
He talks to no one, just waits. For our boat? For someone else? Or is he just passing time? Seven o’clock comes and goes and still we linger. Who cares about time? The sun is langorous. I cannot keep my eyes off this wild man sitting across from me.
A woman and two children stow their luggage below. Is she Kristian’s wife? Are these his children? He treats everyone with the same quiet aloofness. At nine p.m. he climbs aboard, followed by the wild man. They offer their hands and help us step down onto the deck. A wind has come up and I know that as soon as we leave the harbor, it will be cold.
To be on water at the seabirds’ and seals’ level gives me a different perspective. Water-blackened cliffs rising out of the fjords are monolithic. Thousands of resting fulmars fly up from the water ahead of us-a curtain of birds-then drop back down as we steam ahead. Kristian’s blue boat is constructed of heavy timbers, its bow battered by ice. At 40 feet it has a high seaworthy prow and a tiny box-shaped wheelhouse. On the lines between the mast and the deck hang pieces of dried seal. They sway with the boat’s rocking.
I stand out on deck in the midnight sun. The wind has died. I finger my old copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his island play. Maybe it will instruct me somehow during my stay. A single cloud appears and blue washes over everything. Kristian yells, “Nikolai!” The man with the turquoise eyes appears on deck and takes the helm while Kristian climbs down into the skiff tied aft, and, carrying a rifle, takes off so fast I barely have time to see him vanish behind an iceberg.
The cold intensifies. Nikolai steps out from the wheelhouse and cuts off a hunk of seal. Strings of dried meat pull from the ribs and his big hands shine with seal grease as he eats. Still on deck, I can see my breath. My clothes are inadequate and I’m shaking. But what choice do I have? I stand outside for three hours, but finally give in and stick my head inside the wheelhouse. Nikolai’s blue eyes turn on me. Is he Caliban, something between animal and man, a sweet-eyed monster leading me to a forgotten island? The name Caliban is an anagram patched from the word cannibal, a name for a man who is treacherous, lecherous, and without language.
Nikolai motions for me to come in and sit on the narrow bench beside him-there is no other place. Wedged in, I’m so squeezed it’s difficult to keep my knees from hitting the wheel as it turns. He opens the small window and sticks his head out into the breeze. The pale light floods in, its sheen lying against the sharp bones in his face.
I wake with a start. My head has tipped sideways and is resting against Nikolai’s hip. I must have fallen asleep from the sudden warmth of the wheelhouse. Now I’m embarrassed. He looks down at me wordlessly, his huge eyes laughing gently as if to say, it’s alright. The boat putts northward.
Kristian reappears from behind an iceberg in the fjord. A dead seal is laid over the bow of his skiff. Nikolai helps haul the seal aboard, then Kristian takes the helm. Nikolai disappears down a forward hold-where the woman and children have gone-to sleep.
Glass is what the boat cuts through as we continue to look for seals. The sea is indigo as if this day was night, which it is, but night lit up. A line of silver demarcates blue water from blue cliff, and there, a thin band of haze rises. I wonder why anyone comes to Ubenkendt Eyland-Unkown Island. What attracted Rockwell Kent or Hans Holm to this one spot when there are thousands off Greenland and hundreds of settlements? What has attracted me?
Something breaks the surface of the water: a pod of seals. Kristian grabs his rifle and leaps to the foredeck while I hold the wheel. I see the whites of his eyes as he flies by. Nikolai appears on deck from below-not Ahab, but Caliban. He watches: Kristian shoots, misses, shoots again, and misses. Unfazed by failure, the two men join me in the wheelhouse, and doubly squeezed between them, we continue on.
For two more hours we cut through glass. We are silent. The slow put-putting of the two-cylinder diesel engine does all the talking. Yet an unvoiced conversation seems to be going on. Being pressed tightly together stands for the opposite: a sense of capaciousness and accommodation takes over this boat’s tiny room.
On the map, Ubenkendt Eyland looks like a flounder seen from above with a flattened head and a long tail. Once there was a village called Ingia at the northern tip of the island. Now it’s gone. I want to ask, but don’t have the Greenlandic words for it: why this island is “Unknown” when all the others in the vicinity have names-Upernivik, Karrat, Qeqertaarssuaq?
As we make our way up the Illorsuit Strait, I wonder where in the village Rockwell Kent’s house will be; where he went to paint; what he traveled to see; what the Arctic taught him about light. I’m reminded of the dark wilds of ignorance I have experienced-not the dark’s ignorance, but my own. Does light repair what darkness disassembles, or does it work the other way around?
Nikolai retreats to the hold, and half an hour later, returns with the woman and two children who I have not seen at all during the journey. They stand on deck rumpled and silent-they’ve been sleeping. I look at Kristian’s watch: two a.m. We round a high knob topped by a graveyard and glide into the bay. The village of Illorsuit lies before us: a half-moon arc strung with a few brightly painted houses on a black sand beach-an Arctic version of a south sea island, but instead of tropical waters, the inlet is littered with ice. The population is saidto be approximately one hundred: ninety-nine Greenlanders and one Dane, Hans Holm, with whom I am to stay.
Now I see that the July sun’s hoop-dance has lengthened into an elliptical arc. Its persistence is nothing if not daunting. What lies before me is this: rock cliffs that are black and icebergs passing in front of them-like photographic negatives-miniature mountains glistening white. Only the fjord vacillates. Sometimes it is ink, sometimes pale blue, sometimes colorless glass. On water’s surface the mountains shimmer, go still, shimmer again, the reflections torn by the boat’s passage.
We weave through icebergs. They are contorted and soft. The July sun has begun to do its work on them. I see how summer unfastens itself even as it comes into existence. Glazed by heat, the icebergs rain down turquoise tears.
I climb the metal ladder on the side of the dock and Kristian hands my rucksack to me, motioning to the northwesternmost end of the village-indicating that I will find Hans’ house there. But which house? And how will I find it? The village is asleep. I hitch the blue rucksack on my back and begin walking. Clothes flap on lines in the all-night sun and sled dogs tethered by long chains sleep in dirt, their noses tucked under their tails. Fish and seal meat dry on racks poled far enough off the ground so loose dogs can’t get it. Children’s toys and baby carriages lie in the sand and sleds are stacked three high, the boiling pots for seal and coffee water from last winter’s hunts still hanging from the handlebars.
All Arctic settlements have the same acrid smell: of dogshit, seal guts, unwashed bodies. But the sun in the northern sky casts a light so lucid, all impurities are erased and water slaps the black sand with equanimity. The village proper gives onto a half-mile long wooden boardwalk that leads to a few houses at the end. I can’t know exactly which house is Hans’ nor do I have the language to ask, but somehow, it will become clear.
I step from the boardwalk onto the beach and keep walking. A lone Greenlandic woman approaches. Stupefied, I say only, Hans Holm? and she nods. I follow her. Mistakenly I had searched the bay for the biggest and most brightly painted house, but Hans is no colonial master. His is one of the smallest and most humble abodes.
The path to the house is strewn with uneaten bits of seal. Six puppies greet me, jumping up and searching my pockets for food. The house is painted mustard yellow and has about it the air of hippiedom: handmade skylight; unfinished additions; old, single-paned casement windows with white lace curtains. Hans and his two young children, Hendrick, 2, and Maria Louisa, 6, come to the door. When I apologize for arriving so late, he laughs and says, “It doesn’t matter,” and I know he means it. In an Arctic summer, the last thing anyone worries about is sleep.
The children shake my hand excitedly. They speak only Greenlandic. The woman who met me is introduced as Arnnannguaq, the mother of the children. The children tug at my sleeve as we step inside. They are small, raven-haired, dexterous. The interior is sparsely furnished. One big room has only a rug and a television. The kitchen is small and in one corner, cordoned off by a curtain, is the bed where Hans, Arnnannguaq, Maria Louisa, and Hendrick sleep all together, Greenlandic style. Am I to sleep there too? I wonder. There is no other bed.
“Would you like some toast?” Hans asks. “I remember the men at the American airbase at Sondre Stromfjord when I worked there in the fifties all liked to eat toast.” I gladly accept. Maria Louisa climbs onto the table, lifts the skylight and peppers the glass with muesli. “For the birds,” Hans tells me. “She likes to watch the snow buntings eat the cereal.”
It is the middle of the night-bright, sunny and cheerful, everyone wide awake. I look at the clock on the kitchen wall. It reads 12:14. Day or night? Regardless, it can’t be right. By now it must be 3:00 a.m. Hans chuckles. “That clock has been broken for ten years,” he says.
A fishing boat arrives and anchors out front. An Inuit couple jumps into a skiff, comes ashore, and knocks on the door. Without waiting for a reply, they burst in. They are friends of Arnnannguaq’s from Satut, a settlement at the head of Uummannaq Fjord. Their toothless grins indicate they’ve caught a seal and want to share it with us. It is the Inuit custom, Hans tells me.
Hans searches my face: “You look tired. You must lie down. It won’t bother anyone.” I have travelled five days to get here. Now all I can think of is sleep. He lays a dirty foam pad and comforter on the floor and I use my rucksack and jacket for a pillow.
From my mat on the floor I watch how cool sun floods the windows. For a moment, the light reminds me of death instead of life, of that glimpse of an illumined ceiling-the light at the end of the tunnel-which some say represents a primordial memory of creation. Nothing that august occurs to me now. I am only weary. Time is not a separate measurement. My body is time and it has been hurtled through space a long way.
Sun in the north lingers over the bright glaciers of Upernavik Island six miles across the water and lights the bleak palisade of dirt and rock that rises up behind the village. It is a revetment that girdles this village in deep Arctic seclusion, not hermetically, the way trees close in a place, but by its brazen exposure, sunlit and bold, as if the world had been turned skin-side out.
The sun makes its circle from the north, to the east, to the south, to the west on a smooth oval track. As icebergs groan and crack, I dream my waist has been broken and I am leaning: my shoulder tips, then my elbow. I spread out my hand to catch myself, but nothing helps. I shatter because I am made of ice and have seen that ice cannot break its own fall.
Laughter wakes me. Dazed, I look out the window. The seal has been dragged up on the beach on a piece of plywood. The two women, wearing rubber boots, cigarettes hanging from their lips, are sharpening knives. The woman from Satut who is built like a man wears her hair cut short. She holds her blade up to the sun until its honed edge glistens. Then she and Arnnannguaq bend over and begin skinning the dead animal.
One long cut from chin to back flippers and the hide breaks open glutted with white curds of fat. The woman from Satut cuts deeper and pulls something from the gapping cavity. It is the liver, still warm, steaming in the frigid, sunny, morning air. She holds the meat out straight between her teeth and her hand, and with the knife cuts off a piece, eats it, then cuts another piece for Arnnannguaq. They laugh because raw liver is such a delicacy, full of protein and vitamin C, and they were growing drunk from the taste and goodness of it.
I stumble out of the house toward them. They turn, knives glinting, their cheeks and chins covered with blood. Smiling, they offer me a piece of liver. I step forward tentatively, make a gesture meaning, just a small piece, chew and swallow as they watch delightedly. The rest of the seal is cut up and brought into the house, then dropped into two huge pots to boil.
The sun moving around the sky is a surrealist’s clock: making unreal what seems real, and delivering it to a truer reality. The sun’s clock does not give us a future, but burns each instant as it occurs. No clocks demark the passage of time. All time has passed; all time is occurring now. Squeezed slightly in the middle as if to give its round form a waist, the sun is a hole through which we slide with no stops; it is a percipience penetrating all alcoves, diverticulae, sand dunes, concavities, and all places of hiding.
I have ridden a fishing boat into a world of light, light with no darkness, no moon-lunacy, no giving over to ordinary night after the exhaustions of day. Here, the emanations of light give off more light and sun is a rolling torch on ball bearings, always igniting what it has oxidized.