The wide expanse of Greenland offers perspective. Cold and stark, vast and relentless, the ice and rocks render the observer smaller than small, the tiniest thing, nothing at all. The land couldn’t care less about politics, philosophy, rights or beliefs, nor even global warming or nuclear annihilation. It does not listen nor offer thoughtful looks. It gives no comfort nor acknowledgement. It will be here long after humanity has run its fretful cycle, long after the next bacteria has had its day. Everything means nothing, nothing everything. And as much vertigo and agoraphobia as this might inspire, it is a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter what is thought, what is screamed; it will remain, silent, deaf and indifferent. And there’s peace to be found in that.
Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), an enigmatic artist from New York, spent an extraordinary year painting on a remote island in Greenland in 1931-32 and went on to write a book about his experience, Salamina. We went to see the country; I, to paint. (266) Painting; painting incessantly. Pursuing beauty in bewilderment at its profusion, greedy to get in one short year the whole of what might thrill a man a lifetime. (315) Let all your dreams have been of warmth and tropical luxuriance; let what at last is given you be bare, bleak, cold, in every way unlike your thoughts of earthly paradise, your chameleon soul cries out, “By God, I love this barrenness!” (22) One may speculate – I often do – on what we need, what human beings need, to be contented. On whether books and ark, or work, or leisure, or fresh air, or so many pounds per week of potatoes, oatmeal, meat, or love; what do we need? It would be good to know. (161) The beauty of those Northern winter days is more remote and passionless, more nearly absolute, than any other beauty that I know. Blue sky, white world, and the golden light of the sun to rune the whiteness to the sun-illumined blue. (197)
We hiked along the Ilulissat Ice Fjord Trail on our third day in Greenland. We wanted to go down to a bay but were warned away. I considered this perhaps an overstatement – after all there were no glaciers here and thus no real sense of danger as that captured in this well-known Greenland tsunami video – but we nonetheless heeded the posting and continued along the ridge. A small trail then led down to a secluded cove filled with fantastically delicate forms. We couldn’t resist that. I broke off a piece and tasted the frozen water – cold and clean, a tad salty – and then we climbed a small cliff.
We hadn’t even time to sit when the water suddenly surged – not a tsunami, but a swell of several feet – and crushed everything we had just photographed. (The end of which I caught on video.)It remained silent throughout – except for the swirling water and ice – as the force that could have dragged us out into the cold washed back and forth and slowly abated. We sat and thought about that.
The biggest problem with tourism in Greenland is the price. A return flight from Reykjavik is over $1300, day trips average around $250 per person and accommodations are in that same range.Even the hostels are expensive ($60-75 per night) as are food and drink. The fallout is that the silence and beauty is only for those who can afford it, most of whom are white, old and rich, or WORs. While many of these people come across as adventurous and young at heart, there is a disheartening proprietorial sense, the 1% surveying the stunning ice-scapes as their exclusive right. All of which acts as a reminder for exactly why this planet is going to hell.
Although today’s tourists are well schooled on not leaving their trash behind, it certainly wasn’t the pattern of the past. Paul-Emile Victor led a number of scientific expeditions from the Eqi Glacier Polar Camp in 1947-51, during which he determined that Greenland was in fact composed of three separate islands, all hidden under the ice.Over the years, he and his colleagues left behind many reminders of their presence, including oil drums… sled tracks… other detritus…and of course the shed…now filled with graffiti of who has been there since.
80% of Greenland is covered by snow and ice. It is a mass so big that, if it were to melt, the oceans worldwide would rise seven meters, drowning many coastlines, while Greenland would actually rise. Ilulissat is on the west coast where many glaciers and ice flows meet the ocean, including the Ilulissat Ice Fjord and Eqi Glacier, both of which are major tourist attractions due to the melting ice. The Ilulissat Ice Fjord is densely packed with icebergs, moving gradually out to sea at a rate of 19 meters per day, producing 35 cubic kilometers of ice every year. It takes almost three hours to pass through the maze of ice by boat – a distance of 5 kilometers. The Eqi Glacier, which is retreating a rate of 15 meters per year, meets the ocean directly, with massive sheets and chunks of ice dramatically calving into the ocean several times every hour. It is a remarkable and sobering event to witness, the sound of which is reminiscent of approaching thunder or a massive door being slammed shut in an empty room.
Ilulissat, a town of 4500 people, is the hub for tourism in Greenland; it sits at 69 degrees north, 120 miles above the Arctic Circle.The tourists come to see the icebergs which surround Ilusissat in the summer months. English isn’t commonly understood, although the youth appear to know a word or two. There is a stark aspect to the town – water piping strapped to exposed bedrock, sled dogs tied up everywhere and a dusty sports field at the center. However it’s the surrounding ice and the light that draw all of the attention.
I was in the cold and bright of the far north over the past two weeks; instead of computer and ipod, I was consumed by constant daylight and the sound of ice collapsing into the sea.
It took time to accept that my electronic feed was gone and there was nothing else but the cold world all around.
Luis Bunuel wrote in his autobiography My Last Sigh, “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths.” Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen reflected in his journals from the Fifth Thule Expedition, “Here on this lonely spit of land, weary men had toiled along the last stage of their mortal journey. Their tracks are not effaced, as long as others live to follow and carry them farther; their work lives as long as any region of the globe remains for men to find and conquer.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “A geographer is too important to go wandering about. He never leaves his study. But he receives the explorers there. He questions them, and he writes down what they remember. And if the memories of one of the explorers seems interesting to him, then the geographer conducts an inquiry into that explorer’s moral character.” And finally Italo Svevo offered these musings from Zeno’s Conscience: “Simply, I believed I had made an important scientific discovery. I thought I had been called upon to complete the whole theory of psychological colors. My predecessors, Goethe and Schopenhauer, had never imagined what could have been achieved by deftly handling complementary colors.” “I should say that I spent my time sprawled on the sofa opposite my study window, from which I had a view of a stretch of sea and horizon.”