From the preface of This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich:
…I was on hands and knees on a lateral moraine caressing alpine fescue and sniffing dwarf harbells while icebergs, big as warehouses, drifted by. Glistening white, they were the photographic negatives of Greenland’s black mountain fringe. (p. xi)
It took me awhile to read This Cold Heaven, mostly because it is too beautiful to read quickly. I sat here at my desk for awhile trying to figure out how I wanted to describe Ehrlich’s writing. Then I googled her and now have stolen a perfect descriptive sentence from Wikipedia. “Her characteristic style of merging intense, vivid factual observations of nature with a wryly mystical personal voice is evident….”
Ehrlich is described as a travel writer, poet and essayist; she’s from Wyoming and began most of her Greenland travels after spending two years recovering from being struck by lightning. Of course all of this is woven through this book so elegantly and lyrically that you want it never to end.
Most of Ehrlich’s time is spent in northern Greenland—where we will not go on this summer’s adventure unfortunately. I use the word unfortunately advisedly since I can’t remember a time when I actually wanted to ride a dog sled up and over all manner of frozen landscape for days on end surviving on frozen or cooked chunks of seal, auks and whatever else might be shot that day. I’ll only describe one foodie tidbit: “Two younger men were making kivioq: burying whole skinned seals stuffed with auks under mounds of rock. ‘We bury them now, guts and all, and come back in July to eat them. You should be here then. Eating kivioq is like eating candy?’ ” (p. 187)
Ehrlich is out on the ice trails in full Inuit hunter travel-mode several times in her seven trips to Greenland. She also spends substantial time in various villages in conditions that range from unheated cabins with the toilet bucket in the corner to sharing rooms with 10 or more living breathing human beings—also with a toilet bucket in the corner. She notes the grim facts of Inuit life as well as the hardiness, bravery, and kindness.
But mostly she dwells on the land and its ice: “rime frost, freshwater ice, sea ice, thin ice, ice on the inside of the tent, pack ice, new ice, a smooth expanse of ice, the ice edge, solid ice attached to the shore, hummocky ice, pressure ridges, pieces of floating ice, icebergs in the water, melting ice…” (p. 142)
Ehrlich is nothing if not poetic–she does not describe so much as pay tribute to the magical qualities of this land with which she is forever awestruck.”Ice mountains and mountains of rock slid by, or did we slide by them: Does slowness times snow equal distance? The whole world was a moon waxing and waning with a fluctuating tide eating the underside of the ice…Was this the end of the world or the beginning, or was it something after and before those two things? We feasted on ice, on sunless days and sun-gorged nights, perched on an ephemeral floor. There was no center, only fringe and more fringe, and there were no constants…gliding back and forth under us.” (pp. 169-170)
One of the many things that makes this book historically important is Ehrlich’s weaving of the famed Inuit-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s tales with her own. She followed his paths in many cases, explored the very ice upon which he had trod so to speak. Apparently she has closely studied his journals which makes for a doubly good adventure story as well as adding a whole new cast of characters to the Inuit and Danish people she met, made friends with and in many cases learned to love along the way.
Even though most of Ehrlich’s time is spent much farther north than we will venture in July, I believe my experience of Greenland in a very small area and moment in time will insist that I read this wonderful book again when I return.
Remember though, you don’t have to be going to Greenland to read This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. If you have a spark of adventure in your soul, go on these journeys with Gretal Ehrlich. I promise…In some small way you will be changed.
Images are from ArcticFriend website. They are the company we’re working with for the Greenland trip.