I’ve explored Ultima Thule from top to bottom without even leaving my couch. Books books books. I sometimes think, when I read a lot before a trip, that the actual going there is almost anticlimactic.
Last week I wrote about Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven and her dreamy imagery and her love for this often brutal mostly-frozen place called Greenland. What was most appealing to me about This Cold Heaven and the following book is that they’re written by women, not adventurers in the sense of experiencing extraordinary hardship and near-death to discover new places, but rather women who are brave and curious and set out by themselves to experience the less explored places and cultures of the world.
While Ehrlich’s book focuses entirely on Greenland, Joanna Kavenna in The Ice Museum is obsessed with the idea of Ultima Thule. Her scope is broad and includes most of the world’s ice kingdoms—the Shetlands, Norway, Iceland, Greenland— she was forever reading, researching, investigating and endlessly interviewing northerners of all stripes.
I first read Kavenna’s book about the time the idea of going to every-country-in-the-world-before-I die was worming its way into my brain. Therefore even though Greenland is not officially its own country but a partially independent territory of Denmark, I added it to my list. How can one not want to go to a place called “Ultima Thule”—the phrase originally used in medieval geographies to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.”
…Only the past is immortal.
Decide to take a trip, read books of travel
Go quickly! Even Socrates is mortal
Mention the name of happiness: It is
Atlantis, Ultima Thule, or the Limelight,
Cathay or Heaven. But go quickly…
(“Personae,” Delmore Schwartz)
The Ice Museum is described as part travel literature, part detective story and it is certainly that. Kavenna digs into aspects of the concept of Ultima Thule that would not have occurred to many: She traces its history through early geographers, writers, explorers and notes how the borders of Ultima Thule contract as each new discovery is made, from Northern Europe to Iceland and eventually to Greenland. She visits the effects of WW2 and the Cold War on these outposts, and even investigates a Nazi-based Thule Society.
At the heart of her research and travel is this:
I was traveling through northern lands, compelled by the endless indeterminacy of a myth: the land of Thule—the most northerly place in the ancient world. Before the regions north of Britain were mapped, there was a dream of a silent place, where the inhabitants lived under darkened skies through the winter, and enjoyed constant sunshine in the summer. A land near a frozen ocean, draped in mist. Thule was seen once, described in opaque prose, and never identified with any certainty again. It became a mystery land. Standing by a cold sea. A land at the edge of the maps. (p.2)
My favorite books of all are books by explorers who take us around and about in that bigger world in all its times and turmoils, and who combine fact and experience and enticing language when they tell us their stories.
Kavenna is one of those explorers. I just reread the chapter on Greenland and rather than paraphrase, I’ll let her share just a passage or two about its history.
The human history of Greenland was a series of faint voices, drowned out by the winds, a few ragged settlers struggling to hunt, stumbling across the ice-plains. At some stage in the deep past, a few Inuit came from Canada, dwindling or retreating through the years, to return again centuries later.
Greenland … defeated the Vikings altogether, though they struggled to live there for a few centuries. In the tenth century the Vikings had arrived, led by Erik the Red. Erik found there were animals for hunting—walrus, whales, reindeer—as well as fish, and fertile pastureland onshore. Erik sailed back to Iceland, with news of the fertile land beyond the ice sea. He called the land Greenland, in a conspicuous piece of euphemism, thinking an attractive name would make people sail there…[however] by the fifteenth century they disappeared; their settlements were abandoned. (pp. 240-41)
Kavenna travels by ship up the coast through a stormy darkness that gives her time to dwell on the fantasies and mythologies of both the early explorers and contemporary Inuit just as Ehrlich so lyrically did in her ‘seven seasons’ in Greenland. Kavenna also experiences the leftover might of Thule AFB, Americans still there scanning the skies for the enemy. She takes a clear look at some of the less pleasant aspects of Native life in the little god-forsaken villages along the way. More about that in the next chapter but here’s one scene.
After a few days of empty coast, there was another small town spreading up the hillsides, with a runway carved out on the flattened mountaintop. A pile of rubbish was burning by the shore; smoke drifted across the beach. The children clustered around a football match, near the kiosk which has a sign saying THIS WAY FOR BEER in Danish. The dogs whined and dragged at their chains, sniffing through the dirt. Outside the houses, objects were strewn across the grass—outboard motors, clothes, boxes, metal parts, fishing nets, boots, kayaks, rowing boats, and then the rubbish, the piles of discarded plastic bags and bottles, hurled at random across the rocks, the brand-labels garish against the grey and green of the moss-rocks.
All of the literature mixes these scenes of village squalor in with the romantic images of gleaming glaciers and icebergs of heavenly proportions. There’s a good chance that as the population has adapted to the contemporary world some of this has changed; there’s also the chance given the serious issues of joblessness and alcoholism faced by Greenlanders today that it hasn’t.
But here’s a perhaps slightly-overwrought poem that makes anything besides the grandeur and drama seem petty. Kavenna opens the Greenland chapter with it.
North! North into the whirlwind! North to the mocking gale!
Toward the lash of the driven snowflakes where the scourged sea-dog quail! …
Saw he no ruby towers? Longed not for the softer land?
Aye! But a tenser power gripped and directed his hand!
But rather to go where others have not, to conquer where all have lost,
To battle the frenzied hurricane while hope is a naked ghost.
Such is the power that drives him into the torturing gale;
This is the rugged goal, this the desired grail!
(“Ultima Thule,” Thomas Caldecot Chubb [1899-1972)