This Cold Heaven (Greenland)

book coverby Gretel Ehrlich

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This author is enamoured of all the things I hate…darkness, winter, cold, ice, snow. Perhaps understandable, given the fact that she’s been struck by lightning twice on her hot, dry Montana ranch in the summer, 8 years apart. After a hunting trip with the Greenlanders, she is nauseated by the smell of grass, and the return of the sunlight gives her a migraine. (I get depressed when there isn’t enough sunlight, and I love gardening–though not grass in particular.)

Anyway, some more differences between Gretel and me: She joyfully partakes of raw seal liver with her Greenlander hosts (I would like to become a vegetarian.) Gretel is overstimulated by returning to the small villages, wanting to be alone, while I’m a big city girl. She thinks idly about having the baby of a Japanese man who lives in the Arctic, while I lived in Japan and would never consider such a thing due to the inherent chauvinism of most of the men in that culture…I could go on and on! But sometimes, reading about our polar opposite (pardon the pun) can be good for us. It was on Facebook recently that we should read books we don’t like (so it must be true).

Arctic CircleHowever. Despite having ENORMOUS value judgements about  this author, I still enjoyed the book. Gretel Ehrlich is a great writer. Her descriptions of the snow and ice, fueled by her passion for it, are a joy to read. I wouldn’t be able to create even a paragraph–how much can you say about snow? Well, she can. Every formation is different in their moods, their subtle colors of pink and blue and yellow (I must be snow blind ‘cuz they all look white to me!)

The Arctic. No other place on Earth is like it. The people have lived in the same way, with the same customs, for thousands of years. The Eskimo culture is as old as the culture of China. When you look at a flat Mercator map, you don’t realize, as I didn’t, how connected the Arctic is. Because it’s a CIRCLE. Mercator disconnects it. When I pulled up a map of just the top of the world on the Internet, I understood why the Eskimos speak the same language in Canada, in Greenland, and in Alaska. Because their people have walked the circle, on foot, with dogs, since before there were nations as such.

The Dogs, the Dogs

I love animals more than I love people, and I won’t apologize for that. Eskimo culture is a hunting culture, and whEskimo dogsledile I know that they had to do it to survive in centuries gone by, I still had a lot of trouble reading about the modern-day killing of seals, whales, narwhals, polar bears, rabbits, terns, foxes etc. And then there was the treatment of the dogs. On just about every other page there was something that made me wince. To be fair, Gretel wasn’t entirely comfortable with it either, but she went along with it.

Dogs and dogsleds are vital to the Eskimo culture in Greenland. In Canada, they have been replaced with snowmobiles, and while I couldn’t help thinking good…even while I deplored that this change is slowly and insidiously destroying the Eskimo culture there.

Northern LightsAnyway, the Greenlander relationship with their dogs is complicated. The dogs on the sled team are fed first, before the humans. If that means the humans don’t eat, then they don’t eat. It’s more important to keep the dogs in good condition. However, even if meat is plentiful, the Eskimos only feed the dogs every two or three days on the theory that this way, they’ll be used to times when there is no food to eat. So the dogs are always hungry. The Eskimos say they love their dogs, but they’re prepared to eat them if they have to.

I, on the other hand, would rather die. In the Buddhist Asian tradition, all sentient life is equally valuable. On the other hand, I’m SURE the Buddha would not be judging these people the way that I am. I just can’t help it. I want the Eskimos to stop hunting and grow vegetables and love their dogs as themselves. Just as I wanted the Japanese to stop whale hunting, which they insist is their ancestral right. If it harms animals, and you don’t HAVE to do it to live in these modern times, then why?

A Word About the Word Eskimo

Houses in greenlandAt first, having worked for a Native American-owned company here in Spokane, I was shocked by Gretel’s use of the word Eskimo. This word was widely perceived as pejorative in the 1970s when I was growing up. The connotations were kind of “dirty savage”. The word may have come, Gretel says, from the French Esquimaux, which describes the precise bindings that the people would use on their mukluks.

At my old company, the preferred term for the native peoples of the U.S. is AI/AN…American Indian/Alaska Native. In Canada it is First Nations. But Gretel says the Greenlanders themselves often call themselves Eskimo, and I know Greenland has a different and less harsh history of colonization than the U.S. does, which is why I decided to go ahead and use the word, sparingly. As she does.

Greenland ice canyonGreenland was colonized by the relatively enlightened and socialistic Danes, rather than English-speakers, although the missionaries caused the usual problems, insisting that the indigenous people stop living all together in longhouses as umiak crews and live separately as nuclear families. (An umiak is like a big kayak with oars instead of paddles and it takes from 6 to 30 people to row.) The missionaries also made them move into wooden houses instead of their traditional sod huts. (Why? Wood has to be imported from Denmark, because Greenland has no trees. Talk about carbon footprint.) Something else that shocked the missionaries was the sex parties that the Greenlanders would have, where everyone gathers in one house, gets naked, they douse the blubber lantern, and you end up with whoever you end up with in the dark. I guess those months of total darkness are LONG and BORING! Ha ha ha.

A Word About Climate Change

BBC photo of vanishing Greenland iceGuys, the ice that the Eskimos need to drive their dogsleds over needs to be hard and fast, so the hunters and the dogs don’t fall into open water and drown. They call these gaps in the hard ice “drowning fields.” Scary! BUT, the polar ice caps are melting. There is less ice and more water. This is nothing less than a disaster for the native people up there, AND for us as well. There are bad microbes in the ice in Greenland that have been inactive for hundreds of thousands of years, but because of climate change, they’re waking up. We need to do what we can to stop it.

All in all, this is a superbly written book about a vanishing/changing culture that is so ancient it boggles the mind. The Greenlander culture deserves attention. They deserve to be able to preserve their way of life as much as possible (although I am glad that in times of famine, helicopters now drop off food supplies, and modern medicine is available.) Read this book. You won’t be able to put it down, although if you’re an animal lover, you may have to skip a few pages.

Rating: Five icebergs calving.

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