Writer Gretel Ehrlich’s newest book This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland is a compelling travelogue of her journeys, beginning in 1993, to one of the world’s least-known places. After being struck by lightning (an experience she wrote about in her memoir A Match to the Heart) her journeys to Greenland were efforts to “get above tree line” where the latitude and altitude helped her to deal with her irregular heartbeats.
She describes her book as follows: “This Cold Heaven is a non-fiction narrative about the lives and history of the Inuit people who have lived in Greenland for almost five thousand years. The book is many things: a personal narrative of my time in Greenland, traveling with subsistence Inuit hunters, staying with Danish and Inuit friends in villages and towns, all gathered over a period of seven years. I have lived in Greenland in every season, during the dark time and have traveled on the ice during the bright, all night spring months. Interlaced with my modern narrative are excerpts from Knud Rasmussen’s [the Danish-Inuit explorer and ethnographer] expedition notes written between 1917 and 1924, in the hopes that the reader will come away with an idea of spiritual and material life of the Inuit hunter and villager before modernization.”
Ehrlich is a world traveler who lives in both California and Wyoming. She writes, fiction, nonfiction and poetry and essays and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Harpers, The Atlantic, Time, Life, Architectural Digest, Audubon, Tricycle and Outside Magazine, among other publications. In 2000 her National Geographic Adventure article on the Inuit of Greenland was nominated for a Feature Writing Award by the National Magazine Awards. Her books include The Solace of Open Spaces, Heart Mountain, Islands, The Universe, Home, A Match to The Heart, Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, A Blizzard Year: Timmy’s Almanac of the Seasons, and John Muir: Nature’s Visionary. Gretel Ehrlich was born in California and studied at Bennington College and UCLA film school. She was a filmmaker until 1978. She now divides her time between Wyoming and California.
Robert Birnbaum: You spend time in Wyoming?
Gretel Ehrlich: Yes, I lived there for 17 years solid. When I had the accident I was medevaced out of there. And so it was really my attempt [going to Greenland] to get back to something that felt the same way. Now, I’m okay.
RB: Any lingering after-effects?
GE: At 14,000 feet and above I get crushing chest pains. That’s really how it’s been. Except for that I feel great.
RB: How did you come to write this book, This Cold Heaven?
GE: Well, I was first sent there by Islands magazine. They couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go to Greenland, and I had been in the Arctic before. On the way over I met an Inuit couple on the airplane, from Baffin Island. They could speak English and they saw that I was reading Knud Rasmussen. They just started talking to me. By the time I got to Greenland they told me, “You can’t travel around by yourself. You have to come with us. We’ll take you to the real Greenland and go north and on dogsleds.”
RB: So how long was that first trip?
GE: I spent about a month there…
RB: And you were hooked?
GE: And I was hooked.
RB: Is there anyone in Greenland who doesn’t know or isn’t related to Knud Rasmussen?
GE: (laughs) Probably a couple of people. It’s a tiny population. Of course, there are people…but everywhere where you go there is somebody whose grandmother sewed for him or whose great uncle went with him. He went on seven big expeditions and then he was around a lot so everybody had something to do with him.
RB: How do you spend so much time in a place like Greenland and then return to a place so strikingly different?
GE: It’s painful. It’s hard. I feel a sorrow of pavement, the sorrow of everything that isn’t village life. I am a person caught between…I like…I like string quartets and I like bookstores. I just hate the physical reality of America, of what’s been paved over. And cars, speed and just a world…
RB: Will the Inuit culture survive?
GE: Yes, in Greenland it will.
RB: You mention places where you believe Greenpeace’s efforts are misdirected and pollution seems to be rampant…
GE: They’ve been living with that for a long time…
RB: The pollution?
GE: Yeah, sure, radiation and all kinds of stuff. They’ve been living with that since the’60s.
RB: What about the undermining of their subsistence hunting culture?
GE: I think they are going to survive — depending on global warming and stuff — because they have the political sophistication to fight for what they want. They are not just dumb guys who say, “Hey, we want to live this way.” They take the French helicopter down to Nuuk, the capitol and testify in front of Parliament and say we don’t want snowmobiles, we don’t want fishing boats in the summers where the narwhal calve. They’re really sophisticated. And they know why they want to keep their traditional culture. So they’re fighting. But it’s always a fight for everyone everywhere to keep anything that’s good. They’re fighting just as hard as we are in Wyoming to keep wild land from being drilled on. It’s the same thing for the same reason. I think that awareness will keep them going.
RB: The oldest continuously inhabited village is…
GE: The northern most…
RB: The northernmost continuously inhabited village is?
RB: How do we know it’s been continuously inhabited for 5000 years?
GE: The archaeologists give evidence. It’s just all there. There are places in Russia, in other places that are just seasonal villages where people go at various times to hunt and they stay there for a while, but Siorapaluk has been inhabited continuously.
RB: You describe one village as having 1400 people and 6000 dogs. I imagine that proportion is true for Greenland in general?
GE: Yes, it’s the only form of transportation except for the helicopters, which nobody can afford. Everyone has 10 to 20 dogs or more. Just do the math. That’s a lot of dogs.
RB: In following Rasmussen’s path west, there is a place where you fall in to the water…
GE: I’m not following Rasmussen’s path…
RB: Oh yes, Jens Danielson, the person you are traveling with was…the real question for me is that you were in a life-threatening situation…
GE: …it was…
RB: The subtlety of your presentation does not indicate you almost died…It’s clear you could have died. It seemed very grim…
GE: It wasn’t grim.
RB: It wasn’t? I don’t mean to appropriate your experience…Okay, how did it feel to almost die?
GE: (laughs) Let’s see, how did it feel? Well, it happened so quickly. It was kind of funny. I was so happy to be there and I felt that if I was going to die at least I was going to die in a place I loved and that’s beautiful.
RB: You weren’t afraid?
GE: Well, of course I was afraid — a little bit. Not the way I would be in an airplane that was going down. I had chosen to be there. I have almost died quite a few times.
RB: Is that incident an example of how you have integrated the Inuit view of life into your own view?
GE: It’s a way of looking at life that I think matches my own, in a way. You just take what the cards deal you every day. There’s no safety net, ever, whatever you do. So you just deal with it. It’s not that you don’t have fear. You just greet the fear instead of cowering or being afraid of the fear. I think that’s what most of us do. It was okay. And these guys are so great at what they do. I had complete confidence that everything that could be done…they were doing the right things, obviously. The dogs didn’t want to die…
RB: There was no surrender to this catastrophe…
GE: No, it wasn’t out of stupidity. You couldn’t be angry at the situation. The ice just gave in. It had been covered with snow. You couldn’t see it. It was just one of those things that happens. It’s different than in a situation where someone has behaved stupidly or frivolously and isn’t really taking things seriously. That makes me angry. I’ve been in situations — like in China — where people drive really badly for stupid reasons. That makes me mad. I don’t want my life to be toyed with or their lives to be toyed with. When it’s just something that happens then it’s kind of another opportunity for illumination, I guess. (chuckles) You think, “Oh well, this is…”
RB: Is there a large body of knowledge about the Inuit people? Is there an appropriate respect for that culture?
GE: (emphatically) No!
RB: Why is that?
GE: Now in Alaska and Canada it’s in such a state of disrepair. There are a few people — a lot of people in Alaska — that have done really good work. I don’t know. It’s a broken society…
RB: Theirs or ours?
GE: Theirs is because ours is. Stephenson and a few other people had been in the Arctic a hundred years ago before modernization. It’s Rasmussen who really gave us a full rich record about life [there]. He’s pretty much the only one. It’s hard to drop in there and study. Most people didn’t know how to drive dog sleds.
RB: You did point out the arrogance of the explorers who did “drop in” who didn’t bother to ask the indigenous people basic survival questions.
GE: Right! Like “What do you eat so you don’t get scurvy?” Hundreds and hundreds of people died up there. It’s outrageous. I don’t see how it didn’t occur to them.
RB: Does it seem like there is a disproportionate amount of attention paid to African tribes, Aborigines, native Americans?
GE: Because no one wants to go to the Arctic. They think it is so forbidding. It’s not at all. I think Africa is really forbidding — to me.
GE: It’s hot and there are all kinds of things that can kill you. Bugs and snakes and animals…tribal conflict and political unrest.
RB: But yet the picture you paint of Greenland is that life there is provisional. Any moment the weather changes, the ice…
GE: Right, but it’s provisional in a different way.
RB: Do you plan to return to Greenland regularly?
GE: I already have returned. I have friendships there that will be lifelong. I think I will always be involved there, somehow.
RB: How’s your command of the language?
GE: It’s really bad.
RB: How many words do you know?
GE: I know quite a few words, but I just don’t know how to put them together. I’m good at memorizing vocabulary but not too good at syntax. It’s a hard language, and I never had anyone to teach me properly. Wherever I was, I tried to get someone to teach me…
RB: Did you find it was necessary to speak the native language?
GE: It would have been helpful because very few people [there] speak English. I don’t speak Danish either. But on the dogsled — it’s like cowboying or any other physical work. Most of the communication is physical. Teamwork and being in this thing and doing things and watching what people do. In that sense it wouldn’t be like me coming here to talk to you and not having the same language. That would be impossible. There you are doing things together. It’s a different kind of experience.
RB: There is a fundamental root language and it has dialects?
GE: It’s the same language all the way across the polar north with different dialects.
RB: And did you find that Inuits are hospitable towards anyone who they meet?
GE: Yes. They are not hospitable, as an American would be. They are kind of reserved.
RB: In Rasmussen’s diaries and your account it seemed that when they encountered someone on the ice they were quite friendly.
GE: They are very patient with people. In a place were there’s very little population it’s always thrilling to see somebody, even if it’s somebody you just gawk at…it’s something to do, it’s comic relief.
RB: Were you writing This Cold Heaven while you were there?
GE: Yes, I often stayed in a village for weeks just writing.
RB: He [Rasmussen] made seven voyages. What was their duration?
GE: They are not exactly voyages. They were on dog sleds…
RB: What do you want to call them?
GE: Expeditions. They varied. The longest one was three and half years and the shortest one was a few months.
RB: Tell me about the effects of the long Arctic nights on one’s internal clock?
GE: In both the light and the dark everything seems to slide into a longer day. Unless you have a straight job you have no conventional sense of time. It doesn’t really matter when you get up and when you sleep, when you eat. We all noticed we ate dinner later and later everyday, get up later. So pretty soon you’d slid all the way around. There seems to be this bodily desire to have a longer day — a 26, 28 hour day — rather than 24. Which makes you wonder who came up with all these ideas on how things are structured…for whose convenience. I think the obvious things happen in the dark time. You sleep a lot, dream a lot. The dream time and the waking time seems to merge into one thing. You forget which is which.
RB: Because there are no obvious markers of time?
GE: And you sleep so much more. You dream more. And when you wake up you are filled with these memories. During the dark time I felt as if my mind came unanchored in a way that it doesn’t when it’s light. It’s like being in a dark theater. You stop making the usual connections. Your imagination works in different and alarming ways. In the light time you hardly sleep at all. I guess everybody suffers from sleep deprivation. You feel completely energized. Even when there was nothing to do. I would sit at the window of the house I stayed at one summer and just look out the window at the fjord outside and the icebergs drifting by, I’d sit there for hours…
RB: Are there clocks in public places?
GE: No. Yes, I suppose. In a town some people have jobs and they have to have a schedule. There is no puritanical overlay on it. If people get sleepy and want to sleep, it doesn’t matter what time of day or night. Nobody says, “Oh he’s taking a nap again.” You just lie down and you sleep. People walk over you. In the light time, when a cloud goes over and obscures the sun, everybody says, “Oh I’m feeling a little sleepy. I think I’ll take a nap.’ Just because there is a different light level. Children in village play all night long. Nobody cares, “Oh you have to go to bed at 9 0’clock and get this amount of sleep.” They just don’t care. They figure if you are tired you will sleep and if you aren’t, you won’t.
RB: Are there satellite dishes? How much contact is there with the rest of the world?
GE: They get radio. They have one TV station in Greenland. And has intermittent programming. They get the news from Denmark every night and the news from Nuuk, Capitol City of Greenland and then they’ll show one movie. And they have a couple of little local programs and then it goes off the air. They complain about that because they feel like people don’t visit each other as much and tell stories.
RB: Are the stories being recorded?
GE: Yes, in Danish.
RB: Are there movie theaters?
RB: Obviously, no Starbucks. What’s the most obvious thing that is not there?
GE: There’s not much to eat. It really depends where you are in Greenland. In Uummannaq, where I stayed quite a bit, it’s a pretty big town and it’s a pretty large grocery store. Danish food is flown. There are times when the shelves get a little more bare.
RB: Does food become a preoccupation in a subsistence economy?
GE: It’s never a preoccupation. They are really amazing about that. Discomfort of any kind just doesn’t seem to register. Nobody complains about anything, ever. I think it’s just not tolerated in their culture. Kids don’t learn to complain, so they don’t. They would just be laughed at if they complained.
RB: You point out that they, Inuits, never speak badly of other people in front of each other.
GE: They think we are terrible the way we talk about each other. They don’t criticize each other publicly. But on the other hand the way they teach children and each other is to laugh at each other. Which is different than saying bad things about each other. For example, if I got up and stumbled and fell down. You would laugh at me…in a kind way. I’ve seen them do that with children —I’ve seen a child be allowed to make a pretty bad mistake, a pretty dangerous mistake — like fall through a crack in the ice — and they don’t just run and get them and say, ” Oh darling are you okay?” They just let them struggle a little bit and they get them quietly. Because they know the child will remember and will not do it again. They laughed at me. They treated me like an aging child and let me do something stupid…
RB: But you always felt protected?
GE: Totally. It’s not an act of aggression. It’s an act of compassion.
RB: There’s no capitol punishment in the Inuit culture?
GE: No. There’s no prison in Greenland. If you do something bad you are sent to another village and watched over by everyone in the village. One family is paid to keep you at their house. Especially the women, they watch you day and night. You are watched day and night everywhere. In villages, because that’s what village life is. They always knew where I was and what I was doing and whom I was with and what time I went to bed. The moral structure is inclusive…the houses are right next to each other…you are living right in each other’s back pockets. Sometimes it seemed like paradise to live in a place like that. And other times it seemed like a prison. I tried to imagine what it was like to grow up there as a teenager.
RB: What’s it like if you know a wider larger world? You must have to work to quiet yourself down?
GE: Uh huh.
RB: Each time you went was it as easy to re-acclimatize…to get back into the pace?
GE: I come from a ranch in Wyoming where people don’t talk much…or have any sense of where I’ve come from…so it just all made sense to me. It was easy to live that way.
RB: You frequently mention people who have killed — one woman killed two husbands — what happens to them?
GE: She was just sent to a house in another village and looked after and made sure that she didn’t kill anyone else.
RB: How did they make sure?
GE: They are watching her all the time. A guy came over to ask her out on a date and the women said, “No, you don’t want to go out with her. She doesn’t like men.”
RB: Is there a specific syndrome called Arctic hysteria?
GE: Oh yes. It’s more difficult to identify now. In September and early October before the dark comes, the anticipation of that darkness seemed to make people just lose it. And also the dogs, sometimes. The way they dealt with it just seemed so compassionate. They would just let the person freak out but watch them to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves or anybody else — let them go through the whole cycle and then say, “You’re okay now.” Of course, that’s the blessing of a tiny society. You have small villages and so you can do that with each other.
RB: Does it have to do with size or a fundamental value that’s attributed to life there?
GE: You start armoring yourself when you have more complexity. It’s both, the size of the place and the way you live. In a place where life and death is just right there every day, people can be more tolerant of each other.
RB: Small-town America doesn’t seem to exhibit the same values of compassion and tolerance.
GE: Small-town America is still driven by a market economy. I lived on some really secluded ranches — maybe three families live there — and you see a difference.
RB: Are you a writer? Writer/Adventurer? Writer/Adventurer/Farmer?
GE: (laughs) Not farmer. I don’t plow. Anyway, how do I describe myself…I don’t know…?
RB: Have you been writing all your life?
GE: Uh huh…
RB: Do you intend to write for the rest of your life?
GE: Yes, and read. Sort of like Tom McGuane, a large amount of my time is spent outside. As large as possible. I don’t think I’m an adventurer but just a person who needs to sit on the ground a lot or just be outside. I need to actually feel in my body what it is I am describing. I can’t do it from the library.
RB: How do decide what to do next?
GE: I just kind of stumble around until something happens.
RB: You weren’t looking to write about Greenland. Somebody came to you…
GE: My whole life is pretty much like that. Otherwise it’s too business-like, “Oh I have this idea and I’m going to go…” Usually if you have an idea up front and you try to fill in the spaces, it’s a complete disaster. At least it has been in my life. I have to fall in love with a situation. Every book is part love affair, part university. So it’s a place in which you learn and contemplate and surrender to…
RB: Are you driven to some ideas more than others? I guess what I am trying to get at is whether you come up with the projects or…
GE: I’ve worked with the same editor for years and years…
RB: Dan Frank?
GE: Yes. So we just talk.
RB: So he says, “Do you want to write a book about ‘that’?”
GE: No, he just asks what I’m thinking about. And I go, “…I don’t know…” Eventually, I make some proposal to him…
RB: I seem to have asked the wrong questions here. You must have a very good relationship with your editor…
GE: He’s such a great person and he understands how my mind works. He knows how to draw things out. Sometimes we’ll just sit all day long in some restaurant in Manhattan and just drink and eat and talk until something comes out. He helps clarify it for me.
RB: That seems like the way it used to be. It’s kind of what editors did.
GE: That’s right. He’s in that tradition. Fortunately, I have a publisher who keeps publishing me even if all my books don’t pay out. Which, of course, they don’t. Some do, some don’t.
RB: What are you thinking about these days?
GE: I’m going to write a novel. I love writing fiction. I have some ideas that are floating around.
RB: Where do you go to do that?
GE: I don’t know. This is the first time…I’ve always written my books, mostly at home. I’m building a new house in Wyoming and I don’t just feel quite grounded anywhere at the moment.
GE: I wish I had an answer. I don’t know…I lost a lot of people associated with where I live. One to cancer, one to suicide…my parents died. All the reasons I was there. It seems like it’s time to go somewhere else.
RB: Is there a place in the world that draws you like Greenland did?
GE: Asia has always been a draw for me. I’ve been to Japan a lot. I just haven’t been there for a long time. I don’t know the answer to that question either. There is still a lot of the world I going to see…I’ve been traveling in Africa and South America. I’m just going to keep wandering.
RB: Do you teach?
GE: I’ve taught a little at Bennington. I don’t particularly like teaching writing. I taught in the English department because I like to get people to read…Great young people, smart and earnest and so eager to work hard. But less well read than we all were. I came to college with a lot of books under my belt. That just doesn’t happen in America. They hadn’t read all of Thoreau, Emerson and Montaigne. But when I gave it to them, they read eagerly. And understood it and loved it. It’s good to teach literature rather than writing. Anyone can write if you read. I mean, anyone can begin to write if that’s what he or she wants to do, at any time in their life. You’ve got to just read and read and read.
RB: Is teaching something you’d like to do more of?
GE: I like to do it on-and-off. I like an irregular life. I don’t even use the same tooth brush everyday. Everyday is completely new…because it is. I don’t have routines.
RB: You don’t get up at the same time everyday, have a cup of coffee, read a paper, go for a walk…
GE: No. Any routine I have has to do with animals that need to be fed. Of, course, I do that. But my own life is wildly unpredictable.
RB: You also live in California. Where?
GE: On the central coast.
RB: Is it as isolated as where you are in Wyoming?
GE: In California, you are always near a central freeway system. But it is isolated…nice and lonely.
RB: Do you have a telephone?
GE: Yes, I have a telephone.
RB: Do you use it?
GE: I like telephones. Electricity I can live without, but not telephones.
RB: Early in This Cold Heaven you quote, “All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man in the great solitudes and it can only be attained through suffering. Suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind of man to that which is hidden from his fellows.” Does that characterize Inuit life?
GE: No. It’s a shamanic ideal. Normal Inuit life is group life. As Iluxit said, “We all we want to be different we carry our differences inside.” Because the only way to survive in that environment is to work together. It was a quote from a young shaman-in-training. But it’s the same protocol for everybody who has a kind of spiritual destiny — that you have to be alone. Suffering can be all kinds of things. I think that’s involved in any kind of spiritual evolution. People went out on the ice and fasted and did all the usual things that you did to become shamans. That was the thought of a special person in society.
RB: Is a shaman an exalted person in Inuit culture?
GE: No, there is no shamanic tradition anymore. It was sent underground by the dear Lutherans who came over from Scandinavia. They brought many good things but that was the worst thing.
RB: You still feel that because they are smart and strong that Inuit culture will survive, not be subjugated by the larger culture and economic forces?
GE: I think it’s going to be a fight. But I think there are enough of them who haven’t been co-opted by the material empires of the west. They love their life. They are proud of who they are. They love nothing better than to go out with their dogs on the ice. That’s pretty strong.
RB: Is there any record of how many Europeans ‘go native’? Like Rasmussen?
GE: He was part Inuit. I don’t know.
RB: Is this a life that you could adopt?
GE: Not now, but I could have. Maybe if I had gone there in my twenties. The ice is complicated, so it’s not just something you jump into. Very few people make with the same level of proficiency that the Inuit people do — that Japanese mountain climber Ikuo Oshima and of course, Rasmussen and Freuchen. Very few of the Danes that go there even have dog sleds. Some do. They’re not very good at it. They get around. It’s kind of touch and go. Usually they are doctors and teachers. And they go out with the hunters …it’s hard to do it right and not kill your dogs and not kill yourself. There’s an Inuit guy, Ole Jorgen who came from the south of Greenland and is learning to be a hunter. And it’s hard for him.
RB: What kind of connection do you have to Greenland now?
GE: I think I’ll always visit. It’s expensive, so you just don’t jump on a plane like going to Italy. The first call I had after Sept. 11 was from my friends in Greenland. We talk all the time on the phone. They come to visit me in California…
RB: What’s it like for them?
GE: They are astonished here. They can’t believe that flowers grow in the middle of winter. We barbecue and go off to the beach. They love it. They usually come in the winter. They can’t stand the heat. But yeah, I’ll always visit as long as they’ll have me. They may not have me after they read this book. It’s being translated into Danish.
GE: Oh I don’t know. But you always worry. It’s hard to write about people. The two people who figure prominently here have already read it. They’re still calling and talking to me. But you never know. I tried to celebrate peoples’ lives — not in a Pollyanna way — to write about what I see as valuable about a culture that we might learn from.
RB: Will we?
GE: Oh who knows? Do we learn anything? But we can keep trying. It’s a little discouraging at this point. I guess that what drives me to looking into other peoples’ cultures. I suppose always with the idea of bettering one’s own.
RB: Well, thank you.
GE: Thank you.