What is life without all its trappings? That's the question Gretel Ehrlich seems to be pursuing in her fascinating new book This Cold Heaven, a collection of reminiscences about Greenland. Starting in 1993, Ehrlich made several trips to the continent a place where life is stripped down to its essentials and experienced each of its seasons: four months of constant darkness and four months of perpetual daylight with periods of twilight in between. She encountered native culture firsthand, traveling across vast, ice-locked stretches of land by dogsled. Like the natives, she learned to love dogs, the rough pleasures of sled travel, even the sunless arctic winters. Though Danish explorers partly colonized Greenland and intermarried with the indigenous Inuit, the hazardous and lean arctic way of life has largely protected the island from change. It is much as it was centuries ago. Success is still measured by having enough to eat during the winter and by keeping one's children alive. Ehrlich punctuates her own journal with amusing vignettes from the life story of Inuit-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen.
A man of undaunted energy, Rasmussen sledded, danced and hunted with the Inuit during the early years of the 20th century, collecting and recording the stories of the natives. You might think the arctic a lonely place, but it was hardly so for Rasmussen, a sort of Danish Will Rogers who never met an Eskimo he didn't like. Like Rasmussen, Ehrlich threw herself on the mercy of Greenlanders during her travels, sleeping on their floors and communicating with sign language when she could find no one to interpret. She met and profiled a surprising number of people who came from more "civilized" parts of the world, but who had been seduced by the long arctic winter nights and unbroken summer days, by a simpler, rawer life. Ehrlich is intrigued with Inuit folklore, and her retelling of these tales is perhaps the most moving element in the book. In beautifully poetic prose, she offers wonderful insight into unfamiliar territory an obscure country composed mainly of ice, where whales and walruses are still hunted with harpoons. Author of the national bestseller A Match to the Heart, Ehrlich has written a memorable book that should solidify her reputation as one of our most accomplished nature writers.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.