For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.
Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.” This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.
From the acclaimed chronicler of open spaces, Gretel Ehrlich, comes a stunning and lyrical evocation of a practically unknown place and people. Beginning in 1993, Ehrlich traveled to Greenland, the northernmost country in the world, in every season--the four months of perpetual dark (in which the average temperature is 25 degrees below zero), the four months of constant daylight, and the twilight seasons in between--traveling up the west coast, often by dogsled, and befriending the resilient and generous Inuits along the way. Greenland, unlike its name, is 95 percent ice--a landscape of deep rock-walled fjords, glaciers, narwhal whales swimming among icebergs the size of football fields, walruses busting through oceans of shifting ice. In the far north, the polar Inuit--the "real heroes"--still dress in bear and seal skins, and hunt walrus, polar bears, and whales with harpoons. The only constant is weather and the perilous movements of ice, the only transport is dogsled, and the closest village may be a month and a half-long dogsled journey away. The people share an austere and harsh life, lightened with humor and the fantastic stories of Sila, the god of weather, Nerrivik, the goddess of waters, of humans transforming themselves into animals, and interspecies marriages. Interwoven with Ehrlich's journey is the even more remarkable story of Knud Rasmussen, the founder of Eskimology, an Inuit-Danish explorer and ethnographer who took some of the most hazardous and brilliant expeditions ever, including a three and a half-year, 20,000-mile adventure by dogsled across the polar north to Alaska. Like Rasmussen, Ehrlich learns that the landscape of Greenland is "less a description of desolation than an ode to the beauty of impermanence." Alternately mind-expanding, gripping, and dreamlike, This Cold Heaven is a revelation. --Lesley Reed