This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

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9780007291908: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland


For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the men and women who long for and love the complex frailties and treacherous beauty of a world defined by ice.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, 840,000 square miles in extent, is covered by the largest continental ice sheet in the world.

Only the rocky fringe of its coast is habitable. There, the Inuit, the Arctic’s first explorers, have survived and thrived in the harshest of climates. For the Inuit, an ice-age, ice-adapted people who first traveled from Siberia across the polar North six thousand years ago, weather is consciousness. In a world composed of ice and darkness, water and light, where skins of dog, seal, bear, even hare and eider duck, are sewn into clothes, tents, and sleeping bags as protection, where transport is by dogsled and kayak, the only rein for the uncontrollable force of weather is an unbending self-discipline. The blend of physical endurance and psychological perseverance required for daily existence first drew Ehrlich to this terrain.

Her guide, her inspiration, her companion in spirit was the great Danish-Inuit explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen. Between 1902 and his death in 1933 he launched seven expeditions: to record the unknown history and customs of the nomadic Eskimos; to chronicle the skills, beliefs,and crafts that made life in this climate possible and a matter of grace. For Rasmussen, “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.” As she followed his trail, Ehrlich was to find the things that can open the mind to what is hidden from others. This Cold Heaven is at once a distillation of her many journeys, a path into a world divided into darkness and light and, finally, an attempt to capture the clarity that blinds us with surprise.

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Review:

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

From the Back Cover:

"Enigmatic and exuberant, Gretel Erhlich captures, if any seer and poet can, the hunt for beauty, the rapture of a foreboding landscape where man, polar bear, shaman, seal, dog, walrus, and narwhale entwine inseparably in a fragile, yet enduring embrace of timelessness on a planet spinning between ice-filled water and infinite space. Without a doubt, one of the finest books ever written about the polar regions."
--Wade Davis, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society

"This strange and lovely book-- by turns travelogue, history, biography, memoir, and lyrical celebration-- beautifully captures the feel of the high Arctic and the lives of those who have lived and explored there. Reaching across the decades, Ehrlich has found in Rasmussen a kindred soul."
-Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal

"Combining timidity, foolhardiness, tenacity, erudition and poetry, Gretel Ehrlich's is a superb voice for the miracle of Greenland. No one who reads this wonderful book will ever forget these singular people or the austerities of the land they inhabit."
-Thomas McGuane, author of The Longest Silence

"I'd always thought of Greenland as a hunk of mostly inhabited ice somewhere vaguely north. Not anymore. Gretel Ehrlich brings the people, the place, the ice itself alive in ways as vivid and startling as if she'd gone to another planet. In that cold landscape she finds real heat, the slush and juice of life fully lived amid terrifying extremes. She follows her nose for adventure to an edge most of us can barely imagine; read This Cold Heaven and go with her."
-Joe Kane, author of Crossing the Amazon

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