By Jemma Neville
My three-year-old niece Aoife likes to play Eskimo kisses, rubbing our rosy noses side to side, then giggling in anticipation of me doing the same because she understands that this is an intimate and entirely appropriate gesture of affection between us. The Eskimos, or Inuit, in child’s play and cartoons of squeaking penguins, appear as simple, fur-clad nomads that sleep in igloos and spend their days ice-fishing.
On my first night in Tasiilaq (fjord like a lake), Eastern Greenland, a semi-circle of local Inuit children pushed one another forward in fixated, but near silent, reverence to get closer to the completely silent polar bear. Like the battered bow of the hunter's wooden fishing boat, the bear’s bloodied nose pointed nobly up towards the northern sky. I watched as the great hulk of fur, bone and magic was dragged across the thinning ice of the fjord and hauled ashore outside the town pizzeria.
I’d never before been hand to paw with a polar bear, alive or dead, but from images I’d seen in climate change campaigns of mournful bears stranded on melting icebergs, or the stultified gaze of foreign inmates in zoos, this bear looked bigger than a cub but not the full size of a mature adult. A few minutes after the hunters had tied up their dingy and removed rifles from backs, a man with a forklift truck from a nearby construction site arrived to scoop up the mass that was formerly a bear, as another might tidy away the debris of a fallen tree after a storm. Within hours, the meat had been apportioned among families, the skull and bones stored for carving into traditional tupilak figurines, and the brain fed to the hunters’ Greenlandic dogs as a special treat. Walking to my new home under the fat, Pink Moon of April later that night, I noticed the skinned pelt of an adolescent polar bear draped across a porch balcony, drying in the cooling Arctic air.
I visited with eight counterparts from cultural organisations across the western Nordic region - the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Denmark, Orkney and Shetland - for a week-long study visit to learn about voluntary arts activity in sparsely populated, remote communities - places and people on the edge.
Greenland is the world’s largest island and its ice comprises over 10% of the total water on Earth. Only a smattering of coastal shores are now inhabited after repeated attempts throughout human history at surviving in the frontier settlements. Tasiilaq has a growing population of about 2,000 and is reached by helicopter or boat, when weather conditions permit. The Inuit trace their ancestry back to a fifth wave of migration from Mongolia and today must negotiate an uncomfortable relationship with former colonisers in Copenhagen as part of the Danish Kingdom. Tasiilaq is nearly 500 miles east of the capital, Nuuk (population 16,000), yet despite the distance and the use of a different dialect, it is in the same local authority area.
The pop-coloured houses of Tasiilaq were built with Danish investment from 1980 onward and replaced traditional turf homes constructed with whale bone and seal skins. Our host, Carl-Erik, a Danish museum director, showed us the remains of some of these turf houses that he is painstakingly trying to restore with the help, and gentle persuasion, of local volunteers. The new houses, made from shipping container corrugated iron and imported wood, resemble giant lego-blocks that have been clicked neatly into place as part of a toy town set. The uniform shades of iron red, cobalt blue, mustard yellow and lime green imprint the snowy backdrop like wax crayons pressed against a piece of white card. Carl-Erik explained that the colours formerly denoted the different functions of buildings. Blue, for example, is for utilities such as the power station or maritime industry. Yellow is recognisable as the colour for the hospital and other essential public services.
I’m feeling my own edges. On the flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kulusuk, Eastern Greenland, and then onto Tasiilaq by small helicopter, great expanses of shape-shifting ice, sea, and mountains unfurled below - a landscape both utterly beautiful and terrifying in its duality of geological strength and vulnerability to change. Chunks of menacing iceberg lazily slip and slide into the ocean like cubes popped from a rubber tray, deliciously clinking against the side of a pint glass on a spring day. Then, when the sun sets and night-time temperatures plummet, the ice cubes reform anew in a solid, elemental state back into the living, polar freezer.
For land-dwellers, the robed exterior of these falsely modest statues appear like the layers of wedding cake icing left to harden in the fresh air, then cracking when tapped by an unseen hand. Instead of soft, squidgy marzipan, the white cladding gives way to obscenely aquamarine water and imagined encounters with almost mythical, exotic creatures like walrus, narwhal and polar bear. Seeing the Arctic world from above, it becomes clear that humans, the best survivors of all, inhabit a vast blue planet, and must too have emerged from the sea.
For those of us used to urban frontiers, temperate climates and a lack of other apex predators, the struggle for daily survival is less obviously connected to nature. Yet the challenge of constantly navigating the careers, relationships, ethics and expectations of life’s personal sea can sometimes injure like a collision with an unseen iceberg, and force us to look closer and reconfigure values attached to busyness in steaming ahead, rather than being calmly afloat. It is of course possible that the surprise encounters of a week in Tasiilaq, will offer up such collisions.
The Scottish naturalist and explorer, John Muir, wrote: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe’. Everything and everyone is inter-connected. An ice-world, a world without trees, a world where leaves never brush against bare arms, where it cannot be believed that inhaling the scent of a ripe grapefruit might intoxicate the senses, is a world where people are surviving quite ably. This corner of the world is Greenland, only three hours by plane, or the single migration path of a pink-footed goose, journeying from flat moorland outside Edinburgh in mainland Scotland.
The sun rises at 4.30am in Tasiilaq during April and I find myself blinking wide awake into a white night, followed some hours later by a chorus of church bells and the hungry howls of hundreds of Greenlandic dogs chained up outside the lego houses or clustered by sleds, reverberating throughout the fjord and replacing the drip, drip sound of thawing ice.
I'm grateful for not having a hangover but know that there will be other sore heads. In advising on packing for the trip, our host informed us that there had not been a ship delivery of basic supplies for five months and so items such as potatoes, UHT milk and toilet paper were running low. Wanting to bring a useful gift, I inquired into what contribution would be most appreciated. The response came that I should bring a bottle of malt whisky.
Alcoholism is chronic. Spirits are now banned but the sole bar and disco are packed out on Friday pay day with people mixing their own survival narrative with cans of Carlsberg. I’m told that domestic abuse is common.
Scotland has its own demons with alcohol and violence. The infamous pub on my street, the Port of Leith, often has a crowd of jovial regulars knocking back lager from mid-morning onwards, so I’m cautious not to judge, and wary not to flaunt the souvenir bottle of whisky.
The sudden arrival of morning without the adjustment of a gentle, stewing dawn is a disorientating, heady experience like dreaming of waking up to find that Christmas Day has been and gone while you slept. In the Buddhist faith, expectation is considered a form of suffering and living truly in the here and now is the secret to happiness. For me, the here and now of a short stay in Tasiilaq feels exciting, challenging and a wee bit exhausting.
East Greenlanders are regarded by the Inuit city-dwellers of Nuuk as wild, remote folk with a somewhat barbarian lust for hunting. Our group of cultural tourists found it amusing to see rifles casually propped up for sale ($60) alongside ice lollies, soft furnishings, oxen wool, and Danish rye bread in the Tasiilaq supermarket or ‘the big shop’ as we affectionately termed it to distinguish it from ‘the little shop’ selling less of the same further down the hill. Both played a bouncy mix of Greenlandic pop and Abba hits over the freezer aisles filled with a diminishing range of frozen vegetables from Scandinavia, and seemed to be part supermarket, part bingo-hall.
My sorrow for the polar bear was a delayed sadness that crept up on me the following day. I thought back to the winter play staged at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh last December. Billed as a pantomime for adults, the bear – a she – was an escapee on the run from the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore. Momentarily, she would stop in her stage tracks to viscerally and sensually inhale the scent of the night’s air with her noble nose and the rest of her lumbering body, in search of the humans she needed to devour – the very humans that wrongly sought to nuzzle against her snowy, soft fur – in order to survive.
In Tasiilaq, the indignity of a majestic wild animal lying slumped next to the hunter’s rubber boots, then fork-lifted away like landfill was crude but somehow not as shocking as I might have imagined. There are strict quotas for hunting polar bears (25 each winter season in Tasiilaq). Mother bears with cubs are protected and the use of skidoos is not permitted. Unlike trophy-hunting or intensive farming, each part of the animal is used. And yet, recalling the events now, I realise with discomfort that I, too, am pre-emptively, protectively, and perhaps for the gentle and kind people that welcomed me into their homes, seeking to justify the killing. Context and balance is everything, I tell myself (a lifelong vegetarian), just as it was told to me, to pre-empt my disdain, when a plate of raw, thinly sliced orca whale meat, described as orca carpaccio was presented on the dinner table later that night.
I remember watching How to Save the World, a documentary about the development of Greenpeace and the internal power struggles and ethical dilemmas faced by its founding members. My friend Tommy and I had winced and looked down at the carpeted dark away from the grotesque panorama filling the cinema screen with seal pups and whales being sliced up by harpoons and clubs, the ocean fizzing a furious red.
I grew up in Dundee and now live in Leith, both urban ports that sweated through the grime and the heat of nineteenth century industrialisation, thanks in part to their role in amassing crew for whaling ship voyages to the Artic and Antarctica, and for processing the whale carcasses into meat, oil and bone when the ships returned. Whaling helped people from poverty-stricken Scotland survive. Street names like East Whale Lane, Baltic Street and Candlemaker Row lay bare this recent butchery of highly intelligent, sociable marine mammals.
I was fascinated by cetaceans (whales and dolphins) as an eco-warrior teenager and had posters of orcas on my bedroom wall. I even saved up my pocket money to adopt a whale calf through the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Trust and delighted in the arrival of update pictures showing a cheeky dorsal fin cutting through inky British Colombia waters. There were similar pictures on the kitchen walls of the hostel in Tasiilaq. I’ve still never seen whales alive in the wild, and so they remain almost fantastical creatures of awe and mystery.
If there is a next life, I don’t much fancy coming back as a Greenlandic seal pup. Seals are everything to the Inuit. Their meat is a plentiful and therefore reliable source of food for both people and their dogs; and the skin and bones as material for clothing, construction and crafting. I picked up a discarded seal vertebra on the path in town, the bone a bleached yellow-cream colour like a smoker’s living room walls. As I clumsily turned its worn edges over in my gloved hand, I was carried back to an idyllic weekend the previous week when I joined my boyfriend, Jurgen, and his scallop-diving crew aboard the Auk fishing boat off Applecross in Wester Ross, Scotland. We whooped with joy as seals played hide and seek with us and mimicked the divers’ somersaults and flipper slaps in the water.
Scottish folklore is filled with tales of Selkies - seals that shift into human form and vice versa. They slip from their seal skins to become naked nymphs who dance in the waves and tempt sailors to the rocks. In Beside the Ocean of Time, the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown describes: ‘And there on the sand, glimmering were men and women – strangers – dancing! And the rocks were strewn with seal skins!’. I wonder too if the playful intelligence, long noses and yelping bark of seals, make us think of our domestic dogs in Scotland, and perhaps this is why they are entirely unpalatable for eating in our corner of the world.
Tear scars left from when one giant landmass violently split into the two separate continents of Europe and North America are evident in the fault lines that are gouged deep into the rock at Þingvellir national park in southern Iceland. Looking at a map, it is clear where the pieces of a geological jigsaw fitted neatly together long before human survival on the ice. Different cultures, languages, skin colours, faiths and identities drifting apart through fear, sometimes crashing back together in misunderstanding but, despite it all, people still. People still surviving.
My landlady in Tasiilaq was Lone, a Danish school teacher approaching the end of a three year, pre-retirement secondment and contemplating the next phase of her life back in downtown Copenhagen. A warm-hearted teacher, neighbour and mother, she opens her door to local children curious about the European food on her table, the travel artefacts adorning the walls, and her changing assortment of foreign lodgers sitting on the sofa. I felt at home spending time with Carla, an eleven-year-old Inuit girl from next door because, like my own eleven-year-old neighbour in Leith, she wanted me to plait her hair and to demonstrate how to take selfies on my mobile phone (an older model than her own). Carla taught me how to say thank you in East Greenlandic: ‘qujanaq’.
Lone was in reflective mood at the end of our respective working days. She offloaded to me about some of the heaviness of teaching children who are regularly beaten at home by their parents and of working alongside Greenlandic colleagues whose own life stories reflect the scale of the socio-economic challenges facing Greenlandic people. There are currently 100 children in institutional care in the town orphanage. That’s 100 children out of a town population of only 2,000. It’s difficult to relate this grim picture to that of the people beaming generous smiles to visitors from inside fury hoods, to the children playing bat and ball in a street free of fences and curfews, and to the curious proliferation of couples, young and old, holding hands. The scene is reminiscent of a 1950s facade of homespun, family values and neighbourly claustrophobia. There is love in the air but, accordingly to Lone, it isn’t always matched by empathy or basic care. She observes that when a child falls over in the street, other children or parents don’t rush to comfort.
Danish public opinion, and press, lurches to the far right at present and questions the continuation of universal benefits to Greenlandic people and how this welfare dependency might stagnate educational aspiration or entrepreneurial spirit. Helicopter social work, the kind that hovers briefly from above and makes sweeping generalisations and judgments before moving on to the next exciting but deprived place, is something I’m sensitive to steer clear of. I can only marvel at the consistency of ‘god morgen’ greetings gifted to me by the people in Tasiilaq, the direct eye contact of strangers and the lack of any harassment when walking alone. I can’t think of many remote villages, let alone towns, at home where these most gentle and basic of human interactions between strangers prevail. As with the snow and the ice, and the day and the night, light and dark are always present. Or perhaps like one of the icebergs menacingly revealing so little, there is much more to Tasiilaq than meets the eye at first sight.
Our host, Cark-Erik, warned that East Greenland brings out the best and the worst in people. It was true that throughout our time together as a group of visiting arts administrators testing our edges, we had to negotiate the prejudices and personal baggage that we all inevitably carry. We swapped vocabulary common to our Nordic heritage such as bairn, keek, and kirk, and noted islands in the North Sea with a ‘papa’ prefix denoting the establishment of priesthoods, such as Papa Westray and Papa Stour. The performance by the Tasiilaq church choir echoed the throat-singing common to some Shetland musical traditions and to that found in the Lutheran hymns of northern mainland Europe.
Things all went a bit Twin Peaks on the night of the weather balloon launch. A weekly fixture in the Tasiilaq calendar, Hjordis (originally from the Faroe Islands and proudly at home in East Greenland with her family that includes adopted Greenlandic children), kindly invited our small group to witness the preparation and flight of an inflatable set of physics experiments. We were told to arrive at 8pm sharp as air traffic control for transatlantic flight paths amend their routes according to the precision forecast revealed by atmospheric samples collected by the balloons. We assembled with thermals, hats and cameras at 7.45pm and squeezed our down-clad bodies into a tiny pre-fab hut containing a baffling dashboard of switches, dials and a big ‘do not press’ red button that looked like it belonged in Homer Simpson’s nuclear power plant.
8, 8.30, 9, 9.30pm came and went and still we waited. We began to question why we were waiting, what or who we were waiting for, and whether the waiting itself was the main event. Not Godot, but rather a retired police officer smelling of booze finally arrived with toolbox and torch. Meanwhile, Hjordis suggested that we take a moonlit stroll through the snow-blanketed ‘valley of flowers’ to the town graveyard as some of our group had expressed interest in seeing if the tombstones would reveal details of social and family histories. In fact, writing the names of the deceased is considered taboo in Inuit culture - a shamanic belief that, alongside the carving of tupilak figures from animal bone to ward off bad spirits, remains after the conversion to Christianity brought by Danish whalers and colonisers.
As we met at the cemetery gates (Keats and Yates by our sides), ravens circled overhead, dogs howled and the April Pink Moon reflected in the melting ice. An old man dressed in the carcass of a polar bear skin, complete with the gnarled head, walked past. We turned to stare at the Lynchian scene, mouths hanging open and cameras failing us, and nearly missed the rapid ascension of a white, rubber balloon being propelled into outer space from a parallel universe down below in East Greenland.
Slow Ice, Old Moon
There is a Danish proverb that says ‘what outward has been lost, shall inwardly be gained’.
The Moon is moving slowly but steadily farther from Earth as it widens its orbit radiance. It is as though we have taken its circling embrace for granted and to free itself from an over-domineering parent or master, our old Moon is taking quiet, determined steps to independence.
The Inuit people and their dogs are mutually dependent on one another for survival, and I was enchanted by the clicks and calls of the sled-dog drivers that mimic the sound of the ravens and geese flying overhead. These are working dogs, harnessed in groups of ten for pulling hunters or tourists on sleds, and fed for so long as they continue to be useful for their strength and speed.
Our dog-sled driver was called Ferdinand. I like to think he was named after Shakespeare’s prince in The Tempest, rather than an English footballer, as it would make the perfect duo with Storm, lead dog in his sled pack. Ferdinand told me of one dog that he had kept longer than the typical five to six years of a healthy, working dog’s life and therefore had become a sort of pet. There are no vets in Tasiilaq so the relationships between human and dog have no softening euthanasia and nearly always end with the ultimate of betrayals.
Domestic dogs like to be petted and adored. My own tamed wolf, Bonnie, arches with pleasure when I rub her velveteen belly, or scratch behind her lop-sided ears, and I love it when she rests her trusting head against my ribs while we sit watching telly together in our urban den. But I can’t stop her wriggling free if I reach to wrap her up for a fully committed, arms-stretched embrace. It seems that humans and dogs are happy to coexist in an extended canine pack that has mutual benefits for the time being, but that dogs prefer to keep open the option of a return to running truly free and wild one day in the future.
Lying in bed at night or early morning listening to the tummy-rumbling sounds of slow ice cracking then lapping as water against the fjord edge, I meditated on northern literary adventures such as Malachy Tallach's 60 Degrees North and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, noting the magnetic attraction that the extremes of our Blue Planet have for writers, poets and artists. True North is indisputable, but one person’s north can be more north than another’s.
I peered behind a make-shift blackout blind made of bed covers, like a child tiptoeing downstairs on Christmas Eve eager to catch sight of a sleigh and reindeer. I hoped to experience the aurora borealis. On my final night in Tasiilaq, alone after colleagues had departed two days earlier, I was rewarded with a curtain call of electrically charged particles released from the sun and entering the Earth’s atmosphere, filling my bedroom window view with flexing bands of blue, green and purple light. I felt like dancing.
When morning broke suddenly as scheduled, I put on my dancing snow boots and headed out to the street side of Lone’s house to watch the Tasiilaq world go by before my departure home.
Sitting tapping my feet on the porch, I make the mistake of logging onto social media and am jolted back into urban survival mode to buffer against the cruel reminder of where I was, and who I was with, on the same day years ago and how distant people and places can feel. Residual loss, the kind that takes up permanence after the rawness of anger or grief fades, is porous and white like snow or noise. It hurts like a slushy kind of lingering headache. So I turn off my phone and, on looking up, observe two young boys, hand in hand, dragging plastic toy rifles behind them to make a wavering line through yesterday’s muddied snow. And it hits me that we are all just trying to get along, make our mark, rub noses occasionally, giggle even, and survive as long as possible with one another on the surface of diminishing rocks in the sea. I resolve to buy my niece Aoife a polar teddy bear from the airport gift shop and to say ‘qujanaq’ for the many, and unexpected, Eskimo kisses in East Greenland.
Jemma Neville is Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland and has a background in human rights law. An adopted Leither, she can be found sitting by the Shore with her dog, Bonnie, writing poems and dreaming of island adventures together. Find her on Twitter: @jemma_tweets.
All images by Jemma Neville, except cover photograph by Falasdin, used under a CC 2.0 license.