Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

Kalaallit Nunaat | Grønland

"Our planet will be called not Earth, but Sila, the Greenlandic word that means, simultaneously, 'weather' and 'consciousness,'" writes Gretel Ehrlich in The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold. Sila refers to the visible world, the one the Inuits can see with their eyes. It means weather, world, day-clear consciousness, sense, and mind. Sila is interconnected with Silap Aappaa, the other world, inhabited by the souls of humans and other living creatures.

I learned of these concepts after my arrival in Greenland, but after spending a few days with the snowy, bright, and simultaneously peaceful and unforgiving landscape, I could see why these people used the same word to describe these things. How could you live in such a near-uninhabitable place without matching your hopes, desires, perception, and timing with the weather, with nature’s forces?

I had flown over Greenland at least once before and I remember how remarkable the white mountains below me were against the rich, blue nighttime sky. This time, flying low over the landscape in our small, 28-passenger plane, my neck ached as I strained to keep my eyes glued to the window. So much blue and white, so much snow and ice—Sermersooq, the municipality that surrounds the capital city, Nuuk, means “much ice.”

The population of Greenland is around 60,000; the population of Nuuk, where I visited, is about 16,000. This is larger than Brattleboro, Vermont, where I currently live, but it felt smaller, likely due to some combination of isolation and the slower pace of life. Nuuk is a very calm, quiet city; I never noticed any commotion. But from a conversation with someone who works at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, I learned that the people who travel to Nuuk from other parts of Greenland to attend university find the city too busy, too urban, too fast-paced. Perception is everything.

Greenland is about 90% Inuit. This was apparent in my day-to-day wanderings. It seemed to me that for such an urban setting, tradition is alive and well, from muskox on menus to sealskin clothing for sale. Though now autonomous, Greenland was a Danish colony, however, and it would be difficult to ignore the impact of this colonization on the country and the culture.

I spent most of my visit to Nuuk walking around the town and meeting with local businesses and institutions for work, but there was still enough time to enjoy the color of the place, from the painted houses to the sunset on the water. The days were long, with darkness setting in close to eleven at night, so it was almost impossible to feel rushed. I enjoyed the pace of the town, the quietness of it, the sounds of the gulls and the waves. I bundled up against the cold temperatures but enjoyed the sun on my face almost every day.

I couldn't ignore sila though—the power of the weather or the force of the ocean. On my last day in Nuuk, I had hoped to have some time to explore some natural landscapes, whether hiking the snow-covered mountain that stands sentinel over the sleepy town or being a passenger on the sea, searching for whales and pelagic birds. But a storm blew in, powerful wind gusts battering the house all night and into the next day, waves sloshing on the frozen shore, rain slanting toward the windows like daggers. The gulls never stopped screaming; the wind never stopped howling. The Greenlanders must be used to these kinds of noises, these kinds of movements. For me, it was somewhat frightening. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes about the fear that comes with a harsh landscape like this, where ice can freeze you in or destroy whatever shelter or ship you have. "I looked out at the icebergs," he writes. "They were so beautiful they also made you afraid."

After twenty-four hours of wind, the evening brought calm. The waves were less choppy; the clouds seemed contentedly settled over the water. My last views of Greenland were still blue, but a darker shade than before. Our plane left this large island in the morning, brave enough to fly in the strong winds. The clouds shrouded the peaks of the mountains, shaped by ice and wind and water—shaped by sila.