Greenland has been in the headlines, of late. A century and a half after Secretary of State William Seward purchased his “icebox” (aka Alaska), President Trump demanded his Frigidaire, which happens to be an autonomous region of Denmark. Just in time to answer all our questions about the world’s largest island comes “Between Sea and Glacier: Greenland in a Changing World.”

Cover courtesy of IPI Press

Greenland stretches a thousand miles north-south, from within 7 degrees of the North Pole to about the latitude of northern Labrador. Larger than Alaska by a third, it is 51 times the size of its mother country, writes Wilfred Richard, a well-known nature photographer who lives in Georgetown.

For the last 15 years, Richard has made annual visits above the Arctic Circle, to the town of Uummannaq (population 2,300) on Greenland’s northwest coast. Here he found “a place, a culture, and a people that aspires to live in companionship with nature. To experience life in Greenland enriches mind, body, and soul.”

This may come as a surprise to many readers who, at most, have caught a glimpse of a snowy expanse from 35,000 feet out of an airplane window. Richard himself calls it “a grand panorama of fossilized whiteness.” However, in 200 or so pages, his camera and his pen paint a fascinating picture of a culture that escaped both the Agricultural and the Industrial revolutions.

That it is now, perforce, having to adapt to the effects of electronic media and mass communication only heightens Richard’s fascination. The people of Uummannaq are taking steps to gain the benefits of the new without losing touch with the old. This he attributes to the coincidental harmony between Greenlandic and Scandinavian social structures.

He does not mean the Norse who colonized Greenland in medieval times, only to retreat as the Little Ice Age advanced. It would have been interesting to learn a little bit more about the Danish colonization, which one must assume made this happy merger more likely than it would have been in the wake of other colonial systems.

Instead of European empire-builders, Richard concentrates on the “archeologists and climatologists (who) pioneered methodological advances in fieldwork while working in the challenging circumstances of a polar climate,” starting in the early 20th century. These scientist-explorers made Greenland into a research laboratory. Perhaps most famous are the six Thule Expeditions (between 1912 and 1933) of Knud Rasmussen, who was himself born not far from Uummannaq. Richard calls him the “Father of Greenland.”

He was also the godfather of a Greenlandic woman who eventually settled in Owls Head, married to another Arctic explorer. “Between Sea and Glacier” is dedicated to Inge Knudsen Holm Morse, who befriended Richard after a chance meeting at L.L. Bean. “To have known Inge,” he writes, “is to be indelibly smitten for life.” Of particular importance to the book is that she put at the author’s disposal her archive of black- and-white photographs, which go back almost a hundred years. They are a marvelous complement to Richard’s own beautiful pictures.

Aside from the recent media shower, Greenland is most often in the news as a warning of what to expect as the world’s atmosphere heats up. From the Portland Press Herald, August 5: “The Greenland ice sheet poured 197 billion tons of water into the North Atlantic in July alone – enough to raise global sea levels by 0.5 millimeters, or 0.02 inches.” In writing his book, Richard said, “I wanted to document with words and images the human-fueled climate disaster that awaits the planet.”

Obviously, he is as concerned for the people of Uummannaq, whose traditional lifestyle is already being ruptured by thinning and unpredictable sea ice. Seals must now be hunted by boat while they swim, a much more challenging effort than shooting them on ice. This in turn leads to a greater dependence on imported meat. It also affects the dogs. With the dog sledging season reduced from six months to as little as six weeks, the dogs are losing their hunting manners. “Now they howl and fight and are generally undisciplined,” he reports.

“Between Sea and Glacier” is no eulogy for a vanishing culture. Richard finds inspiration in the efforts of these hardy people to adapt, especially two organizations. The Children’s Home in Uummannaq is one of two dozen such institutions throughout Greenland that teach traditional skills to what we would call “at-risk” kids. Very much working in tandem is the Uummannaq Polar Institute, which promotes international exchange while celebrating “continuity and adaptation.”

What keeps Richard optimistic is the example of his adopted community by which, “we can revive our ancient intimacy with nature.” It is a worthier goal than Trump’s interest in Greenland.

Thomas Urquhart is an author and conservationist; his history of Maine’s Public Lots will be published next year. Contact him at: [email protected]


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