After being struck by lightning several years ago, essayist, poet and fiction writer Gretel Ehrlich found herself traveling to Greenland to “get above tree-line.”
Greenland, the world”s largest island (Australia, being a continent, does not count) is beyond cold, constantly covered by ice and relatively untouched by modern society. Inuit hunters still travel by dogsled and many inhabitants have never seen a tree.
On assignment for Islands Magazine during her first visit, Ehrlich said, “before the first week was out, I knew I could write a book there.” Having worked on a Wyoming ranch for seventeen winters, Ehrlich was unfazed by the cold that never goes away. She had an intense fascination with the ice and the culture, which was only magnified the longer she stayed.
Seven years later, Ehrlich can say that she was able to experience almost every aspect of the modern Inuit lifestyle. She was there during the times when the sky was completely dark, 24 hours a day for four months. And, conversely, she was there when the sun refused to set all spring.
She went on long, nomadic hunting expeditions by dogsled, sleeping in a tent on top of the snow and eating whenever one of the hunters spied a seal soaking up sun near its bathing hole. Her journey brought her to small islands with less than 50 inhabitants and places such as Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk, the northernmost villages in the world.
The book that resulted from her travels, “This Cold Heaven” is hard to pin. At times a chronicled travelogue, at other times a philosophic and poetic pondering, her journey is always spirited and personal.
Her one companion on the otherwise solitary excursion is the Danish-Inuit explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, who spent years earlier this century (between 1917 and 1924) traversing the Arctic wilderness. He is somewhat of a folk-hero in the region and Ehrlich had already poured through the travel diaries and journals of his trip before she arrived in Greenland. Several chapters are dedicated to his expeditions and his own experience with the Inuit people, many of whom, before his arrival, had encountered few, if any Europeans.
But Rasmussen, having grown up in an Inuit village, spoke their language and was often a welcome visitor. His adventures are remarkable, from brushes with death and starvation to seances with native Shamen. With Rasmussen”s assistance, Ehrlich is able to give an accurate depiction of how much, and sometimes how little, the Eskimo life has changed in over sixty years.
“This Cold Heaven” is an incredible and enlightening enterprise. It is a revealing look at a life about which, here in America, we know almost nothing. Ehrlich”s prose is as sharp and radiant as the Arctic landscape. She has truly thrown herself into another way of living, as well as a new culture. Her reflections on life and death are not left unexplored and tested by her experience and she searches for metaphors in the terrain.
Ehrlich, born in California, has degrees from both Bennington College and UCLA film school. Filmmaking was her chosen occupation until 1978 when she began to write full-time. She is a prolific writer, having published over a dozen books including three books of poetry, two books of narrative essays, a book of short stories, a novel, a novella for young adults, a biography of naturalist John Muir and two memoirs.
“A Match to the Heart” describes her experience of being struck by lightning. “Questions of Heaven” follows a Buddhist pilgrimage of sorts that she made through the mountains of Western China.
Her work has appeared in anthologies such as, “The Best Collected Essays of the Century”. She is often published in periodicals like, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Life, Audubon, National Geographic Adventure and Outside. Her books can be read in German, French, Italian and Japanese.
Ehrlich has been awarded a NEA Writing Fellowship, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Harold D. Vercell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
She reads tonight at Shaman Drum at 8PM from the recently published “This Cold Heaven.”