Travel: West, to Greenland

It is the country that defeated the Norsemen; where ice dominates the land. Malachy Tallack goes West, to Greenland

One thousand years ago, Narsarsuaq was a significant place: the political centre of Greenland, Europe’s westernmost frontier. When the first 14 ships of Viking colonists arrived from Iceland in AD985, most chose this south-western region – the mildest and most fertile part of the country – to settle. Their leader, Eirik the Red, made his home at Brattahlíð, just three miles up the fjord. For a couple of centuries at least, it was a thriving community.

Today Narsarsuaq is an international airport and little else. People come and go. They arrive from Copenhagen and Reykjavik and they move on to other places. One hundred and fifty people live here, in concrete apartment blocks and a few wooden houses, working in the airport or the hotel, the hostel, shop or meteorological station. There is nothing else here, and it doesn’t feel like any kind of a home.

Flying in to the airport, you get a sense of both the size and the strangeness of Greenland. The first sight from the plane’s window is of mountains – a myriad of black peaks emerging from a great blanket of white that stretches out as far as it is possible to see. This is the southern edge of the Greenland ice sheet, which stretches 2400 kilometres northwards from here. As we sink quickly towards the coast, the water appears like a negative image of the land – dark, and studded with icebergs. Turning sharply, the plane threads its way back up the fjord towards Narsarsuaq, and we land with a bump, and a round of applause from the passengers.

* * *

Most people can offer a few facts when quizzed about Greenland: It is cold, they might say. Which is certainly true for most of the year. It is big. Which is very true: two million square kilometres, with a population of just 56,000. It is not green. Which, in this part of the country at least, is false.

According to the Grænlandinga Saga, Eirik the Red named the island as a kind of advertising slogan, because “he said that people would be much more tempted to go there if it had an attractive name.” And while he was certainly right about that, it is also true that in this southern part of the country, which stretches down to just south of 60°, Greenland is a fairly accurate description.

The steep hillsides around Narsarsuaq are swathed in vegetation, just beginning to come to life again when I arrived in early May. A forest of dwarf willows covers much of the lower ground, and elsewhere a carpet of crowberry and thick mosses. In the summer, the hills and valleys are awash with flowers, making the most of the short growing season.

As I walked from the youth hostel, where I was the only guest, inland towards the ice sheet, a chilly morning was becoming a beautiful day. The skies were clear and the sun was bright, and before long I was peeling off my jacket and jumper and reaching for the sun cream. Only a few patches of snow lying here and there in shadowed ground were reminders of how recently winter had departed.

The town of Narsarsuaq lies at the end of a long stretch of glacial valleys, some broad and strewn with boulders, others narrow and claustrophobic, like the pages of a closing book. Everywhere, ravens flapped and tumbled together, their strange songs filling the air below. A pair of white-tailed eagles lifted suddenly from the ground in front of me as I walked close to the milky blue Narsarsuaq River. They seemed only to open their wings and be hoisted skyward, without effort or haste, and I watched them until they disappeared against the blackness of the mountains.

After a slow climb through the as-yet-flowerless rubble of “Flower Valley”, the land opened out. Below me was a flat basin of green. In fact, more than that, it was a flat basin of cultivated green: a hay park, cradled between stark mountains and miles from the nearest building. It was an astonishing scene, and the immediate impression for me was one of desperation. The fact that this patch of land, small and difficult to access, was being worked like this says much about the fragility of agriculture in this country.

During summer, the hills around southern Greenland could support large numbers of sheep. The meat from the lambs is incredibly flavoursome, and considered among the best in the world, made fragrant by the profusion of flowers, berries and other plants on which they graze. But summer here is short, and winter is long. And winter is also cold – too cold for the animals to be outside. So the farmers must not only have enough space to house their flock inside for around six months of the year, they must also be able to grow enough feeding for them to last through that time. It is a difficult balance – one in which each farmer is constrained not by the limits of his grazing land, which is almost limitless, but by the meagre amount of space that can actually be used to grow winter fodder. Hence this hay park – small and barely accessible, but necessary all the same.

Many farmers complain that their options are further constrained not by the landscape or the climate, but by archaeology. The Norsemen made their living here by farming, and every workable area around these southern fjords would at one time have been occupied. The remains of many of the Norse buildings lie strewn about the fields and hills, but the farmers are not allowed to remove them. Most hay parks seem to be peculiar shapes – distorted by the strange contours of the land on their edges, and very often containing an obtrusive rumble of boulders in the centre: the remains of a former building, now protected.

Despite their image as bold adventurers, settling Europe’s most inhospitable frontiers and reaching North America 500 years before Columbus, the Vikings were, without doubt, the great failures of Greenlandic history. In many ways, the Norse experience is a perfect lesson in exactly how not to survive in a difficult land.

When they came to Greenland at the end of the first millennium AD, they had the south of the country to themselves (in fact, they may have had the entire country to themselves at first. But not for long.) The farmers brought with them the skills that they had learned in Norway and in Iceland. But the situation here was a little different.

When the climate began to deteriorate rapidly through the twelfth and thirteenth century, the farmers of Greenland were suddenly out of their depth. Crops became increasingly difficult to grow, and many would have failed altogether. The number of animals it was possible to rear would have steadily declined, and the number of people who could have been supported would likewise have fallen. Ships bringing supplies from Bergen could no longer break through the sea ice, and the Norse found themselves completely cut off from the outside world.

Meanwhile, as if to taunt the struggling community, the Thule people, ancestors of today’s Inuit, arrived in southern Greenland around the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and, unlike the Norse, the Thule were thriving. They were massively successful seal hunters, fishermen and whalers, and their knowledge of the land and sea, and the skills needed to live from them, were immensely impressive.

But rather than learning from the Inuit, it seems the Norse simply ignored them, or perhaps just attacked them once in a while. Though they did not realise it, this was the crucial moment in their history: their big mistake. They had the opportunity to adapt, to learn new ways of living, to change their lifestyle and survive. But they were a conservative society, and they refused to accept the inevitability of their fate.

By the end of the fifteenth century there were no Norse left in Greenland. For a long time their disappearance was considered a mystery – how could this hardy European race just vanish? Many believed they had fled to North America, their “Vinland”; others felt they had most likely “gone native” and joined the heathen Inuit. But the truth was much simpler than that, and much more instructive. The climate changed; they failed to adapt; and they died.

* * *

For the last mile or so the walking was difficult, and the landscape increasingly barren and imposing. A great stretch of moraine; scars and scratches on the huge boulders; the lingering ice and snow. A steep 300 metre climb over scree and between gaunt, gnarled bushes brought me to a plateau, where I paused briefly in the sun, my heart hammering. Here the land looked truly arctic – bare, black rock patched with lichen – and I continued on, trying to find a suitable viewpoint from which to see what I came to see.

Finally I reached a kind of summit – a dark, hunched outcrop, raised a little higher than the surrounding ground – and was met there by a bluster of freezing air that left me breathless.

A quarter of a mile ahead was an immense glacier: the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. It is the largest piece of ice in the northern hemisphere, covering more than 80 per cent of the country: 1.7 million square kilometres in total. Over most of the island it is more than two kilometres thick – so heavy that it depresses the surface of the land beneath it.

Always with glaciers, what looks clean from far away up close is dark and dirty. As I reached the bottom of the slope I could see filthy black ice, slowly melting at the edges, dripping into unseen streams. A torrent of water flowed beneath.

I wanted to step onto the glacier, to feel it supporting me, but as I pressed my foot to it, the ice collapsed. I tried another spot, but again my boot pushed through. I decided not to risk any more ambitious attempts, so I just stood looking at it for a while.

When I turned back up the hill, the sound of the flowing water, the melting ice, followed me. This ice sheet is currently shrinking by around 240 cubic kilometres a year, and the rate of melting is increasing rapidly. I knew that it was unlikely I would ever have the chance see it from this close again, and many scientists now believe that within a few hundred years, there may be nothing left to see at all.

As I walked back towards Narsarsuaq, the sun was beginning to fall, and the day was much cooler. Shadows tumbled down the steep slopes around me, flooding the valleys below.


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