Major Tom, I wish you’d known….
14th July 2016, Vargar, Greenland
Grey sky. I wake up with a cotton-padded head: all noises and thoughts come muffled up, both from the outside and the inside. Alas, today’s plan is a hike on the tundra. Yes, we are here to explore the most characteristics aspects of Southwestern Greenland, its history and nature- and tundra definitely is one!
But come on: we all know what will really stick with us for the rest of our lives are rare, spectacular views and strong emotions- that’s why people venture to extreme lands to begin with. We come here for the adrenalin of the most dramatic experiences and sights. After all, adrenalin is a legal, readily available, self-synthesized recreational drug.
We come here for the excitement of a real life, custom-made National Geographic documentary: spotting polar bears (only they live elsewhere in Greenland…), seals, walruses, whales. The fascination humans have with whales makes me think: is there a little Pinocchio, Jonah, or Captain Ahab in each one of us?
We come here for the dazzling, ever changing shapes and colours of the ice cap, the icebergs… For the truly spectacular pictures they provide, for the awe and often the envy they’ll rouse in all those who stayed back home. Not even tropical seas reach the intensity of these hues of blue, turquoise, azure, cobalt, sapphire, aquamarine.
We come here for the unexpected thrill: like the raging strength of the adiabatic winds on the mountains behind the airport at Narsarsuaq, whose gusts sometimes almost swept me off my feet as though they were as many powerful otherworldly spirits. When exposed to mighty natural forces, we are suddenly and viscerally reconciled with our multi-millennial animistic past…
We come here for the treat of taking a warm bath in the hot springs of Unartoq while most of our cruise companions around the pond wear winter jackets, and with icebergs in the background. For the invigorating contact of our wet naked skin with the crisp air of a summer Arctic sunset while getting dry and dressed again.
For the surprise and excitement of eating defrosted chicken curry on the lawn just outside the supermarket and being invited by a local family to taste some of their typical foods. Tasting them. Trying to withhold a wince of painful disgust when savouring seal fat- slightly aromatic (incense?), rancid, pervasive: the taste coats your mouth and even starts climbing up your nose. Noticing once again that to an untrained Western eye Greenlandic people seem to combine or alternate the facial features of so many different peoples of Asia: Chinese, Thai, Mongolian, Korean… Plus the obvious (occasional?) interbreeding with Europeans: Danish only or Norse, too?
All these memories will stay with me forever. So the prospect of the dull green of the tundra is a bit disappointing. Never mind: I’ll try to remind myself that I am an adult, a mother, and a teacher, not a kick-thirsty adolescent. Mmmm?
As we start the hike, I realize tundra here is so thick that it feels like a giant, slow-motion playground: walking on it feels like walking on a mattress: you bounce back at every step. It’s fun- I feel like a naughty young girl jumping on mum and dad’s bed again…
Books lie to us: tundra is not always mainly mosses and lichens with the odd shrub; there are almost 600 vascular plants here in Greenland. And I now appreciate the incredible variety of colours, compositions, textures…
I could show off by looking up all the scientific names of the plants I’ve seen, but they would mean nothing to almost anyone reading - and in a few days, to me either: it’s a lot more meaningful to note down the similarities with plants we all know and recognize already. Could there be a real scientific connection? Could they be the same plants, in some cases? Charred black ear fungi, white corals, chamomile, sage, blueberries, blade grass, rhododendron, burnet, miniature unripe peaches, equisetum, chicory, juniper and even marijuana leaves (but I doubt this could survive here).
I try to capture this astonishing microcosm with my camera, but the pictures inevitably turn out flat and lifeless. After numerous flops, I try getting closer to the ground, adopting the point of view of the insects inhabiting this little forest, of the plants themselves. Yessss! This is the way to go. I can now see all the colours and their contrasts, the intricate web of stalks, branches, thin trunks, twigs, petals… Using my camera lens, I can somewhat capture the touch and consistency of the various textures: spongy, mushy, firm, rough, soft, velvety, brittle, scratchy…
After many years, the camera becomes an extension of my eyes and brains again. Clumsy still, and unskilled (I will finish adjusting to the digital era when the rest of the humanity has transmogrified to Mars already!), but it’s an electrifying sensation! Tundra has re-opened a significant creative channel long obstructed! This is pure energy that flows through me, I feel it already…
But there is something else to it. There is a lesson to learn. Had I ever bothered to lie down and observe the ground while at the same level as it and with such excitement – or at all? Does any of you, ever? We just walk on the ground and look down on it – quite literally! There is a discreet, yet compelling majesty in the obstinacy of these small plants. The heroism of pioneer life itself. Nothing fast, big, loud, or flashy… nothing that would make it to a reality show. The earth sustains us, we’d be nothing without it… we’ll be nothing once we’ve finished compromising it. Earth is soil, earth is ground, earth is green. We won’t go anywhere until we fully acknowledge this. Major Tom, I wish you’d known all this before you left.
Thank you, Greenland!