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04/07/2007

Grapes from Greenland

Danish author Jorn Riel describes the beauty and horror of Greenland in his dreams.

The country discovered by Eric the Red in 980 was green. And the name he gave it, Greenland, was more than just bait to lure immigrants from Iceland. Those who came to live in Greenland found it greener than their barren homeland, and the quality of life was at least as good as what they were used to in the country they had left behind.

But 400 years later they had all up and left. Not least because of a change in the climate. The long, mild winters and the magically warm summers had given way to hard winters and short, cold summers.

The quality of life had deteriorated so massively that most norsemen emigrated. Those that stayed behind died of hunger or were killed by Eskimos from North Greenland.

Now, another 500 years later, talk of climate change is back. But today the magnitude is greater and it's the fault of humans. And what's different is that now it will get warmer, which means that the ice will melt quicker and the flora and fauna will change. Scientists from across the world agree that climate change is really occuring. For years politicians were warned and it looks like they're slowly waking up.

On my last trip to Greenland I had a dream. That day we had covered 30 kilometres across difficult terrain and were very tired. As soon as I got into my sleeping bag, I fell asleep, but couldn't find peace. I had a horrible dream. We were travelling to north eastern Greenland, blue sky overhead, the sun beating down. Soft snow drifts, white and virginal, stretched as far as the eye could see. The dogs had curled their tails, a sign that they were in good spirits.

It was incredible. The sort of beauty that can humble you or make you scream for joy. A sledge ride through the Arctic. But all of a sudden the snow seeped away, leaving large seas of melt water, and soon the dogs were belly-deep in it. From further inland there came the terrifying sound of massive lumps of ice breaking off and plummetting into the sea. There came a booming sound from the water, where the mighty icebergs rocked and smashed into the mighty mass of ice flowing out of the North Pole basin.

Then the landscape changed. Infinite images flashed before my eyes. The southern faces of the Qaerssormiut valley were lush with grapevines. And the northern faces were green with a forest of birch and willow. Incredible! The mountains in the High Arctic should be covered by a layer of snow in winter. I looked up ahead and saw that the tongues of ice normally snaking their way down the mountain face towards the sea had disappeared.

Was it a bad dream? Or a vision of the future? Was the arctic Greenland starting to disappear? And what caused it? The stupidity of man or the increased activity of sun? Maybe an unhappy mix of the two?

This nightmare won't leave me alone. While dreaming, I long to wake up and find the Arctic still the Arctic, as it has been for centuries. When I wake I'm still not sure whether I'm still dreaming or whether the dream has become reality.

*

The story, written in Danish, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 23, 2007.

Jor
n Riel was born in 1931 in Odense in Denmark. Aged 18 he went on an expedition to Greenland and stayed for 16 years. He has travelled extensively and written over 40 novels and short stories blending wit and tragedy.

Translated from the German by Abby Darcy.
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