Friday, July 27, 2012

Arctic Paradox

Smoke from a recent fire in Durango near Animas Air Park.  Photo Durango Herald

 When I left Durango in June, the world was on fire- literally. About 350 homes had burned in Colorado Spring's Waldo Canyon fire, and nearly as many in the High Park fire near Fort Collins. More areas were in flames close to home, forcing evacuations.  As I boarded my flight to Denver, I watched the spiraling eddy of smoke rising from a new blaze near Lightner Creek. 

 Here in northwest Greenland, I’m bearing witness to a different kind of extreme.  The unprecedented warming of the Arctic is connected to the increase of  the “disaster weather” we’re experiencing all over the country- and indeed the world.   According to a recent NASA press release, about half of Greenland's surface ice sheet naturally melts during an average summer.  But data from July 8-12th from three independent satellites, analyzed by NASA and university scientists, showed that in less than a week the amount of thawed ice sheet surface skyrocketed from 40 percent to 97 percent.

Things exist in Greenland on a massive scale. Here, inland glacier ice makes its way to the sea.
I happened to be kayaking in northwest Greenland near Melville Bay on those days - and it was, according to my guide and my own internal thermostat, unnaturally warm.  This was during the same time that a large chunk of the Petermann Glacier calved and launched itself into the sea.  “Twice the size of Manhattan,” I hear.

There’s a lot at stake right now as we burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels and the planet heats up exponentially.   A few days ago, I received a link to a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine by the founder Bill McKibben- "Global Warming's Terrrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe- and make clear who the real enemy is." I devoured it in one sitting, hungry for news that matters and a perspective that pulls no punches.  But don’t read it unless you’re prepared for an ultimate reality check. 

Small icebergs drift on the north side of Upernavik island
Here in the sublime beauty of Upernavik, all the trash from town gets burned.  When I buy a plastic container of peanut butter at the Pilersuisok market, it’s destined – once empty - for the garbage pile behind my house where it will be incinerated along with everyone else's household waste- soda bottles, batteries, old appliances, everything.  I understand that the heavy metals, benzene and dioxins from burning plastic will drift back to me in the air I breathe and that as I fill my lungs, the toxins will settle into the tissues of my body, accumulating.  Instant cause and effect.  A tidy transformation of matter into poison. 

There is a similar destination for human waste here.  Whatever I leave in the heavy duty plastic bag that fits beneath the toilet fixture will end up in the sea.   The plastic will be burned. Hundreds of yellow bags are incinerated every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, just yards from where I now sit writing.

I mention this not to single out Greenland (we all know the US is one of the heavyweights on the planetary pollution hit list) but to share how directly responsible I am for my own contaminated environment.  So, do I buy peanut butter or not? Choices.  Cause and effect.  It may seem like the tiniest thing, but millions of seemingly inconsequential decisions made daily by the planet’s growing population of consumers is something to be reckoned with.

Is it my job to not buy the peanut butter? Is it industry’s job to find alternatives to plastic, or is it the municipality’s job to find a different way of dealing with trash?

I think about the fracking and gas wells that number in the thousands at home in La Plata county, Colorado, where the earth is injected with a proprietary blend of over 200 chemicals.  The industry bears, as yet, no responsibility to clean up their act.  They are exempt from standard clean water regulations, so they can keep polluting.   Much of the natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing is used to make disposable plastics such as my peanut butter container from Pilersuisok. 

When I was sea kayaking earlier this month, I was thrilled to be in such a breathtakingly remote place (what I might, in my own personal parlance, call a last place).  Most days I saw garbage, particularly plastic, either floating in the sea or washed up on shore where I camped.  It’s everywhere.  We are awash in the detritus of our contemporary throw-away society. 

More sobering are the numbers about PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury contamination right here in Greenland, and all over the Arctic.  These industrial pollutants are carried to the Arctic from all over the world by prevailing winds and ocean currents, and they bioaccumulate, magnifying exponentially as they move up the food chain in animals and humans.  Levels of these contaminants are so high in some Arctic populations that people’s bodies, by some classifications, would be considered hazardous waste. 

These are some of the most pervasive and potent toxins on the planet right now, along with the PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) used in flame retardants for electronics like my laptop and the Teflon you just cooked your eggs in.  Like PCBs and certain heavy metals, brominated flame  retardants accumulate in the fat cells of animals and people.  These are man-made chemicals which scramble our hormones, disarm our immune systems, and confuse the inner workings of our brains- and the Artic has become the planet’s dumping ground for them.

I’ve begun to understand that nowhere on Earth has been left untouched by our trash in one form or another, and I’m not sure I believe any longer in my own personal salvation of a Last Place. 
It's beautiful here in Greenland by any standards.

Why am I talking about all this?  Why not stick to pretty pictures and easy topics?  What if I alienate all my followers from the Tea Party who think the hard facts of climate science are a fanatical hoax designed by leftist liberals (like me) to undermine the GNP and status quo?  I continually hear that the Earth has undergone cycles of heating and cooling for millennia (true), and that what we are now experiencing is no different (false).  Ice core records from Antarctica and Greenland indicate that carbon dioxide levels haven’t been this high for eight hundred thousand years. *  

Beauty and ease are absolutely worthy, and I like sharing that part of my journey.  But there’s more to me and more to the story.

I mention all this because I’m concerned that we’re ignoring the signs of a crippled planetary life support system.  We can’t continue to destroy the planet by leaving the refuse and wreckage of our lifestyle in our wake. Whether it’s contamination from heavy metals and chemical toxins from industry, coal-burning, and incineration, or the discarding of plastic packaging on land and at sea, or the dumping of millions of tons of carbon in the air every year, we’re in trouble.  We’ve reached a major tipping point.

My project here in Greenland is small and personal.  I want to investigate what I believe are the earth’s last strongholds where ecosystems are still intact- though now I realize I should say IF, if they are intact.  I came to the Arctic because I want to see for myself what’s going on, and to document this place with the skills I have been granted in this life as an artist.  It may amount to nothing on the grand scale of things, but a good dose of intimate engagement and fierce passion is what will make the difference in whether we humans continue to inhabit this planet.  Or not. The choice belongs to all of us. 

* D. Luthi et al, “High-Resolution Carbon Dioxide Concentration Record 650,000-800,000 Years before Present,” Nature 453 (2008): 379-382

Monday, July 23, 2012

Upernavik and the Artist's Retreat

Home sweet home

I only had four full days in Upernavik, Greenland before I left on the kayak trip.  I’ve been back a few days now and am rewinding to tell you a little more about my surroundings and life here in this very small town on a very small island about 15 miles off the coast of the mainland.  

Upernavik means “springtime place” and is the name of the settlement, the island and a very large district that spreads north along the coast to Melville Bay.  This area was colonized by Danish traders in the 1700’s, but it has been home to Inuit and other indigenous groups for centuries.  

July 21.  I wake disoriented again, dreaming of people from home. Heavy fog, and some new icebergs have blown in close to the house.  Maybe I will paint outside.  I hate being out much during the work week because the burn station is just over the hill, where they burn all (and I mean all) the garbage from town.  Today is Saturday so there is a rest from the poison in the air.

The old church, no longer in use, burn pit is down the hill out of sight

Upernavik town

I’m told there are over 1,000 people living in this town with its bright red, blue, green, and yellow houses spilling down the hillside to the sea.  Hard to believe, even though there are a few cars here and even a few central roads to drive them on.  There’s also a small medical center, a post office, and a little market.  The grocery chain, called Pilersuisok,  holds an undeniable monopoly.  Each settlement has one, supplied with expensive canned, frozen and packaged food from Denmark that arrives by ship.  

The small medical building in Upernavik - anything serious requires an airlift out of here.

The refugium where I live and work is a restored 1800’s cooper’s workshop – the place where barrels for blubber were once made. It’s one of the original buildings from the settlement and I’m astonished when I look at old photos to see this house in them.

I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be here.  There are few, if any expectations of me imposed by the Upernavik museum.  In fact, when I arrived, I was handed a key and no questions were asked, no explanations given.   I’m figuring most things out on my own and am content with that.  Most artist’s residency programs involve teaching, having the studio open to the public, and/or getting ready for a final exhibit - and don’t include kayak expeditions!  Not so here, and I’m enjoying the time to experience as much as I can of Greenland; to film, paint and draw on my own schedule, knowing the major creative work will happen back in Colorado this fall and winter.

 Nine of the past ten months of my life have been spent living and working away from my beloved Colorado, and it was with some weariness that I embarked on this last, long leg of my self-appointed “Year of Art”.   It seems like I’ve been in near-constant transition lately, always juggling logistics and trying to find some relief from the anxiety I feel about my future.  The calm and silence I find here are invaluable to me on a deep, personal level.  It’s a luxury to have some slower time now that art projects in New York and New Mexico are completed and I accomplished the major fundraising effort required to make this Arctic trip a reality.

The logistics aren’t over yet. I still have to figure out where I’m living when I return to Durango, what studio space to occupy.  (I can’t wait to get my hands on some porcelain… there is so much work to be done!) And what source of income? 

I’m the proud renter of a storage unit - and that’s all.

But here, now. 

From what I can discern, there have been other artists working at the retreat from Argentina, Lithuania, Israel, Japan, Italy, the UK and others disparate locations.  And it looks like love has blossomed here as well as art!  An Australian photographer in residence met a policeman in Upernavik that she fancied (and he, her).  They were married earlier this year. 

The bottom level of the retreat is composed of a small kitchen and laundry room, with a living room facing the sea that also poses as the studio.  Lots of windows and light.  Wooden floors, ahhh.  (NICE.)  The ocean is my closest friend here, a stone’s throw from my writing desk, and icebergs shift imperceptibly on the tide.  There is always a new view.    

Part of my workspace

Some late night reading...

Upstairs is a cozy gabled bedroom and small bathroom.  Danish touches abound, reminding me of my months spent in Denmark in 2009.  There are no trees in Greenland, and the abundance of wooden houses is puzzling.  Until the 1950’s the Inuit lived in stone and sod huts – Danes brought the boxy houses we are all familiar with.  I wonder what forest provided the lumber for this place, and to house the thousand occupants of this town? There is no plumbing here in Upernavik either, but water runs from a hundred gallons tank that gets filled on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve read there is a desalination plant that makes potable water from the sea.  Human waste also gets picked up on alternate days…

And enough said!

I’m off for a hiking break and to see what happens on Saturday in Upernavik.  The weekends are very sleepy but a soccer game might be going- and everyone here loves that. 


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Arctic Kayak Adventure

I've made it back safely to Upernavik after an exhilarating kayak journey to the north!!!  Our small group spent two weeks paddling a circuit of small islands off the coast of mainland Greenland at about 75 degrees N latitude.  Our destination was Reindeer Valley/Tugtulikavsak.  We threaded our boats through fjords littered with icebergs, camped on tiny islands, drank from glaciers, hiked on the inland ice, and saw no one but a couple of Inuit hunters searching for seal and narwhal.
Kayakers in intense arctic light

We paddled through some pretty dense ice on this trip... yowzah!

Mainland glacier meets the sea, as seen from the chopper
It’s hard to ground my experience here on the page, to put to words what was so completely breathtaking and, in the truest sense, awesome.  

Saturday July 7.  I dream so deeply out here, lavishly.  The days fall seamlessly into one another, night becoming day becoming night again. Always light. The world feels timeless and on some mornings I wake disoriented, forgetting where I am – and who I am.

Our group was led by Nikolaj, a Dane now living in Upernavik, and his assistant Rickard - a kind and fun-loving young Swede.  Two Germans, Jan and Mieka, recently married, rounded out our posse.  We flew by helicopter on July 5th to the very small settlement of Kuvndlorssuaq, where our kayaks, gear, and an unprecedented Arctic adventure awaited us.  

Orange lichen and a kayaker fishing

Kuvdlorssuaq… is unlike any place you’ve ever been, as are all the settlements here in GL!!  It’s home to a couple hundred people and as many sled dogs.  There are no cars or roads, no plumbing or running water.   The stench of rotting seal blubber and whale carcasses is overpowering.  Piles of trash – including plastic bags full of human waste - lie in the dust by the small houses.  Steeply pitched footpaths connect the settlement, and all ways lead to the harbor.
The settlement of Kuvndlorssuaq

We loaded our boats while surrounded by a throng of local kids and adults, since no one is shy and tourists in Kuvdlorssuaq are rare.   As in Upernavik, there are many babies and teen mothers.  I haven’t yet looked up demographics for this area, but it seems like half the population is under age 25 – and I wonder what their lives will be like, are like.  I managed to interview/film a young mother who works at the health care center in the settlement.  She spoke some English!  It was so cool to swap stories with her.

We spent the night with a local hunter and his large expended family.  The men of Kuvdlorssuaq still hunt traditionally and many husbands, fathers, and sons were out on hunting trips when we arrived.  We were served mattock by the women of the family, raw whale skin in broth.   There is clearly no wealth in the settlement but our hosts own a large HD TV which blared English and Danish sitcoms throughout dinner. I longed to talk more with our Inuit hosts, but it takes time to become conversant in Greenlandic/Kalaalisut!!

Sweet kids in Kuvdlorssuaq

Inuit hunter posing with the (huge) penis bone of a walrus

Boys in Kuvdlorssuaq
The following morning, after little sleep, we wrestled our remaining gear (somehow) into the kayaks, waved to the crowd gathered at the harbor and headed north through open water, finally on the sea!!   It was a relief to shed the chaos of our travel and preparation days as we paddled into the long light of the Far North.  

Mist rising from the ice, ethereal
 IT WAS SO EXCITING TO FINALLY SEE THE ICE UP CLOSE!!!!!!!  WOW!!!!!  What had existed only in my imagination before became suddenly, irrevocably real.   It felt like a dream to be kayaking near icebergs glowing with sapphire light as I navigated the fjords, each berg like a translucent porcelain sculpture adrift on the water.

Iceberg abstraction from the air... I LOVE the color of that sapphire water!!
Rock. Ice. Sea. Sky.  After several days paddling, I realized my world had been reduced to these four essential elements, the yellow of my kayak and drysuit startling the monochrome of blue and white that defines the Arctic.   

Tuesday July 10.  A break from paddling today.  We explored Reindeer Valley and hiked to the inland ice today – walking on the glacier!!! It’s spectacular, surreal.  Didn’t break down camp – decided to stay 2 nights here instead.  A luxury, but the mosquitoes are so bad, devouring me even through my layers and the bug net over my head, ugh. 

Our days had a rhythm, and I felt blessed to have a tent to myself to collapse in after exhausting days on the water and with each other.  We’d usually meet around 8:30 each morning for some kind of breakfast and I would wake up early to sneak in some reading ("A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic", by E.C. Pielou) and writing time before a full day with no downtime.   Then the work of breaking camp and moving kayaks back to the waterline, meticulously packing the boats, suiting up to kayak, and finally hitting the water for a couple hours where I could be quieter with my thoughts, a relief from the everlasting noise of the group - the banter a combination of Danish, Swedish, and German as well as English!

Home for the night, Reindeer Valley

I’m not sure if it’s a European thing, but the meals were so protracted they tried my patience.  (Maybe this is because I’ve been 22 years a vegan and there was so little for me to survive on for this trip?!)  We’d paddle to an island for lunch, fight off the droves of mosquitoes while we ate, paddle a few more hours and make camp again, pull our boats to shore high above the waves,  and immediately start making dinner, with several fuel stoves going at once.

I have to reveal that there were no reindeer to be seen at Reindeer Valley, though birdlife was plentiful.   I saw eider ducks, Arctic terns, glaucous gulls, snow buntings, and black guillemots.  But the only mammals we saw were a few bearded seals. No beluga, no narwhal.  I spotted a single fish in the water below my boat in all the days we kayaked.  And when Nikolaj and Rickard fished on three consecutive evenings, they came back empty handed every time.  It has definitely made me wonder what’s going on; if even here in the Arctic we are feeling the effects of centuries of commercial fishing and that things have become out of balance.   

Thursday July 12.  Wake to the cacophony of arctic terns overhead and the explosions of icebergs calving, breaking apart. Sounds like gunfire.  We do actually have two rifles with us in case of polar bear, to scare them off.  How strange to be traveling with weapons.  You can buy guns and ammo in the grocery store in GL.  Everyone owns guns here.
My ride back to Upernavik

My boat on a rare Arctic beach

The good news is, all five of us managed to avoid the potential disaster of flipping a fully loaded kayak into the frigid Arctic waters!!!   I did a lot of filming, photographing, and note-taking.  I’m musing constantly about what art will result from my time here, and what I will create now in the studio while still in GL.  I had the experience of a lifetime these last weeks on the sea, in one of the last truly wild places on Earth.   Gratitude fills me. 

I’m writing (offline) tonight in the comfort and solitude of my red house on the shore in Upernavik again.  It’s late.  I slept 11 hours last night and can feel that tonight will be much the same.  I’m so tired.

A motorboat of fishermen has just sped past. I wonder if they caught anything.  The fog drifted in last night and has shrouded the village since morning.  Hard to believe it’s July.  Hard to believe so many multiple/coincident realities exist on this little blue planet we all call home. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Breaking News!!!!!!

Icebergs near Little Reindeer Valley
Last minute update!!  I will be leaving in the morning for a two week kayak expedition with Kayak North, a small touring operation here in Upernavik.  They had a cancellation for their Reindeer Valley trip and I have been invited, expenses paid.  Lucky me!!  From their home page there is a link to a Spot Tracker which will be mapping our whereabouts for the next 14 days.  I will return on July 17 if the weather is good enough to land the helicopter.  Tomorrow we head north to Kuvdlorssuaq where we organize kayaks and gear.  WOW.  I am so blessed.  I'll be filming and taking pics til my batteries run out, and taking lots of written notes and doing some painting- along with plenty of paddling and hiking.  Sad to say I will not be able to blog til my return.  I will miss you all but will be absorbing the silence and raw wild of the real Greenland- a very rare opportunity.  Bon Voyage!!

Light without end

July 4. Its my fourth morning here in Greenland, fourth night spent without a sunset, without darkness or stars. I now live in an ethereal world of constant light, and I block the windows so I can sleep in my little attic room overlooking the sea.

Sleep isnt a problem for me though - not yet!! Im still catching up from a couple nights spent awake on the trip to GL. Reflecting now from a quieter vantage point, I realize how incredibly busy I was as I prepared to leave Colorado for the Arctic. Rest is so welcome, and I find myself sinking into with abandon. I dream of trees, bike riding, and the people I long for.

Most days, the humidity and clouds allow only a dim distinction between water and air, ocean and sky. I squint my eyes looking for a horizon, for giant icebergs that might tell me where the world begins and ends. The light and color are so gentle.

The lack of night makes this whole experience seem timeless. I love not knowing (or caring) what hour it is. Theres nowhere for me to be but right here, right now, in the middle of noon or midnight.

Taken last night about 11:30pm from the front of my cabin... Greetings from GL!!!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat

Arctic poppies, Ilulissat


 Im writing from the little red cabin next to the Upernavik Museum on Baffin Bay. Its Day 2 for me here in Greenland. It took four full travel days to make the journey via Europe, and the time was addled by late flights and missed departures. (Aargh!!!)

Im so very relieved to have made it and my single duffel bag too!! Everything still feels a bit surreal and exhaustion is probably heightening my sense of disconnection and mild confusion. Its a lot to take in at once. The population of Upernavik is largely Inuit, and I am painfully, obviously foreign- the only Anglo on the plane in fact. 
I have so many questions!!

What I know so far: the sun never sets, there isnt much ice left in the bay these days, there are lots of sled dogs here, and the sea air is sharp, pungent and (refreshingly) moist. I have 35 days here, alone.

Ive managed to learn two rudimentary phrases in Greenlandic: Ayunngi, which is similar to “how are you?”… and Qujanaq which means thank you.

So far, Ive only taken photos and done some video recording in Ilulissat on the way to Upernavik, where I had a long layover. Here is a bit that I filmed near the icefjord, which also happens to be a World Heritage Site. Its truly stunning.

Iceberg in Ilulissat... Incredible!!!

Already I can hear the rattling din of my own inner monologue. Produce something worthwhile here, the incessant expectation that I carry with me everywhere. Make sure you do something that matters. And what if I cant, what if I dont?
This, even though my world is now pared down to the utmost simplicity. Upernavik is a quiet place, far removed from … just about everything. I have no phone and internet use is limited to times when the museum is open, which is irregular and random as far as I can tell. And then I am charged for it. Its expensive.
Today Im composing offline, looking out at the cold ocean, which is literally only a stones throw from the rocky shore. An iceberg sits there, biding its time, waiting to join with the sea. I feel as if Im waiting for something too - perhaps just someone to talk to. Communication. 

Edge of the glacier from the plane between Kangerlussuaq and Ilulissat

More icebergs in Ilulissat

Helicopter landing at Ilulissat airport

Dwarf Fireweed at Kangerlussuaq, a former Cold War Era, US military base where I spent the night last Friday.

Airport benches upholstered in sealskin, Ilulissat