In Greenland the sun goes down in about mid October and rose just a few weeks ago. I’ve never been to Greenland but I’ve known a few folks who have spent time there and have a great love for the place.
I was leafing through “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland” by Gretel Erlich the other day. I still haven’t finished it. There are plenty of unfinished kin books these days in my home. But even unfinished I am sure of its form. It is a labored over love letter to a place. The kind of letter you wrote to a first love or a first friend that just had to gush genuine sweetness and affection. But this one was written by a grown up.
In the book I came across the term the indigenous concept of Sila, which is somewhat akin to the concept of Gaia, as argued by the Métis and anthropologist Zoe Todd (2016). Sila is explained as a unity of the climate, the weather, the breath of a living being, consciousness and mind. Of the individual and of the consciousness of the world. As such, it interconnects human-nature relationships. If you can even really make that divide in a place like that.
Here was the passage:
“Seasons of darkness and light passed like a blinking light, first bright, then black, and the bicameral mind blinked with it. Sila was a single multitude: Arctic weather was a know-it-all, a major divinity, and mind was a tangle of strict etiquette and wild imagination that grew in direct proportion to the extravagance of polar beauty, cold, and storms.”
Beautiful, right? Elsewhere in the book Erlich writes of her confounding experience of sled dogs killing a polar bear cub and the near instantaneous decision by the subsistence hunters Erlich was traveling with to kill the mother with a rifle. Mother bears are never shot if they are with cubs. She saw the bear scan the water looking for a way to escape and she begged for the life of the bear. And she begged for the life of the bear while wearing polar bear skin pants. Her life there was underwritten by the death of the bear. The hunters warned her to not disrespect the bear that this was Sila speaking.
I didn’t know much about Sila specifically so I went looking for a bit more and came across a film that you can’t seem to see anywhere despite the many awards that it has won. The Gatekeepers of The Arctic.
The film curator Sidney JP Hollister writes of the film:
“To the Inuit of Qaanaaq, 1,200 miles above the Arctic Circle, “Sila” is the weather, the sky – “all that is out there.” From a remarkable opening sequence to interviews with Inuits, whose language sounds like it has been chipped from ice, director and cinematographer Corina Gamma uses superb images, restrained but forceful editing, and Jorge Corante’s music to show us a world where Sila is slipping out of balance, while a team of international scientists tries to find out why, the Inuit struggle with its consequences.”
I look forward to maybe seeing the film at some point but I know that a culture like this, one where the world is alive and known, is worth having and remembering and knowing something about. The sun is still rising for them. Where death feeds life and the skill of that makes culture. These are the values I’m trying to recall with these little jars of tallow that you all so kindly gather into your homes.
Take a look a the preview of the film below or maybe read the book and look for signs of that alive world in your corner.