Heaven, Hell & Christ On Ice
What I Encountered During a Geological Expedition in Greenland
by Allan Carlson
Quassitilua, August 1: I write from paradise . . . if such a label might still allow for healthy swarms of gnats and mosquitoes. I sit in south Greenland, on a plateau overlooking a seldom-visited fjord running to the north from the larger Bredesfjord. The latter had welcomed Erik the Red and his fellow Norse, or Viking, colonists from Iceland in the early 980s.
I look and listen in one direction and find two waterfalls tumbling down a 700-foot rocky slope. I look in another direction, and see the fjord itself, filled with icebergs. Many of these are "blue ice," the product of pressures found in the "mother" glaciers. Their rich and ethereal glow defies both camera and description. I look in a third direction and face the massive wall of ice that forms the great Greenland Ice Sheet; it looms like a giant cloudbank. Beside me flows a small whitewater stream, the liquid pure and cold. I cup my hands and drink deeply. A third waterfall begins a few yards downstream, falling another 200 feet to feed into the fjord.
In the warmth of an early August sun, the flora and fauna seem to step out of Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom. While treeless, the landscape is green, with scrub willow and birch, blueberry plants, and a grand display of wildflowers. A few are familiar—harebells and buttercups. Most are unique to this place: pinks, purples, yellows, blues, and reds. A caribou occasionally wanders by, little concerned about my presence. Trout jump in a nearby lake. A peregrine falcon hovers overhead. At one point I look toward a rock pile about 40 feet away and spy an arctic fox sitting there, studying me. White in the winter months, his coat is now dark. After about ten minutes, his curiosity apparently satisfied, he ambles away and joins his mate up a hillock.
Searching for Erratics
I am here assisting my son, a research geologist, and a colleague of his, who are investigating the ebb and flow of the Greenland "ice margin" over the last several thousand years. What caused the advance or retreat of the ice? How did such motions relate to atmospheric temperatures and ocean salinity? What lessons do these past events hold for climate change in the early twenty-first century?
A long-missing part of the equation was accurately measuring when such transitions occurred. Geologists sometimes used the radiocarbon dating of random, decayed organic materials (trees, brush, etc.) that seemed affected by changes in glacial direction. Yet while the technique can effectively date an item, the item's relation to glacial motion is often left unclear.
We are using a relatively new approach labeled Cosmogenic Surface Exposure Dating. It has been called measuring "the sunburn on a rock." The process begins with cosmic rays: predominantly protons and alpha particles, the "stuff" left over from the Creation (or the Big Bang, as most scientists prefer) or spawned by subsequent supernovas. These emanations fill the universe and constantly bombard the earth. They pass through our frail bodies, with both tissue and particles left largely unaffected. However, physicists have discovered that when they hit the mineral quartz, these rays transform oxygen atoms into an isotope, beryllium 10. And this can be measured.
So our task combines old-fashioned, hard-rock geology with modern atomic physics. We came to this spot to find "erratics," boulders that had been torn from the bedrock by an advancing glacier and carried for great distances within the moving ice, being smoothed and rounded in the process. When the glacier retreated or melted, it dropped these boulders in a new place. We seek boulders that meet certain criteria: resting on bedrock or a well-settled glacial moraine; relatively flat on top; at least a yard above the ground; and rich in quartz content. Using hammer and chisel, we then chip off a sample of this rock, no deeper than an inch, and weighing about six pounds.
Back in the laboratory, chemical baths will extract the quartz. This material will be run through an accelerator mass spectrometer, which separates out the beryllium 10. The results will then be plugged into a formula with a dozen variables, which will in turn posit how many years ago the boulder was dropped by the glacier (give or take five percent).
Pondering Time in an Ephemeral Paradise
Again, we find ourselves in a paradise—a geologic one this time. I estimate that our plateau is about 800 acres in size. In this space, the number of erratic boulders is well into the thousands: a cornucopia of great rocks amid the flowers and blueberries. Many form part of three boulder wall moraines—my son calls them textbook examples of the phenomenon. So our work has turned out to be easy.
Such erratics once stood at the heart of debates over the age and landscape of the earth. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, neither the Greenland Ice Sheet nor Antarctica had been explored, let alone systematically studied. Uniformitarians—a category embracing most scientists of the era—could not explain how huge, rounded boulders, unrelated to the bedrock, could be found perched on high plateaus in Scotland, central Quebec, or northern Minnesota.
I am told that one explanation offered at the time was that an ancient race of hitherto undiscovered giants must have pushed them there, for unknown reasons. Alongside that argument, the creationist focus on the Great Flood was surely the simpler and more coherent explanation. It was Louis Agassiz, "the great Christian paleontologist" (Henry Morris), who finally came to understand glacial dynamics, and the enormous power within these moving sheets of ice to profoundly alter a landscape.
As I rest in this ephemeral earthly paradise, I ponder current human efforts to understand the mysteries of the universe . . . and of time. Cosmogenic dating, which uses the very residue of Creation to give partial answers about a modest climate mystery, is a tool that provides a glimpse into the created order. It also reveals just how tentative our science is and how little we really know about time and space . . . and God.
Time is a measure we humans use to relate our lives to the rhythms of the universe; yet this measure, we need to remember, is also subject to the sovereignty of God. This is how I understand the passage from 2 Peter 3:8: "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." Or as rephrased by Isaac Watts: "A thousand ages in your sight are like an evening gone" ("O God, Our Help in Ages Past"). What we call time does not dictate to God; instead, God rules over time, as all else.
An Inuit Christian Wedding
Narsaq, August 3:Christianity arrived in Greenland a full millennium ago, carried to the new colonies by Norse converts from Iceland. The faith lasted 400 years, disappearing with the Norse Greenlanders at the start of the fifteenth century. Did the long cold spell in Europe, now known as the Little Ice Age, also undermine the marginal agriculture of the Norse settlers, leaving them to starve? Or did they succumb to a devastating new disease, such as the Black Plague? Whatever the case, the last known event among the old Greenlanders was a wedding celebrated at Hvalsey Church: the date, 1408.
Fittingly, my introduction to contemporary Christianity in Greenland came as a wedding crasher. After our days in the uninhabited fjord of paradise, we moved to the Inuit village of Narsaq, to prepare for another excursion into Greenland's wilderness. Walking through the town on a Saturday morning, I saw the community's church on a hill and—at almost the same moment—heard the bell ringing in the tower, summoning the faithful. I responded, confused about the day, but figuring that there must be an explanation: perhaps the parish shares a pastor with another, distant village. By the time I arrived, the service had begun; I slipped into a back pew. The liturgy was in Inuit, and I was trying to decipher where they were when the pastor summoned a man and a woman from either side of the church. It hit me: I'm attending a wedding!
The bride was in full Inuit traditional dress: a large, elaborately knitted sweater-cape, decorated leggings, and white leather boots with fancy beadwork. The groom wore a simple white linen jacket, with hood, which is male formal wear among this people.
The interior of the little church is stunning. Erected by Danish Lutherans in 1926, the sides of the vaulted ceiling and the pews are painted a vivid blue, closely resembling the icebergs floating in the village harbor. The walls are a subdued yellow. In classic Scandinavian style, the altar area is painted mainly white, with blue and yellow highlights. Brass candelabras down the center aisle and an abundance of candles left me thinking that I was being given another, if quite different, glimpse of heaven. As the closing hymn began, I slipped away.
Sunday Service & a Baptism
Sunday morning I returned for the regular service. Alas, "modern" Christianity intruded, for the Lutheran priest in this case was an Inuit woman. In this role, she is—in part—a product of the muddled theology and confused ecclesiology of the contemporary Church of Denmark. She is also part of a culture that is somewhat matrilineal, and where women often run the show.
About 70 persons were present, a quarter of them the familiar squirming children. The liturgy was muted and brief, the sermon also short. Instead, the focus was heavily on hymns. We sang seven of them, including two long ones after the sermon. All were by Danish composers—Henrik Lund, Christian Schultz-Lorentzen, Knud Kjer, Jacob Kjer, and the great N.F.S. Grundtvig—translated into Inuit. I found it remarkably easy to sing along; the spelling of Inuit words is regular and precise. Distinctive to the language is frequent use of the letter q, pronounced as a hard k, and many double vowels. The hymnbook also contained Martin Lutherip Katekismusinngualiaanit, the Reformer's Small Catechism, which every true Lutheran must memorize.
The other focus of the service was baptism. Two babies and their families were led by the pastor from the back of the church to their seats in front. One of the mothers, and all the grandmothers, wore traditional Inuit costumes; the other mother and the younger female relatives wore stylish modern dress. Most of the men in the ceremony wore the white linen jacket. The one innovation that I saw was that it was grandparents who presented and held the children for the actual sacrament; as a relatively new grandfather myself, I found the practice quite pleasing.
A Scarred Church
After the service, I visited the nearby cemetery—a field of white wooden crosses imbedded into the rocky soil of a hard land. A number of families were present, adding to the already elaborate grave blankets of plastic flowers and assorted knick-knacks that seem customary to this place. The problems facing the Inuit are those typical to a traditional hunting-fishing people thrust into modernity: alcoholism, welfare dependency, youth unemployment, and cultural confusion. All the same, a clear sense of familial continuity seems to have survived.
What is the future of Christianity here? I know too little to speak with real authority, but I do have a few thoughts. The largely Inuit Greenlanders are now fairly close to full independence from Danish rule and eager to find their own identity and destiny. As the faith reintroduced by European colonizers in the eighteenth century, Christianity surely suffers to some degree. More problematically, the majority of Greenland's Christians have also inherited a contemporary church deeply scarred by the theological, moral, and sexual dysfunctions of the Danish Lutheran establishment. The issue becomes: Can they escape this real and much more destructive form of imperialism, and find their way back to mere Christianity? Or will they fall into the same moral abyss and cultural irrelevance that has already claimed much of formerly Christian Europe?
A Glacier's Infernal Groaning
Qangatapiliut (near Narssap Sermiat), August 7: Hell, the region of eternal punishment and reflection, is usually portrayed as a place of fires and extreme heat. Perhaps it might be better understood as a locale of extreme cold. Heat motivates action, including the wailing and frenetic motions of the damned; at least they move, and so mimic life. A numbing cold—in this case caused by the complete absence of the warmth of God's love—creates a yearning for oblivion. Denied that release, the damned would know for all eternity only the terrible emptiness of the near-frozen.
We are now 3,000 feet up, delivered by a charter Air Greenland helicopter from the airport at Nuuk (Greenland's capital) to a strip of land bordered by an outlet glacier on one side and by the edge of the massive Ice Sheet on the other. A dozen small snowfields also surround our camp. The vegetation here is scruffy and lean. There are strong reasons to believe that we are the first humans ever to set foot on this distinctive set of glacial hills. Even in the sunlight, the temperature is frigid, with the flow of arctic air off the Ice Sheet a constant.
Last night was frightful. About 9:00 p.m., the wind whipped into a modest gale. Our tents provided some protection, but little comfort. With each blast of icy air, they shuddered and bent as if about to collapse. Down-filled sleeping bags preserved body warmth. However, sleep was impossible; so would it be among the frigid souls separated from God.
On one occasion, when the wind seemed to subside for a spell, a groan arose from the glacier itself. Caused by the motion of ice within, this terrible sound would startle and disturb even the most jaded of citizens in Dante's Inferno.
Quassiarsuk, August 11: Tjoldhilda, wife of Erik the Red, converted to Christianity about a.d. 990. While she never succeeded in convincing her husband to forsake the Norse gods, she did direct the construction of a small chapel near their Long House on Brattahlid Farm. With an interior of barely 7 by 10 feet squeezed within thick sod walls, it housed several small benches and a tiny altar. The first Christian Mass ever said in Greenland probably occurred here. Leif, son of Erik and Tjoldhilda and discoverer of Vinland (i.e., North America), also presumably worshiped in this place. In the early thirteenth century, the Greenlanders at Brattahlid built a much larger church near the same spot.
The ruins of these churches, together with a reconstruction of Tjoldhilda's chapel, lie in the contemporary sheep-farming village of Quassiarsuk. There is also the current village house of worship. Eighty years ago, after the Danish state church refused several petitions from the mainly Inuit residents to build a mission church, the Inuits proceeded on their own. Each year, they reserved and sold their best sheep for slaughter, and deposited the proceeds in a building fund. Eventually, the Danes agreed to match their gifts, and the structure was finally raised in 1936. It sits a mere twenty yards from the remnants of Tjoldhilda's original church.
The Mystery of Bluie West One
Oddly, it is at this point that American Christians enter the story. After the capitulation of Denmark to the Nazis in April 1940, the United States government signed a treaty with the Danish government-in-exile, essentially turning Greenland into an American military protectorate. A year later, a secret American flotilla arrived in the same fjord once occupied by Erik and Tjoldhilda, rapidly building on the opposite shore a large airfield, "Bluie West One." It would become a way-station for vast numbers of American bomber, fighter, and cargo planes on their way to Europe, first to defeat Nazi Germany and then to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. At its height, Bluie West One formed an American village of 12,000 souls, military and civilian; it was by far the largest human settlement in Greenland at that time.
These Americans also brought with them their peculiar brand of mere Christianity. On July 29, 1941, Fr. William Walsh, an Army chaplain with the construction engineers, celebrated the first Catholic Mass held in Greenland in over 500 years. A photo of the event hangs in a small museum near the functional legacy of the American base: Narsarsuaq Airport. At the same time, Protestant soldiers and airmen enjoyed crossing the fjord on Sundays to join the Inuit for services in their new church. These men donated the hymn board still found there.
Mystery and controversy surround the American site, though. Also built as part of Bluie West One was a large military hospital, with 250 beds. Its original purpose was to care for the massive casualties expected from the invasion of France in 1944. However, during the Korean War, the facility more than doubled in size and operated behind a wall of secrecy. Persistent rumors—already circulating among Greenlanders in the 1950s and still recounted today in the pubs of Nuuk and Narsarsuaq—have held that this hospital actually received the hopeless casualties of Korea: men with bodies torn apart beyond chance of recovery, but still alive, whose return to America would have depressed domestic support for an already unpopular war. Instead, the story holds, families eventually received bottles of ashes and letters explaining that their sons had been killed in action. The U.S. Department of Defense has strongly denied these intimations of an American-managed version of hell, resting in Greenland. All the same, the hospital records of Bluie West One apparently remain classified.
Abandoned by the U.S. Air Force in 1958, the decaying hospital buildings burned to the ground in the early 1970s. All that remains today is a large fireplace, built of the abundant local stone, that had once warmed the nurses' station. It stands eerily over Hospital Valley, at the head of a difficult trail that leads visitors onto Kuussuup Sermia, the one place in the whole of Greenland where a day hiker can climb, unassisted, onto the great Ice Sheet that largely covers this curious, and sometimes Christian, land. •
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“Heaven, Hell & Christ On Ice” first appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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