As I grasped my notebook and pencil, Ukaliina held the meterstick up over my head, parallel to the trunk.
“I think it’s 1.6 meters,” she said in heavily accented English.
Niklas peered over from inspecting a tiny sapling, maybe a foot tall, a little way off. “Looks like 1.7 to me.”
I scribbled “1.65 m” in my notes. Ukaliina lowered the meterstick, and we traipsed over to measure the next tree.
One of these statements is true, and the other is false: There are no trees in Greenland. And nobody lives in Greenland.
In reality, both of them are technically false. There are about a hundred pine trees in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland that were planted by researchers decades ago to see whether they would grow. Scientists don’t yet know why trees don’t grow naturally in Greenland, but they have two theories: either the climate is too harsh for trees to survive, or the seeds simply haven’t dispersed far enough from other continents to reach Greenland yet. Over the past forty years, these artificially planted pine trees have grown slowly but steadily, even reproducing and putting down new seedlings. Now, they rise up like tentative giants over the sparse shrubs of dwarf birch and willow that are typical of the tundra.
With fewer than 60,000 citizens, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world. Ukaliina and Niklas are native Greenlandic people, born and raised. Although most Greenlandic people, including Ukaliina, live on the southwest coast, Niklas is from Tasiilaq, on the east side. I, on the other hand, am from rural western Massachusetts. I grew up climbing trees, I associate the forest with home, and I have never really been sure whether I am American or Indian or something in between. How strange it was, I remember thinking, to have ended up here, counting pine trees in a desolate, dusty green-grey landscape with Greenlandic high schoolers, thousands of miles away from home.
Two weeks earlier, the five American students—myself, Adam from Portland, Emma from Charlottesville, Niko from San Diego, and Olivia from Missouri—experienced 24 hours of continuous sunlight for the first time. We had flown in with two Dartmouth professors and four graduate students from Boston to Copenhagen through Reykjavik and finally landed in Kangerlussuaq, where U.S. Air Force officials at the base there greeted us and bussed us to the Vandrehjem Youth Hostel, where our Danish and Greenlandic counterparts had already arrived.
Interactions between us and the other students were slightly awkward at first, but our routine brought us together. We woke up early every morning. Despite the central heating and the sun shining brightly outside, the hostel was cold and sleepy in the morning, as if deserted. I shared a room with a girl from Copenhagen, Elisabeth, who had long red hair, braces, and a sweet smile. Also in our room was Dora, a 26-year-old from Aasiaat, Greenland, who barely spoke any English but eagerly showed us photos of her two children, whom she had left at home. Despite our drastically differing palates, we all scarfed down breakfasts of rye bread, chocolate, and paté , and packed the exact same lunches in plastic bread bags. Once all twenty high schoolers had woken up, we piled like sardines into old Toyota pickup trucks and commenced the bumpy journey over the unmaintained gravel roads. We watched as first the hostel disappeared from view, and then the airport, and then Black Ridge, on whose side one could observe years of erosion from blowing sand and harsh winds. Our convoy of pickup trucks with worn-out suspensions trundled over gravel and rocks as we pursued the glacial river upstream, headed towards the glacier itself. Looking back at the caravan of dusty old cars, Emma would snort and say loudly, “We look like a drug gang.” Her eyes shone with mirth, and I would laugh at her joke a little guiltily. Emma was just like that.
Everything that grows in Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat in the native language, is tough, including the people. Ukaliina and Niklas would often announce, “I’m Greenlandic – I can survive anything!” By the end of the trip, any doubts I had about the accuracy of that statement had vanished. The soil on the Greenlandic coast is sandy and dry; the metal rods we inserted into the ground hit solid permafrost just a foot or two below the surface. The landscape is covered with hardy shrubs of birch and willow, where little spiders and caterpillars abound. The mosquitos, which are black and zealous, make quick meals of any exposed skin that stays stationary for more than a few seconds. Herds of musk ox and caribou, which Kalaallisut people traditionally hunt for food and materials, roam the mountains. The niviarsiaq, the national flower of Greenland, forms bright pink splotches along the sandy riverbanks. The hills have been shaped by the same receding glaciers that carved out the fjord; they tower above the plains, where the ice left hundreds of kettle lakes, and they roll out in soft slopes and deep valleys. The grandeur fills you up like a drink. As I stood on the edge of a ridge looking over a wide U-shaped valley, watching cotton clouds skid across the deep blue sky, and relishing a simple sandwich of hearty bread and peanut butter, I loved to watch the resplendent glacier turn into moraine and Arctic tundra, feeling the ruggedness of the land infuse me with strength and wonder.
As time went on, the physical and emotional space between the students lessened. While previously, language barriers had caused us to keep our distance, Americans, Danes, and Greenlandics now draped over each other during long truck rides as our eyes slowly closed and heads lolled, or browsed each other’s phones while sitting on each other’s laps. One night, we sat in the common room and sang songs until midnight. One of the grad students lent me her mandolin, which had the same tuning as my violin back home, and I played along to our woefully out-of-tune rendition of “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. Another time, we rented mountain bikes and explored the freezing cold swimming holes nearby, competing to see who could stay in the water the longest (I nearly won!). We bonded over the abysmal “fusion food” at the only restaurant in town and frequented the airport gift shop that seemed to never get any customers. My four-person group conducted research on fish in kettle lake ecosystems and stayed up all night excitedly preparing an iMovie video on my laptop to present our findings to travelers at the Kangerlussuaq airport. We also got to know some of the local residents, including a local sled musher who owned thirty dogs, and our cook, Nini, with whom I exchanged traditional Indian and Greenlandic recipes.
Every night, after all scheduled events had concluded, Adam and I went on a run, as we were both concerned about our training for cross-country in the upcoming fall. We would cross the bridge over the roaring melt river and run to various lakes and ridges. Adam and I got to know each other well; we came to know each other’s life stories and family histories. Our conversations ranged from our insecurities and dreams to politics and philosophy. On our way back to the hostel, I would stop to sit at the edge of the bridge and watch the water rush below my dangling feet, trying to imagine what it must be like in the winter when the glacier stopped melting and the river dried up.
On the third week of the trip, our entire cohort flew to the U.S. Summit Station research base, which is situated at the highest point on the ice cap. When I spoke with the U.S. Air Force officials at the airport, their American accents, identical to my own, felt jarring and foreign. As their engines were turned on, the deafening roar of the C-130 military planes, built in the 1980s, echoed through the valley, hitting the mountains and echoing off their sides.
After three hours of flying, the plane landed on skis at the summit of the ice cap.
“Remember to put your sunglasses on,” announced an Air Force man in a green jumpsuit as he secured his headset and braced himself to open the hatch. “It’s going to be much brighter than you expect.”
We stepped out of the plane and were greeted by a solid barrier of white light, almost as if we had collided with a concrete wall. As my eyes adjusted, I removed my ear plugs and listened to the deafening silence. Apart from the small village of five-odd buildings on stilts, scientific machinery and tractors, multicolored flags, and about thirty orange tents, pure white snow stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. My first thought was, If someone wandered off half a mile, they would die. My own insignificance had never been more glaring. I was a speck floating on top of millions of cubic kilometers of frozen water, a mere blip on the face of the gargantuan ice cap that was a dominant feature on every world map. As the Arctic wind bit my face, I turned to the sun and soaked it in as if I could photosynthesize; I let it give me energy.
We spent five days at the Summit Station. Beneath our feet was three kilometers of solid ice and hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of history. One of the American scientists showed us the site of an ice core that had been drilled to the bedrock, three kilometers below us. In the ice core, she explained, researchers had found lead particulates dating back to ancient Roman metal foundries. Near the bottom, there was ancient DNA from the lush prehistoric rainforest that used to cover Greenland before the last ice age.
Sleeping in the tents was exhausting. What with the altitude and biting cold, one had to wear several layers to sleep, including a hat, gloves, and a few pairs of socks, all inside a heavy-duty sleeping bag. The light was a constant assault, worming itself under your eyelids; wearing a sleep mask was inadvisable because it could take up to ten minutes for your eyes to adjust upon removing it (this I learned the hard way!). At all hours, including at “night,” the rays of the sun, high in the sky, bounced brilliantly off the white snow, so that it was impossible to tell the time except by checking one’s watch. One of the Danish teachers got sunburn on his retinas when he took off his sunglasses for five minutes. Breathing grew laborious at times, and my heart rate was constantly elevated.
When we had downtime from meals, talking to scientists, and collecting samples for our research, the students packed into a small, bright red emergency shelter half submerged in the ice. The researchers at Summit had lovingly dubbed it “The Tomato.” We would take off our glasses and hats and sit with our backs propped against the walls and each other. There was no cell service or Wi-Fi; Lars Karl, a Greenlandic boy with mischievous eyes, was the only one who had music downloaded on his phone, so we would talk and play word games while listening to the same five songs on repeat. When I hear those songs now, I close my eyes and remember the beautiful desolation, and my friends’ laughs, and the crisp smell of snow in July.
Returning to Kanger felt like returning home and slipping into a warm bath. For the first time in a week, we could run without struggling to breathe and move through thick layers of clothing, we could take a shower and wash our hair, and we nestled joyfully into our familiar bunk beds with real pillows and green checked blankets. The air was tinged with a feeling of melancholy, however, for we were all painfully aware that we would be flying back home in just two short days. On the last night, I visited the river again with Adam, walking this time. We stood at the beach where the water had deposited fine sediment on its way from the glacier and down the fjord. I took off my Birkenstocks and let the cool sand seep up between my toes. Bending down, I picked some up with my hands and let it run through my fingers. At around one in the morning, after having walked several miles along the river, we watched the sun barely dip down behind the mountains, only to rise up again a few minutes later. We knew that as the next weeks went by, the sun would spend more and more time under the mountains, until it would disappear for the long months of winter, only to surface again the next spring. Words seemed inadequate to express the things we wanted to say, so we walked in silence. We listened to the rushing of the river and watched the shrubs sway in the breeze over the rolling hills, where caribou grazed on a far ridge. The purple flowers on the bank glowed in the light of the sun. Under his breath, Adam sang “Stand By Me.” His voice soon dissolved into the distant gurgling of the river.
The Americans flew back to the Air Force base in Albany while the Danish and Greenlandic students flew out from Kanger the next day. The weight of the C-130’s thunderous engines forced its way through my earplugs and pressed against my forehead. When we stepped out of the plane in our windbreakers, cargo pants, and hiking boots, dread came over me in a wave. The summer humidity hit me first, and then the trees. They were everywhere, and their bright, lush colors swam around my head in psychedelic whorls. The towering oaks and maples in which I had spent hours as a kid seemed menacing as they closed in on me, and the shiny rush of hundreds of cars on the highway was overwhelming. The air was suffocatingly thick. As perspiration beaded on my forehead, I wiped it off in disgust as if I had never sweated before. My own family, greeting me at the ridiculously luxurious Albany Marriott hotel, felt like strangers as they hugged me and repeatedly asked, “Tell us about Greenland!”
As days and weeks went by, I struggled to translate my experience into words. I was suddenly an intruder in my own house, for the person that I had turned into no longer belonged in western Massachusetts. In my bathroom mirror, the tanned face staring back at me was that of a stranger.
Slowly, I came to love the trees, the lush grass, and the heat of New England summers again. I got used to the smoothly paved roads, the strange darkness that cloaked the nighttime, and the loneliness of sleeping in my own room while my adopted family was thousands of miles away. Now, when I stay in the city, I yearn for grass and forest and the peaceful music of a restless canopy above my head. But a piece of my heart will always belong to Greenland, a place without trees, and to the people there who are as strong and unique as the land itself.