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Birnbaum v.

Gretel Ehrlich

Our man in Boston sits down with author Gretel Ehrlich to talk about daily life in the Arctic Circle, good wine, Tom McGuane, and how to go online from an off-the-grid cabin in Wyoming.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

What strange twist of fate sent California-born Gretel Ehrlich to Greenland and the Polar Ice Cap for the better part of two decades is one of the things we discuss in the conversation that follows.

There is, of course, her recent book In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape, about her National Geographic expedition circumnavigating the Arctic Circle (Ehrlich’s previous opus, This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland spawned our first chat, circa 2001). Also, as might be expected, there is lots of hand-wringing and gallows humor about the destruction of Inuit culture and the clear signs of damage caused by climate change.

No one-trick pony, Ehrlich has published 11 other books—collections of personal essays (The Solace of Open Spaces), a novel (Heart Mountain), short stories (Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories From Wyoming), and a memoir about her life after been struck by lightening (A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck By Lightning). She has also written for many periodicals including Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. Among various awards and honors, Ehrlich won the inaugural 2010 PEN Thoreau Award, awarded to writers who demonstrate literary excellence in nature writing.


Robert Birnbaum: It’s been 10 years since we last spoke. Has anything happened? You don’t have to answer that.

Gretel Ehrlich: We both hit our 60s.

RB: I don’t mind at all except for a bad knee.

GE: Really?

RB: Apparently. I have some trouble going down stairs. Up stairs I am fine. Tell me, 10 years ago you went to Greenland and the Arctic Circle. If I remember correctly, someone was looking to assign a story dealing with that area and you were the only person they could find who was willing. No previous knowledge or experience—now 10 years later you have a spent a substantial amount of time there—

GE: That was actually in 1993 when I first went. I met the editor of Islands magazine at a party in California—we were sitting there drinking wine and she said, “I’ve been told that I have to write about every island in the world. We can’t find anyone to go to Greenland.” I said, “Oh, I’ll go.” And she said, “Can you go right away?” I said, “Yeah.” And I went two days later.

RB: What are the odds of finding someone who wants to go to Greenland—

GE:—at a party in Southern California? Yeah.

RB: It was apparent from the book you wrote then that you like it there. Did you apply for a grant to go back? Did National Geographic come to you?

GE: That was much later. I paid for my own trips for many years. In 2004, I applied for an Expeditions Council Grant at National Geographic, which is really a grant given just to travel. A magazine assignment came with it. Other than that, there were no strings attached. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two months in Greenland with a still photographer, a videographer and a translator. And it was really luxury for me. I had been traveling alone for years and years. Sort of scrapping things together.

I suddenly could only write at night. Now I can write, day or night. I had never written at night before.

RB: The people you went with were experienced travelers—also Arctic travel?

GE: No. Well, the translator was Inuit—she was born in a village there, but no, they weren’t.

RB: What was the longest period of time you spent at the polar cap without returning to so-called civilization?

GE: Out on the ice? Oh, you know, maybe three or four months.

RB: What does that feel like, to come back from what might even feel like a different planet?

GE: The first time I came back after a long time there, I remember I flew through Detroit. First of all, I had been there in the dark time. The light just gave me a terrible headache, and I remember sitting in the bathroom at the airport in Detroit holding wet paper towels over my eyes. I did really have a hard time coming back. I went home I didn’t talk to anyone. Didn’t go anywhere.

RB: So not only a physical response but psychological and emotional?

GE: Well, yeah. I suddenly could only write at night. Now I can write, day or night. I had never written at night before. Being there in the dark, it suddenly opened up some imaginative process that hadn’t been open before. Because the dark at first was terrifying—and then after I was in it for a week, it became more like an embrace. It held me in a place where there was utter privacy. And I found it to be kind of wonderful.

RB: Is there such a thing as absolute darkness?

GE: Not from a scientific point of view, but I think so. In northern Greenland at latitude 78 degrees north, there was no light at all. I mean there is a little light when the sun first goes down—there is some ambient light. But then by the time you get to December, it’s just black.

RB: No light from stars?

GE: No. There is moonlight. And because there is snow on the ground it radiates quite a bit of light.

RB: I was looking at a book by a writer who was attempting to find absolute silence [Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence by George Michelsen Foy] He went to the Parisian catacombs and to the depths of a copper mine, among other things, and finally to an anechoic chamber at a sound lab in Minnesota—where the record for a human being enduring it is 45 minutes.

GE: Really?

RB: I can’t imagine that there is silence at the polar cap?

GE: Oh no.

RB: The ice, winds—

GE: In northern Greenland, people travel only by dogsled. Every family has at least 20 to 40 dogs and so in a village of maybe 100 people—well, do the math.

RB: So there are more dogs in Greenland than humans?

GE: Yeah. Or there used to be. Not anymore.

RB: Really?

GE: The ice is gone.

RB: We’ll get to that.

GE: Yeah, so there is this wonderful Greek chorus of dogs all night long. What I like about those dogs is they are not responding to human stuff unless they are being fed. They have their own society. It’s not they are barking when somebody walks by. You can hear a different tempo to it when they howl. It’s more like listening to coyotes, who have different songs. You hear it more as a form of communication than protection of territory.

RB: It seems that the dogs train each other for their work.

GE: They do, yeah.

RB: I was reading a novel where the protagonist says the dog in the story was not really trained, but that she just caught on to his lifestyle.

GE: That’s what we did with our cow dogs in Wyoming. You just put a young dog with an older dog. It takes a few days, and then they get it. It’s different with people, alas. We take much longer to learn anything. If ever.

RB: If ever, yeah [both laugh]. I won’t hold you to this, but I want to mark the amount of time that has passed since we last spoke—you were optimistic about the survival of Inuit culture. And now?

GE: It’s totally hopeless.

RB: Totally?

GE: I am not optimistic about the survival of any living species on Earth at the moment, frankly.

RB: Which disaster is more impending? The Inuit extinction?

GE: Their culture will go first. They are Arctic people, and the small island people are the first ones to feel the impact of climate change. I never could have imagined what I have seen up there now.

RB: The ice has really shrunk from 14, 15 feet to seven inches in a decade?

GE: Yeah.

RB: So if it has degraded that quickly what will it be like in 10 years? Nothing?

Who wants to eat a penguin? Have you ever eaten penguin? I have.

GE: Probably. April is often a month when the ice gets good, but it’s really ephemeral by May when it breaks up. In the old days, it came in mid September, broke up in mid June, and was pretty solid all the way. The trouble now is that because it’s all new ice, which is much saltier and is broken from underneath by wind waves. There might be a few good days, but then it will all break up. So there are not consecutive days or weeks, and these people hunt and go out for two weeks or a month at a time. They have big freight sleds and they go really way out to not over hunt close to town. It gave them much more latitude.

RB: There is no converting from dog sled hunting to boats?

GE: That’s sort of what they are doing—but hunting marine mammals from a boat. First of all, you are much farther off the water and it’s dark. They know where the animals are because they can see the breathing holes—they are hunting mammals, not fish. You can’t see breathing holes in open water, so they really have no idea where anything is. And boats are expensive, so they are working with the banks to get loans as family groups. It’s just not happy. For people from about 35 up, they don’t want to become fishermen. They don’t want to move south. They talk often of moving further north where there’s still more ice, but Smith Sound becomes very narrow and the trouble is that because of the decaying ice the polar bears are having a harder time hunting as well. So they’ll come into your camp now and get kind of mean. Whereas in the old days they you could chase a polar bear away pretty easily.

RB: They get kind of cranky.

GE: Yeah, and so are the hunters.

RB: Whether or not you believe in climate change, clearly there is a crisis in the Arctic and the Polar Cap. Why isn’t it everybody’s responsibility to deal with it?

GE: It’s irrelevant, that is the case. It’s a global emergency. The Arctic really drives the climate of the whole planet. It sequesters 20% of the carbon dioxide, 25%. I mean the ice does. And it keeps the middle latitudes cool, temperate. And it also sequesters pollution. People just don’t realize—they think it’s so far apart. But anything that happens there affects us. Look at the storms we are having in the Southeast. If people think that’s just a weather anomaly, they are crazy.

RB: Apparently, reason and science no longer prevail in public discourse. There could be no adaptation of Arctic polar hunters to the Antarctic—it’s a totally different environment.

GE: Right, it’s never been inhabited.

RB: And there’s no wildlife except for penguins.

GE: Yeah, and who wants to eat a penguin? Have you ever eaten penguin? [Laughs] I have.

RB: After seeing Madagascar—there are penguins who later get their own short feature—which is hilarious. You should see it. Very funny. So, it’s hopeless?

GE: I think the whole deal is hopeless, frankly.

RB: For the planet.

GE: For humans on the planet. And the mega fauna…

RB: What kind of arrogance is it, to think we can survive hundreds of thousands of years? In the time scale of the universe, we may be just a minute or two.

GE: Exactly. I had a young friend who had brain cancer. He was 19 years old and his mother and I would sit there and cry. One day he looked at us and said, “Cut it out. Who ever said that because I got a body I was going to live to be 80? Whose projection is that? Leave me alone. I’m fine.” He actually did survive. It was sort of a miracle. Suddenly the cancer just disappeared. He stopped chemo. He had his dad take him to Hawaii. He just ate pineapple and fish, sat on the beach. He came back and the cancer was gone.

People don’t realize how much fun it is to behave creatively in terms of clean technology. And tearing the old things apart. We are the generation who believed in that. We saw that you could make changes.

RB: Your sense of hopelessness for the species, how does that affect you day to day?

GE: I drink more wine—I drink the good wine [laughs]. Sometimes I roll on the floor sobbing and other times I just—I don’t know. It’s sort of [long pause]—it’s like the moral equivalent of suicide in action. It’s like living around a whole country of people who want to commit suicide—they are. Complete denial. Self-imposed ignorance. It’s the most aggressive stance you could take—

RB: That characterizes Know-nothings.

GE: Yeah, even the Know-somethings, apart from the scientists who are saying “Hey, you guys”—but to be at an economic and political impasse is really a description of our world. I was talking to a glaciologist who was describing how the glaciers in Greenland are collapsing so fast that they get grounded on their own debris and hold it back in a little bay. And I thought “grounded in our own debris” was a great description of our own country.

RB: Hoisted on your own petard. Even if you and I as individuals and the rest of an enlightened cohort, even if all private citizens responded to ecological preservation and recycling and so on, we are only 20% of the problem.

GE: Oh yeah, it’s got to be a much—it’s already gone past stopping the parade of climate changes. It’s just more than private citizens. It is industry. There are a lot of things that might be done and it still might not save our asses, but it would be a lot of fun while we go down. I think people don’t realize how much fun it is to behave creatively in terms of clean technology. And tearing the old things apart. We are the generation who believed in that. We saw that you could make changes. And it really had an effect.

RB: There are lots from that generation who repudiated the political action of the late ‘60s, if not by word then by deed.

GE: Yeah, but to be frightened of doing anything is just so—

RB: It is clear that the Arctic Cap is the bellwether of some bad news—by the way is acid rain still a concern?

GE: Oh, it’s still bubbling along. We have coal plants. Obama, bless his heart, keeps talking about clean coal. There is no such thing. They found that the chemicals that they have been using to scrub smokestacks, those chemicals themselves get heated up and are spewing toxins that are just as bad as those they are scrubbing. It’s—endless.

RB: Was a hopeful sign that Barack Obama was elected? Does he represent something positive in American politics?

GE: I was hoping it would. In a way, of course it does. I think it is impossible to govern this country. All the opposition to him is just racism. I wish it was more overt and then we could get down to brass tacks.

RB: Odd when you think that his African American identity is not particularly potent. But why anyone thought that the election of an ostensibly black man would eliminate racism is beyond me.

GE: Yeah, it just kind of stirred us up.

RB: I wondered if he was elected because of McCain’s incredibly inept campaign?

GE: He represents those old kinds of hopes and he is such an elegant man—he has an elegant mind and he is an elegant person, and that is not in vogue but it spoke to people who don’t know of the Kennedy days. Some sense of some light in the tunnel.

RB: The darkness has returned. I saw his appearance at the 2004 convention and it was quite emotional. He came on with The Impressions’ song Keep on Pushing playing. I mean, growing up in Chicago I would have never imagined that song being played a political convention. And then his speech was incredibly articulate. That’s what he can do—he’s a great speaker.

GE: He can think on his feet—which no one has been able to do—Clinton could. He is cut from another cloth. I would like to know what is really going on with those with whom he surrounds himself.

RB: I read David Remnick’s book. It’s very informative and it does talk about his core inner circle. It’s like when you look at Lincoln, who is far different when you start to examine him past the conventional truisms.

GE: What is so tragic, in a way, about him is that the so-called audience doesn’t fit what he has to give us. The gift he could give doesn’t have a recipient anymore.

RB: There is a ceiling on what will be accepted—he could possibly accomplish more. It’s great that he nominated a Latina to the Supreme Court.

GE: Yes.

RB: It was not a totally political move. It’ll be interesting to see who comes next. Anyway, from your slice of the big picture to the greater picture, it begins to look like a terrible picture. You quote one of the Inuits, “We have always had nothing.”

GE: “When we have nothing we flourish. That’s how it has always been for us.”

RB: Now, maybe they have less than nothing.

GE: Yeah, right.

RB: Is that bravado? How can they survive?

GE: Those guys have the best survival skills in the world. That particular hunter is probably the best hunter in all of Greenland. He is a guy who sits out there every day, and he’d hunt mosquitoes if that’s all that was left.

RB: [laughs]

GE: You can’t get him down. Now he is hunting musk oxen instead of walruses because there is more vegetation and open country. So he goes over the edge of the ice cap with his dog sled, parks his sled, and goes on foot down into a valley, shoots a musk ox, and brings it back on his dog sled to his village. They are opportunists—that’s how they survive. You take whatever is there.

RB: As you look to the future—do you feel comfortable talking about your novel-in-progress?

GE: Just a tiny bit.

RB: Do you intend as long as it exists—

GE: As long as they are publishing books? [laughs]

RB: No, no—do you intend to revisit the Arctic? That’s constant?

GE: Yeah, whether I am writing about it—

RB: Maybe build a vacation home up there [laughs]?

GE: I’ve thought of it. I’m not kidding. They are always offering me housing—“Really, you should stay here.” There is a guy trying to raise money to film up there so I would go and do that. To witness what is happening. It’s really sad—we sit around and cry together.

RB: Have there been any films since The Savage Innocents that have captured life up there?

GE: Not really. There are a couple of small documentaries that are OK. You have to go out and live the life.

RB: I imagine there is a lot of wear and tear on the equipment.

GE: Yeah, we have to get solar stuff so that we can charge batteries and all that.

RB: And you will continue to write about the rest of the world—not that you are a travel writer—

GE: Yeah, right [laughs]. We all travel. We travel to Starbucks here [laughs].

RB: I had a dream last night that I kept going to Nicaragua—that I had a girlfriend in Nicaragua. In the dream I keep asking myself, “Why am I the only person I know who keeps going to Nicaragua?” Anyway—

GE: Do you still go there?

RB: I don’t want to fly anymore. I haven’t flown in an airplane since 1997.

GE: Really?

RB: I just hate it. Airports are hell.

GE: They are. There was a wonderful Italian journalist who wrote a book I can’t remember the name of. I can’t remember his name, but he was a stringer in India for some Italian medium and he went to a fortune teller one day on a lark and she said, “Do not travel by anything motorized for a year or you will die.” And the plane that he was booked on to go somewhere crashed the next day. So he spent a year traveling—walking, bicycling, he rode elephants. It’s just a charming book. Really great.

RB: Think if the plane hadn’t gone down he would have listened to her?

GE: Probably not [laughs]. He was the usual jaded journalist type.

RB: What are some places that you haven’t been that you would like to go?

GE: Almost nowhere [laughs].

RB: You’ve seen everything?

GE: No. I don’t know. I haven’t been to Australia or New Zealand. I am saving the easy places for last. You know, I don’t really like traveling.

RB: [Laughs] Finally, the truth comes out. [Both laugh] Have you always known this?

GE: I like going to places where I feel I have a second home. Greenland is like some kind of home for me now. I know lots of people there. I don’t even speak Greenlandic. But I understand what goes on there. I like that. I don’t just like going places. I began going to Kosovo. At an airport, I met this Kosovaro/Albanian trauma surgeon who was trained at Yale. A very charming guy. We were both trying to find our gate. He started strolling alongside me and we started talking. He came from a mountain village of illiterate parents. Walked to the capitol city, enrolled himself in middle school, then went to medical school, and then saw a notice saying he could intern in the U.S. if you called this number. He called and ended up at Yale.

RB: Has he written a book?

GE: We talked about village life. And he is an extraordinary guy. He writes beautiful poetry. So I have been translating his poems even though he is fluent in English—he lives in the States now. So he said, “You’d better come to Kosovo, I’ll be there in May. So join me there and stay with my family.” Which I did, and I went back three times. Got to know, through his extended family, a whole portrait of a nation rebuilding itself. One of his roommates in med school is now the head psychiatrist for the whole country—dealing with genocide. Another extraordinary person. A great human being. The other roommate was head of all the field hospitals during the war. So I have complete access to all these people.

RB: The Balkans—another place that gets a bad rap—they can’t get along. Always in conflict.

GE: As if we never did that.

RB: The writers I have read from there have incredibly dark senses of humor Alexsandar Hemon [The Lazarus Project] and Dubravka Ugresic [Thank You for not Reading].

GE: They are very sharp people. They have that gallows humor, which is fantastic.

RB: There is also Andre Codrescu—he’s Romanian.

GE: His is really gallows humor [laughs].

RB: It has not been an easy life for those people. So, where do you live now, Wyoming? Montana?

GE: This spring I have been in California at my house. It’s been for sale but it never sells. It’s a bitchin’ house, so I am glad.

RB: Turn it into a national landmark—a museum for the preservation of Inuit culture—where is it, in central California?

I’ve never been without a dog. In the middle of the night when I am really depressed, I log on to the Pet Finder site.

GE: I spend most of my time in Wyoming. I have an off-the-grid cabin at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. You get snowed in and I get bored and lonely, so I leave—

RB: Are you still pals with that wild bunch from up there—McGuane and such?

GE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Harrison.

RB: It’s possible Harrison and McGuane have the last flourishing literary correspondence.

GE: Yeah I know, it’s wonderful.

RB: I forward to reading it. Of course it may not be published, if at all, in our lifetimes. Letters aren’t usually published when the creators are alive.

GE: In their case it might not be a good idea [laughs]. It might be better after their wives die too [both laugh]. McGuane—I don’t always like his books, but he has such an incredible mind. He is great to talk to. He used to call me from some podunk town in Texas because he rides cutting horses. And he said, “God, I have never been happier in my life. I am in this crappy little café eating chicken fried steak. And I have my dogs and six horses in the back of the trailer and three cow dogs—living quarters in my trailer. I am just so happy.”

RB: He sent me a picture not too long ago from a rodeo. I guess he had been thrown or something and he had a very large shiner. Amazing, 60-plus-year-old guy, still doing it.

GE: He goes fishing a lot—tough life [laughs].

RB: Do they hunt?

GE: That’s a kind of hunting.

RB: Yeah, but you don’t see any blood. When you say off the grid, you are not near anything?

GE: I have neighbors. I have a solar panel. So I have electricity and can go online. Unless it is snowing, then everything slowly grinds to a halt.

RB: Do you have animals?

GE: My last cow dog just died in January.

RB: Terrible.

GE: I’ve never been without a dog. In the middle of the night when I am really depressed, I log on to the Pet Finder site.

RB: It’s tough—too many dogs. I go to the neighboring local shelters. Going online set me back a few months. I won’t ask the content of your novel-in-progress but how long have you been at it?

GE: I started writing it before this last book, The Empire of Ice. I stopped—which is never really a good thing to do. I can’t even say how long. I started about four years ago. I have several hundred pages of notes. It’s called Jin Chao’s Book of Predictions. It has to do with what is happening to the climate—not in an Ian McEwan way—that kind of pessimism.

RB: Is Dan Frank still your editor?

GE: Yup. Fantastic.

RB: So this book was a side trip?

GE: Oh yeah. National Geographic gave me $300,000 to travel in the Arctic over the year—

RB: Did you buy a fur coat?

GE:—so I felt obligated. Huh?

RB: Did you buy a fur coat?

GE: I should have [both laugh]. And mink bikinis.

RB: Whether or not you are writing something, do you stay in touch with Dan Frank?

GE: Yeah, we still operate the same way.

RB: Are you thinking past this novel about other books? Or do you work at one thing at a time?

GE: I am still interested in writing about Kosovo and Africa. I am not quite sure what form that will take. I would like to write another book of narrative essays about whatever—and live more remotely somewhere.

RB: Do you still suffer any after effects of being struck by lightening?

GE: Every once in a while—really, I am fine. I am healthier than I was. I go backpacking and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing all winter.

You are going along and writing books. I was pretty productive, writing a book every two years. You think, “Oh yeah, I’ll just start writing novels.” And suddenly you are in your 60s and like, “Shit! I’m running out of time.”RB: Is that just a faint memory?

GE: Oh no. It changed my life [laughs].

RB: Oh no [laughs].

GE: It came in the middle of the most productive part of my writing life and really in my life—I was in my mid 40s. I was just full-on living, writing, ranching, everything. And it just cut it off.

RB: So there is a before and after?

GE: Yeah—it took three and a half years to get going again. Suddenly you are older.

RB: Suddenly.

GE: And the loss of vitality—that’s what I long for.

RB: I have been thinking about aging—it seems to me that at all stages of life you have some kind of guidepost or a mentor that allows you some help in negotiating. I think as you get to the latter stages of your life, you don’t have that. Everyone’s life gets much more specific and singular.

GE: [Laughs] Especially in a collapsing world [laughs].

RB: Does that match your experience?

GE: [Pauses with a few false starts] I used to know Margaret Mead a little bit, and the few conversations we had were really instructive for me about—when I met her she was still holding the staff and she was dying of cancer. She didn’t talk about that, but she did talk about marriages beginning and ending, how that’s normal and things just run their course and you start on a new thing. I liked that—yeah, I don’t know.

RB: You do recognize the impermanence of everything.

GE: Yeah.

RB: That is unsettling, but on the other hand there seem to be a lot of people who die or go to sleep well before they actually die.

GE: We are not going to be doing that.

RB: Right. It does frequently feel like the world is full of crash-test dummies.

GE: [Laughs heartily] I like that, like clay soldiers. I like that, yeah.

RB: So anything we missed here?

GE: [Laughs]

RB: I hope it is not 10 years until we speak again.

GE: No.

RB: Come back when the novel is published.

GE: If I ever publish it [laughs]. I intended to write fiction all along and then I got derailed. I don’t know what happened. That is the odd thing. You are going along and just writing books. I was pretty productive and writing a book every two years. And you just think, “Oh yeah, I’ll just start writing novels.” And suddenly you are in your 60s and like, “Shit! I’m running out of time.”

RB: What do you read?

GE: Nothing like you do.

RB: That’s OK [both laugh].

GE: I read a lot about climatology. I am a big fan of James Lovelock [The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can]. He is 92 and he’s like, “it’s all going to happen, but meanwhile I am still walking the Cornwall coast”—there is a kind of sweetness to him. And then he recommend all these books that are great—one called Fixing Climate. Anyway, so I read a lot of those. Oh, a person you should interview—there is a Chinese American woman Fay Ng and her first novel was called Bone.

RB: And her second novel came out recently—

GE: Steering Toward Rock—fantastic. And it got no, it got nothing. It’s just brilliant.

RB: How did I hear about it?

GE: From me. I think I sent you an email. I just helped get her a Guggenheim. Tim Winton the Australian writer—I am a big fan of his—Dirt Music. I still read a lot of medieval and ancient Chinese poetry. My mainstay.


GE: Nice to see you.