What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Gretel Ehrlich's Brilliant "This Cold Heaven"

This is just a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven (2001). Last night, I read the chapter titled “Qaanaaq, 1997,” in which Ehrlich and two Greenlanders, Jens Danielson and Niels Kristiansen, travel by dogsled from Qaanaaq, on the Greenland peninsula called Piulip Nuna (Peary Land, named after the American explorer Robert Peary), to Siorapaluk, “the northernmost continuously inhabited village in the world.”

Ehrlich is a superb sensuous describer. “We feasted on ice,” she says, “on sunless days and sun-gorged nights perched on an ephemeral floor.” Her eyes fill with Arctic sights: “changing planes of light, clipped turrets of stranded ice bergs, drifting islands of fog, the undersong of the four-legged dogtrot, and the waltz of sequined snow across a universe of ice.” In their saggy snow-covered tent, she thinks, “We were sleeping on the bare skull of ice with only a skin and a few slats of wood between us and its cold brain.” Out on the ice, Danielson shoots and skins a ringed seal (“Steam from the dead seal’s still-warm body rose from beneath the tarp”). They cross an expanse of frozen sea, “an impenetrable maze of pressure ice” (“A piece of sharp ice sliced open the ends of my fingers. The dogs scrambled and fell, caught up, hooked on edge, fell in a crevasse, scrambled out again”). They encounter “drowning fields” – open water hidden by snow:

When the ice smoothed out Jens and Niels joined me on the sled. Behind us was the wall, the Hiroshige-style high sea of frozen waves. Jens looked back at me: I smiled and made a small gesture to say that everything was copacetic. Then I heard something breaking … like a goblet being smashed. Was it glass? No, it couldn’t be. The sled began sinking. It wasn’t glass but ice I heard breaking. The sled dropped straight down. I grabbed for something to hold on to, wedging my gloved hand under the lash rope. What happened next, I’m not sure. I saw dogs disappear, dogs falling through broken pieces of ice, splashing into water … then slabs of ice bobbing back up … but where were the dogs?

My favorite scene in this remarkable chapter takes place at a hunting camp, where Ehrlich observes a group of bird catchers:

Carrying their fragile, long-handled bird nets, the hunters scaled the nearly vertical talus slopes as if climbing stairs, rising up a crumbling chimney, never grabbing at handholds, just stepping effortlessly to the top. From below I could see their nets swing – like brooms sweeping the sky – as squadrons of birds spiraled down toward the cliff from great heights as if caught in a hurricane.

Ehrlich follows them up the slope. She writes,

As I climbed the slope behind the hunters, I entered a symphony. Curds of brown turf fell away from my feet as I stepped up and up into the auks’ thick hum. Birds whooshed past my head. Near the top, I perched on a rock: hundreds of little auks landed around me. In a moment of quiet the melodious song of the snow bunting filtered across the canyon to me. Far below, a dog, chained up alone by a rock wall, began to howl. Its melancholy chant uncoiled, echoed; then the other dogs joined in and their group song pierced the snow buntings’ twitter.

That “as I stepped up and into the auks’ thick hum” is very fine. The whole chapter brims with vivid observation. I devoured it.

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