Sunday, December 7, 2008

Munching on Mattak

I know, you have all missed seeing my lovely face and glowing teeth. So I thought I would appease the masses (and practice some humility) by posting a picture. No, those black spots (which only accentuate the ivory white of my beautiful teeth anyway) are not rotting cavities, though with the amount of sugar I have been consuming, that's not an entirely unlikley proposal. The black is mattak, a favorite edible (questionably, in my opinion) of most any Greenlandic child. What is this lovely mattak?, you may be wondering. Mattak is the raw outer layer of fat and inner layer of skin on a whale - this particular dental disaster is narwhal stuck between my teeth.
How did I get narwhal stuck between my teeth? Funny story (and only funny because it ended happily, when I found the floss). About a month ago, a bit bored with life in Ilulissat and anxious to experience a less urban part of Greenland before I departed for warmer places, I pursued a trip to Uummannaq. Only an hour's
plane/helicopter ride, Uummannaq is one bay, one peninsula, one glacial ford or 28 days (on the icecap) by dogsled north of Ilulissat, the town where I was living. And somehow those geographical distances have crafted a town that to me felt very different from the bustle and drive of a rapidly developing Ilulissat. In fact, as I sat in the airport at the ned of my seven day trip, awaiting my flight home again, I was a bit regretful, wishing I could stay in this stunningly beautiful and fairly laid back seaside, mountainside town. As the helicopter landed, I thought: 'Hmm, I didn't think the shore here was quite so rocky, and how odd that it says Uummannaq on the airport sign (seriously, Kendell?) and how did the baggage collector from the
Uummannaq airport get to this airport so quickly?'. Right. It actually took a full 5 minutes, disebarking form teh helicopter and walking into an airport that looked exactly like the one we had just left (a single room with 4 tables and 2 chairs) for me to realize that indeed, it was the airport we had just left. I grabbed my bag and a ticket for the next scheduled flight (3 days later) and headed back
into town.
I stopped first at the Uummannaq Children's Home, a remarkable foster home whose children experience everything form European vacations to music therapy to springtime dogsledding with local hunters ( I had been staying across the road at the new 'Uummannaq Polar Institute' (UPI), which is run by Ann Andreasen, the director of the Children's Home, and her husband Ole Jorgen, 'Greenland's greatest living native explorer' ( Ann, a Faroe Islander who moved to Uummannaq decades ago, and Ole Jorgen, a Nuumiaq (from Nuuk, capital of Greenland) live in a beautiful blue house that is packed with local art, narwhal tusks, music, always guests, always tea, always cholate and always tales of Artic adventure. Actually, my main purpose in coming to Uummannaq was to present Ann and Ole Jorgen with the project I was developing in Ilulissat, to help archive the work of all the foreign researchers and reporters who are constantly flowing through town. UPI, Ann and Ole Jorgen's brainchild, serves as a residence and homebase for researchers in Uummannaq who in return for this incredible hospitality try to include the children across the way in their research. Many give presentations or take a few lucky students out to study sites. I made pizza. And on the particular evening when that stunning photo was taken, I was actually going to the Children's home to make chocolate chip cookies.
But if you're from Greenland, chocolate chip cookies have NOTHING on mattak. So I deserted that plan and took a slice, hoping my gag reflex wouldn't, well, flex. Actually, narwhal mattak is not so bad - I'd had beluga a few times already. It is sprinkled with Aromat, a salty soup spice, and eaten in one-inch-square gridded chunks. You chew it for a while, but you can't actually masticate all of the fat (that's why it's gridded - the knife chews for you) so at some point, you just give up and swallow those bits whole. And then politley decline seconds, which no one minds because it means more for them.

The mattak was a pretty rare treat of traditional fare for the kids and anyone else in town who was lucky enough to procure a fresh piece of the afternoon's hunt. The narwhals had only just made it as far south as Uummannaq, fleeing the ice, and Uummannaq's hunters had killed 10 of their 79/year narwhal quota. Determined to see the flaying of one of these whales, I climbed from the shore across the hulls of three boats, docked and empty for teh night. Four hunters had pulled their kill up onto a thick, flat iceberg and had begun the process of peeling away its skin and blubber, extracting organs, dividing ribs and finally, chopping off the tusk that would fetch about $100/lb of weight.

(Jens Ole, on the right, is from the Children's Home. He and the hunter on the left killed this narwhal)

Completely engrossed, I was gripping the boat railing with my sealskin mittens when the captain turned on the light in the cabin. He waved, I waved, and we went back to what we were doing until he came out and invite me in. We stood at the window and I asked dozens of questions to this English-speaking fisherman and
hunter. He had not got a narwhal today, but was hoping for one within the week that the hunt would last. When interviewing anotehr hunter earlier that week, I had been told that climate change was not the problem or concern at all - quotas were the problem. According to him, the government was restricting his livelihood and making it impossible for him to live off of his traditional work. He now worked part-time as
a hunter and part-time at the Children's Home, which is, admittedly, a pretty good deal and a fantastic opportunity for the kids.
Karl, whose boat I had commandeered for spectating, dsagreed that quotas were a problem. He liked that the quotas guaranteed the sustainability of traditional resources and food, so that future generations could still feast on mattak. Such feasts, of mattak and smoked halibut, narwhal meat, reindeer stew, seal soup and all the other traditional foods, were rare and precious. In many of my interviews and conversations, I would ask people what Greenlanders were most concerned about, if not climate change (and ALWAYS it was not climate change). Access to traditional food was the most common answer. For one, it is too expensive - tourists eat more traditional food than locals do because people simply can't afford it. For another, people don't have the time anymore to do (or in the case of younger people, to learn) things like smoking their own fish.
Why are we so attached to food, taste? Why is it such an integral part of a culture, a community? I wondered these things as I flossed my teeth and wished, just a little bit, that I could have made the cookies instead.

Monday, December 1, 2008

From Bowties to Revolution

Goooooodddaaaaay! From England! I know: be surprised. I was when I decided to come here a month ago. But there was an off-handed invite from a man on a ship in Greenland, and then the draw of many good friends and fantastic organizations doing and thinking everything I would like to be doing and thinking. So here I am, in a windowless computer lab at Oxford University, where there is more rain than sunshine, more bowties than sneakers and enough Harry Potter-ness to make you believe the kids in capes are actually off to a quidditch match and not a formal dinner. Why they where winged capes to dinner is another question entirely.

I arrived here on … Wednesday, I think – just in time for an ex-pat Thanksgiving of pheasant and duck, shared with two great friends from Williams. I am staying on the mostly sanitary dorm room floor of the mostly-smells-like-a-hockey-locker-room dorm of the entirely wonderful William B. Bruce, Jr. You should remember his name – he’ll be a powerful man one day, though perhaps less successful once people find out he lived in a smelly dorm … William is doing another (after graduating from Williams) bachelors of economics here at Oxford (paid for by Williams College), along with our friend Martin, who is on his second masters and headed for a PhD (also paid for by Williams) at Oxford. So between oddly intellectual and sometimes overly economic bar-room conversations, we toast Williams, who buys our drinks regardless of who picks up the tab J Thanks, Williams!

I spent my first day in Oxford trying to simultaneously recover from Greenland and adapt to Oxford. I bought makeup, leather boots and a real haircut (as opposed to my informal and sometimes disastrous attempts to fend off a mullet by giving myself bathroom-mirror haircuts in Greenland). It felt GREAT to hear my heels clinking on the sidewalk as I cruised through the shopping district, looking proud and purposeful. I was proud, but I didn’t really have anywhere to go. But who needs purpose when you look good?

After fending off the guilt and questioning for about 24 hours, I started to wonder about the culture of this place and what I was participating in and if I should participate and if it should feel weird or wrong or something. Yes, the thoughts were that rambling and confused. Walking through the street with my nose in the hair (and quite high in the air, when I wear my new boots – hehe), gazing into shops and thinking about evening plans and what to eat and what to buy, I started to really hate it. Everyone around me was doing the same thing – nose in the air, completely unaware of other people unless you happen to bump into them and step on their heel as you both rush down the sidewalk, to make your next appointment or just to get to the next thing, because that’s the point … I couldn’t handle the impersonality and self-centered pretension that seemed to be everywhere. That’s not to say that Oxford is a bust – it’s super fun and full of lots of wonderful people and beautiful courtyards inside stone college. But I haven’t worn the heels again and I haven’t gone shopping (except once, in London) and I think I’ve been a little grumpy and introspective. What am I doing here and what can I learn from this? Shouldn’t I spend this year exploring something totally different and how is this at all related to my research? Is this way of living wrong? Should I reject it in some way?

And then I woke up this morning and had the best day ever and mostly decided that my life is about the best thing that could happen to me, which is pretty lucky because it happens to me ALL THE TIME. First of all, it was sunny and I got to bask in beautiful warm rays while waiting for my train to Bath. Second of all, upon arrival in Bath (a one hour train ride from Oxford) I decided I would like to move there because it is so pleasant and cobble-stoned and full of cafes and of a different vibe from Oxford (in my completely subjective opinion). I had lunch in an upstairs café, where I took out my notebook to finish preparing for my afternoon interview and giggled when the mother of a 4-year-old-girl munching on chips over my shoulder told her daughter I was a writer and yes, she could be like me one day. Completely smitten and enchanted, I boarded a bus to Kelston Park and the offices of ARC: the Alliance for Religion and Conservation.

Martin Palmer welcomed me into his office with a huge smile and hearty handshake. He introduced me first to the coffin in the corner, then to the rolling, green grounds that have been distracting and enchanting everyone who approaches that window since the 1770’s, when the estate was built. Fantastic. (The coffin is from an eco-coffins project in South Africa. I just mentioned it to sound cryptic and intriguing. I hope it worked.)

‘Cup of tea? Earl Grey? Milk and sugar?’

‘That would be fantastic,’ I answer, astonished that he offered the one thing that always reminds me of England and my parents, who drink Earl Grey every evening after dinner.

We sit down at an old wooden table and Mr. Palmer starts asking me questions about my grant and why I am doing it and where I am going with it and many other things that are difficult for me to answer, but interesting to ponder and somehow safe to wonder aloud in the presence of his patience. Eventually, I stop talking and hear more about ARC, which is truly a fantastic organization. I thought everything was fantastic. In fact, I think he might have begun to think me disingenuous after I told him the grounds, the conversation, the organization, the biscuits, the tea, and the website, were all fantastic. If anyone has other words of praise you could lend me, I could use some variety in my excited vocabulary.

Basically, ARC’s mission is to facilitate and mediate partnerships between faith communities and the environmental movement. But beyond the basics, they do A LOT more [check out their fantastic website at], for which I am currently completely infatuated with them.

‘Climate change is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem,’ Mr. Palmer proposed. ‘Climate change is a product of greed and consumerism, the assumptions that the planet is infinite and happiness is material.’

BING! Putting words to my confused experience at Oxford

‘The paradigm that produces climate change also produces poverty and inequality, it endangers species and it rips the planet apart.’

So, ARC is trying to imagine and create a different reality and a different paradigm, in which people learn to value not material wealth, but more modest contentment, because the earth isn’t infinite and ‘development’ and ‘progress’ as we know them are not sustainable. Why is religion the place to do this?

“Ultimately, the environmental crisis is a crisis of the mind. And likewise, appropriate development is ultimately an appropriate development of the mind. We see, do, and are what we think, and what we think is shaped by our cultures, faiths, and beliefs. This is why one of the more extraordinary (hey! They like this word too!) movements of the past few decades began to take shape. For if the information of the environmentalists needed a framework of values and beliefs to make it useful, then where better to turn for allies than to the original multinationals, the largest international groupings and networks of people? Why not turn to the major religions of the world?” (Palmer and Finley, ‘Faith in conservation. Yes, a book he gave me today).

And that is only part of why I twiddled and tweeted out of the 18th century estate with unquenchable smiles. In two hours of talking, Mr. Palmer filled my head with new ideas, my research with new directions (not the least of which is contacts in South Africa, my next stop) and my backpack with new books. I pranced the hour-long walk back into Bath – well, it was dark and my backpack was heavier, so I skipped carefully - wondering how I would explain to my economists back at Oxford that I had found someone else who thinks our economic paradigms are something between questionable and bullshit. Note to self: do not say such things to aspiring economists – it makes for unpleasant and uncomfortable dinners.

Now I am back at Oxford, where bowties are preferred to revolution, and most people have their noses just a little bit below Cloud 9 (where I spent my daytrip in Bath) and just a little bit above everyone else. I have two days here and then it’s off to Wales, where I will pick the brain of a man who is calligraphing the Bible and take long walks and hopefully spend lots of time catching up with his family (and this blog!)