Saturday, October 1, 2011


Jared Diamond in his excellent book Collapse describes the quixotic attempt of Norse to colonize Greenland around the turn of the first millennium. The island was given its counterintuitive name by Erik the Red, a vicious marauder, imaginative p.r. man and ancient patriarch to yours truly. Erik used the image of a verdant Shangri-La to lure his gullible fellow countrymen across the North Atlantic in creaky wooden ships. What they found was hardscrabble land, biting cold and nary a green shoot or twig in sight.

Remarkably, they made a go of it for more than 400 years. But their tiny communities never really thrived and, eventually, they died out. (Legend claims they hightailed it to Tahiti.)  As Diamond explains, farming was tough and resupply from Scandinavia erratic. Most crucially, the Norse failed to acquire a taste for the one food source in abundant supply: fish.

In just a few weeks, I'll be retracing the journey of the ill-fated Norse colonizers to take part in the Polar Circle Marathon-only I'll be doing so in considerably more comfort. I'll travel to Greenland by plane, stay in a modern hotel and dine in a pleasant restaurant with an agreeable menu and passable wine list. I will be braving the cold for the 4 1/2 hours or so that it will take to run the marathon, but I'll be driven to the start in a mammoth ATV, snugly attired in Gortex, and plied with hearty soups and hot beverages every few miles by race staff.

This will provide me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the magnificence of the Arctic. And I'm lucky to be visiting now as Greenland's vast ice sheet and towering glaciers are slowly melting...due to the fossil fuel consuming lifestyles of people like me who travel in planes, ride in motor vehicles, reside in temperature-controlled buildings and eat two servings of beef per day.

Erik the Red would be amused.

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