email a friend iconprinter friendly iconChanging Greenland
Page [ 4 ] of 9

The last historically documented event of Norse life in Greenland was not a perfect storm, though, nor a famine nor an exodus to Europe. It was a wedding held at a church near the head of Hvalsey fjord, about ten miles northeast of Qaqortoq. Much of the church still stands on a grassy slope beneath a towering granite peak.

On a cool morning last summer a strand of fog lingered high up on the peak's eastern face like a gossamer pennant. Wild thyme with delicate, purple-red flowers spread low across the ground in front of the 800-year-old church, now roofed only by sky. All four of the three-foot-thick, stone-slab walls remain intact—the eastern wall is about 18 feet tall. They were evidently built by people who intended to stay here a while. Within the walls, grass and sheep droppings cover the uneven ground where, on September 14, 1408, Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjørnsdottir. A letter sent from Greenland to Iceland in 1424 mentions the wedding, perhaps as part of an inheritance dispute, but provides no news of strife, disease, or any inkling of impending di­sas­ter. Nothing more was ever heard from the Norse settlements.

Greenlanders today, all 56,000 of them, still live on the rocky fringes between ice and sea, most in a handful of towns along the west coast. Glaciers and a coastline deeply indented by fjords make it impossible to build roads between the towns; everyone travels by boat, heli­copter, plane, or, in the winter, dogsled. More than a quarter of all Greenlanders, some 15,500, live in Nuuk, Greenland's capital, about 300 miles north of Qaqortoq as the narwhal swims.

Take one part quaint Greenlandic town, complete with fjord and exhilarating mountainous backdrop, mix with maybe four parts grim Soviet-bloc-style apartments, add two traffic lights, daily traffic jams, and a nine-hole golf course, and you've got Nuuk. The sprawling, run-down apartment blocks are a legacy of a forced modernization program from the 1950s and 1960s, when the Danish government moved people from small traditional communities into a few large towns. The intent was to improve access to schools and health care, reduce costs, and provide employees for processing plants in the cod-fishing industry, which boomed in the early 1960s but has since collapsed. Whatever benefits the policy brought, it bred a host of social problems—alcoholism, fractured families, suicide—that still plague Greenland.

Page [ 4 ] of 9