whispered love
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December 1st 2006: Disappearances

In the summer of 1975, one of the best Greenland summers on record, a group of us spent 11 weeks mountaineering near Cape Farewell, in an area previously unclimbed, and uninhabited. Although the mountains were glaciated, and the icecap loomed inland, the valleys and coast were rather like Scotland with heather, juniper and wild willow scrub. We enjoyed week after week of glorious sunny weather and made 40 first ascents.

We also carried out a number of projects and towards the end of the trip, Pete Hunt and I set off along the precipitous coasts to look for the remains of viking settlements. We travelled light, with a flysheet and minimal equipment, and lived off the land, catching fish and picking berries.

The main viking settlement of Greenland occurred between 1000 and 1400, and was extensive, with villages, sheepfarms, and churches: but by 1500 the vikings had gone... just disappeared. Supply ships from Europe arrived to find... no-one.

As we trekked around the viking seaboard, it seemed strange to think that this desolate wilderness was once home to families, communities, a whole culture and way of life. And in the timelessness of the scenery it also seemed as if those lives were so close... just passed... as we, the successors, were passing too.

I will always remember one evening, as the arctic dusk fell in a dreamy lull, we spotted the outline of a 'something' along a lonely valley and - pulling back the overgrowth of centuries - we found the compact stone walls of a small house. It was strange and evocative to imagine how once this might have been home to laughing children... then no-one for over five centuries, until we stumbled upon the real but abandoned remnants of their lives.

We found ten sites or more over a period of a week, before our summer headed to its close. On the last evening, overlooking a viking settlement, we lit a large bonfire which spat and sparked in the dark. Then the aurora began in the skies above us... mysterious, urgent, inexplicable. Crouched beneath these strange and tremulous lights, with the smell of woodsmoke and scrub and berry drifting on the air, little seemed to have changed over the tumultuous centuries, since those viking families lived there, passed their lives... no doubt as mystified and overwhelmed at such unfathomable beauty and shimmering wonders.

Now, 30 years later... my friend Pete dead... we too are passing by... our lives measured out by the turning seasons, the tides, the ebb and flow.

How soon we are gone, like the vikings: ourselves, our loved ones, our way of life, our world. Sojourners for a brief time... but it is very brief... before disappearance.


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