02/04/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

On Seeing Greenland

The body at rest.

Somewhere near the back of a very large airplane, I had a window seat, flying from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. We had finished the first meal, the second glass of wine. Most of the seatback video screens glowed a new movie. Cartoons. Action. Romance. A few showed games or lists of music. Many of them were dark, the passengers trying to sleep. Only my own and one other, from those I could see, showed the moving map, the airplane painted on an arc, the course of our travel and what distance we'd accomplished.

It was an illusion, of course. We were more than six and a half miles above the ocean. Commercial jets on this route fly a breath under the speed of sound -- so let's say Mach 0.8. Just at the edge of Transonic velocity. At 35,000 feet this particular evening, roughly 528 miles per hour. My glass of red wine barely trembled. The cabin temperature was about 70 degrees. The International Standard Temperature at 35,000 feet, less than two feet away from my head in the screaming Jetstream, is 67 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.

It was settling time. I had promised myself some reading, some time to slow and enjoy the cadence and pulse, the canyons and crests of an idea. But I will admit that sleep called more urgently. To sleep. Perchance, yes, to dream.

Then the Captain keyed his microphone to make an announcement.

"Captain here," he said, giving his name, which I do not remember.

He paused. Passenger ears dialed forward.

"Normally," he said, "This doesn't happen." He paused again and everyone's posture improved.

"There isn't a single cloud anywhere over Greenland."


I know the math.

∑F = 0 => dv/dt = 0.

This is Newton's First Law. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Unless an outside force acts upon it.

"If you look out the right side of the airplane..." the Captain began. My own seat was on the right hand side. But my window shade was down. I had not seen the approaching landmass. There was no gentle crescendo. When I raised the blind I got cymbal crash and cannon fire.

Sunlight. Bright, sharp, water and ice-reflected sunlight. But that was not the shock. There was land down there. Not just land, though. Land! Mountains! Fjords! Ocean! There wasn't a cloud anywhere and the air was crisp.

Imagine a fine-line pen and ink drawing. From a distance you see the familiar shapes. The tree. The tulip field. The shaded alley you may have walked in a town you may know. But you step closer and suddenly you do not know where you are at all. The details cannot suffer the generalities. This is specific. This is the place -- right now. Fine line drawings show one sacred moment in time as clearly as the shapes of a garden path.

Southeastern Greenland. A province, what they call a municipality, named Kujalleq. Islands called Ikeq and Aluk-tunordleq, nestled against the mainland, fjords cutting through the rock to keep them separate. Prince Christian Sound. The village of Igaliku. Itilleq harbor. Tunulliarfik Fjord. A lake named Tasersuaq. Qooroq glacier. A town called Narsaq. Our airplane brought each one home.

I could see the browns and blacks of rock, and I could see the shadows those rocks cast on the water. I could see the icebergs in fjords. I could see glaciers at the end of fjords -- and not in some captured or static moment. This was the place alive in sunlight and wind. I could imagine myself in that valley, hiking over that hill, sitting on that rock. I could place myself somewhere real. Not only Greenland, but Greenland this afternoon. Steep cliff faces in a gargantuan late summer light.

The body was not at rest, but appeared to be. Greenland was not moving at nearly the speed of sound, but appeared to be. I could scarcely breathe. I have seen tens of thousands of pictures of this place, ever since I was very young and reading National Geographic. The remote and the cold call to something deep in me. But until this moment I had never seen the rock, the real rock, with my own eyes.

Unless acted upon by an outside force.

I know the cliché basics. Erik the Red, expelled from Iceland for murder, sails west and finds a place he names Grœnland. Because my own family tree leads back to Denmark, I know Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, and the name of the island in Greenlandic is Kalaallit Nunaat. Because I have a love for maps, I know the Mercator projection distorts the planet and makes Greenland, with a total land size of less than a million square miles, look larger than Africa's nearly twelve million square miles. I know the Raven group, a branch of the New York Air Guard Reserve, practices ice landings in Greenland for their ongoing missions in Antarctica. I know the early whaling stories, the more recent books too. In other words, I know nothing. I know ideas and politics and history of a place that is very far away. And there it was. There it is. Right then. Right now.

The Captain was not talking about seeing Greenland. There are pictures of southern Greenland on Google Earth. Lots of pictures, most of them shot from airplanes, with titles in English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch. Lufthansa Airbus A340-300 Frankfurt-Toronto 12/2006. vue du ciel (from the sky). Grönlands Südspitze aus der Luft. Greenland from 35,000 ft. Greenland on December 6, 2006 from a 747 at 11500 meters. Near Kap Farvel 1963. Untitled. The Captain was talking about something more intimate and rare. The Captain was talking about clarity.

Newton does not name the outside force. Any force will do. Any variation in the universe at all and the body gets a new direction, a new trajectory. The spirit, and perhaps the soul, have the same discoveries. There was joy in seeing Greenland, and then mourning as the island left what I could see. Before this day I had information. Because of this day, I have a memory, as specific and revealing as a fine pen and ink drawing. And I cannot stop looking. I know I will have to return and get closer. So, for just this one moment in time, this particular afternoon, let's call that outside force by its honest name.