Story transcripts

The Vanishing

Monday, July 2, 2012

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Danny Keens, Nick Greenaway

Come with us on a breathtaking journey to the very top of the world. In Greenland's remote Arctic wilderness, every day is a grim struggle to survive.

And it's only becoming harder. You see the world of the Polar Eskimo is disappearing, a casualty of climate change and encroaching civilisation.

Their language and their culture might have vanished forever. But then an eccentric professor came to stay.

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: High in the Arctic Circle, Greenland is a place of perpetual frozen beauty. 80% of the landmass is actually ice, and out here, you feel very, very small. This is Greenland's ice-cap. It is one of the most brutal environments on earth. Nothing survives up here – not even the polar bears. In winter, this is a deep dark freeze where the sun never rises and in summer it never sets, it's pure daylight for months. But somehow on the edge of this unforgiving ice, there is a small town of people who survive these extremes they're the Polar Eskimos of Qaanaaq.

MICHAEL USHER: Are you amazed at how these people survive out here?

STEPHEN: I am and I have great respect for that. As you've seen for yourself, the Arctic is something extraordinary.

STEPHEN: There are some really impressive lumps of ice breaking off from that.

MICHAEL USHER: They are monuments aren't they, they are monuments of ice.

STEPHEN: Yes, they are monuments of ice. They are like cathedrals of ice. I've seen some the size of small English villages, they are extraordinary.

MICHAEL USHER: It's a long way from home for Cambridge professor Stephen Leonard. He's lived here for the past 12 months – experiencing the Arctic in all its beauty and brutality, while researching the unique Inuit way of life.

STEPHEN: I was living a sort of childhood ambition, I suppose in a way, and I was never happier than out on the sea ice on skis or with the local hunters. You just deal with the frustrations on a day-to-day basis. You have to be exceedingly patient. A year in an Inuit community has shown me what it is like to be thwarted, to be confronted with contingency and circumstance day after day. But you just have to keep going.

MICHAEL USHER: To understand the Inuit, Stephen's had to live like them. He's been snap frozen in month-long snow storms, encountered very hungry polar bears in the main street of town, and he's suffered through the long dark months of an Arctic winter.

STEPHEN: 3.5 months of darkness will play with your mind if you are not used to it, and I certainly wasn't used to it. The sun goes down for the last time on the 24th of October, doesn't rise until the 17th February, that's a very long dark period.

MICHAEL USHER: During that deep dark winter here, did you ever think, "What am I doing?"

STEPHEN: It never once occurred to me to pack up and go home, but there were some low moments. I think I probably suffered from depression in the dark period, which was something new for me.

MICHAEL USHER: But this is not just some personal test of resilience. Stephen came to the township of Qaanaaq to record a disappearing Eskimo culture –songs, stories, even language, being lost to time.

STEPHEN: You know a language is so much more than a list of words, you know. If we lose language, we lose these voices.

MICHAEL USHER: Is that disappearing though?

STEPHEN: It's disappearing, and I think it's inevitable that one day it will disappear completely.

MICHAEL USHER: It's a culture that dates back to 900AD, when Inuit ancestors crossed ice and land bridges from Canada into north-west Greenland. Not even the Vikings dared forge a life this far north. And just as they've done for millennia, the Inuit hunt the incredible-looking narwhal. But these days, hunters must abide by a quota of around 60 each year, and use a traditional kayak and harpoon. For seal hunting, there's a modern allowance - rifles are permitted.

MICHAEL USHER: Gee, it's a tough thing to see I have to admit. It's hard, isn't it?

STEPHEN: It is, yeah. It's not our culture, but it is important to remember that this is subsistence hunting. These people are the Inuit are hunting because that is their life, and that is what they eat.

MICHAEL USHER: Not surprisingly, seal is on the menu for Sunday lunch at the home of Eskimo elder Ar-Yuku's and his wife Anna. I'm not entirely sure, but we'll give it ago. It's an acquired taste. If it moves and it's at all edible, it will find its way to the table – including the local specialty of fermented bird complete with feathers. OK, that's the whole bird?

STEPHEN: This is the whole bird.

So...when in Rome...not even sure if I can pick that up. It's cold.

STEPHEN: It's cold yeah, what were you expecting?

MICHAEL USHER: I was really...I'm really not sure what to expect right now, to be honest with you.

STEPHEN: Just pull off the feathers, comes off very easily.

MICHAEL USHER: Nothing is wasted – not even the head and beak. And I must admit, I'm struggling to maintain my table manners. I can't, it's got a head on it, it's staring at me, for goodness sake. This is a way of life that demands a strong stomach and an iron will. And there are new pressures, as climate change dramatically alters the landscape they've known for centuries. The locals regard climatic shifts as the natural cycle, but it's not so long ago that this entire bay was part of a massive glacier.

INUIT: Most of it has disappeared now.

MICHAEL USHER: This bay wasn't here?

INUIT: No it wasn't here, I'm quite surprised how much it has moved. We're having a bit of difficultly trying to find an explanation of it.

MICHAEL USHER: All you know is that something is changing?

INUIT: Yes, something is changing definitely.

MICHAEL USHER: For the Inuit, ice is life. The sea ice and frozen fjords provide vital bridges to rich hunting grounds – Stephen even drove across it to visit remote villages. Gaps in the ice are crucial for catching walrus and seal. Now, as the ice disappears, the all-important hunting season is cut short.

STEPHEN: 20 years ago, Polar Eskimos knew exactly when the sea ice would come. It would come in September, it would leave in July. Now nobody knows. There's a very large element of unpredictability of it all. Hunting is increasingly difficult because you don't know where the animals are.

MICHAEL USHER: This is the very northern edge of civilisation, and the most remote villages are most vulnerable to the changes taking place. Getting to them isn't easy. But at least the summer sun means we've got lots of daylight to work with. The hardest thing to adjust to here is that blazing sun. It just doesn't go down and it's like this for about three months of the year. It is now two o'clock in the morning and it is broad daylight. Finally, after a hard day's night – we arrive at one Greenland's most remote communities, and find physical evidence of the Eskimo's disappearing culture. Fishing villages, once thriving with life, abandoned and crumbling. It is very much a ghost town.

STEPHEN: It certainly is a ghost town.

MICHAEL USHER: It is sad, in a sense, to see this abandoned, all of these houses going to ruin.

STEPHEN: I think it is sad, yes, because it is not just houses, it is people's lives. It's also the traditional cultural life of the Polar Eskimos.

MICHAEL USHER: And as this unique way of life goes, so goes the Inuit language.

STEPHEN: It's a tiny language, it has 770 speakers. So it is vulnerable.

MICHAEL USHER: With his expertise in linguistics, Stephen's determined to document this language on the brink — and he's been discovering that it's often what's not said that can be as important as what is.

STEPHEN: It took me a while to understand that the raised eyebrows means yes, the pinched nose means no, which I can't do properly, and the shrug shoulders means maybe and the answer to most questions is maybe.

MICHAEL USHER: Stephen has made hundreds of hours of recordings. His aim is to publish the first complete Inuit dictionary. Why should we care if this language is documented or preserved?

STEPHEN: It ultimately depends what kind of world you want to live in. Personally, I think the world would be utterly dull if we all spoke the same language and diversity is something to be treasured.

MICHAEL USHER: A fragile culture to be treasured, and hopefully preserved, long after Stephen has left this icy land for more comfortable climes. When you get back home to England, what is the first thing you are going to do?

STEPHEN: I think I'm going to go to the pub and get myself a pint of English beer.

MICHAEL USHER: Warm and flat?

STEPHEN: Warm and flat, that will do me fine.

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