When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.
Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.
But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression–for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?
There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?
Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.
And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.
So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.
But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.
Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.
Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.
And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Originally written and published in 1949 by Vermont Royster
From the South to Greenland is a difficult journey — as difficult as any journey by air can be in our modern world. Raleigh to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Ottawa, Ottawa to Iqaluit, and finally, on a small top wing turboprop, a jump across the cold northern Atlantic waters (with thoughts of the Titanic) to Nuuk. It’s not often that you see an airplane emergency procedure card that says, “put your warm clothes on,” as part of the escape procedures.
The airplane lands, hard, and then turns at the end of the runway to make the run back to the terminal. It’s a small airport that has no taxiway parallel to the runway. The first thing you notice is the mountains. They ring the city in every direction except the sea, hemming the populous in to a small space. The roads in Greenland all lead to the mountains; there are no roads that stretch city to city. The only way to commute, if you live in one place and work in another, is by air.
The second thing you notice is the cold. Although it’s the warmest part of the summer, the high is still in the low 40’s. It’s a dry cold, as they say. The wind is high (the wind is apparently always high), but people are still walking around in shorts and light jackets. As 11pm rolls around you might expect the cold to get colder, but it simply doesn’t. The sun is out all night in the summer, so the temperature is relatively constant.
Seal skin is everywhere, from the seats in the airport to jackets to purses to… Just about everything, other than the ubiquitous stuffed seal toys, can be had in seal skin. This might seam cruel to Americans, as “seals are so cute,” but the reality is the seal is both the cow and the prairie dog of the island. Seals are a source of meat, a source of bait, a source of clothing (almost unique in its ability to face down the severe weather of northern and eastern Greenland), and yet seen as a destroyer of the primary food source, fish. Piles of seal skins stand in the local grocery, natural colored or dyed, each one marked with a stamp on the back that states the skin was taken as part of subsistence hunting.
The restaurants tend to be dark and focus on various forms of beer. The local micro brewery is charming, the people open and friendly. There is a sense of timelessness, common to European culture; you must work to pay your bill. Don’t go to a place to sit down and eat unless you plan to spend some time doing so. Brides wander around with signs offering a kiss or a picture — “last chance, getting married tomorrow.” It’s a definite mix of the old and new worlds.
On Saturday we had wind. We sat in the hotel (you fly or boat on such a day) and watched the windows of the building across the street flex in and out. Rain came in through the seals around the glass, water rolling down the walls. There’s not much you can do with large plate glass windows in 80mph winds in terms of keeping them perfectly sealed.
So this is Greenland — a place on the cusp of a socialist past mixed with a native heritage often at odds with modern feelings about the environment. At once the Native American “in touch with the environment,” juxtaposed to the “death of the cute seal,” and the angst of whale hunting, mixed with fingers exposed to ice and snow to text on a smart phone.
Beautiful in a stark way.