Looking outside my window, I notice eucalyptus, palm, and oak trees. I smell the fragrant aroma of jasmine. It’s sunny, and the warmth breathes life into the fine gifts that Mother Nature has so generously offered. Unfortunately, these gifts of nature are too often taken for granted. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are in Santa Barbara to have something as simple as trees to look at outside our windows.
When I spoke recently with Eskimo elder Angaangaq, who is referred to by his people as “uncle,” I could tell right away his voice exuded honor and humility. Growing up in the far northern region of Greenland, in the land they called Kalaallit Nunaat, he’s witnessed firsthand some of the drastic changes in our environment over a short period of time. Today, Angaangaq – who is coming to Santa Barbara as a guest of the Tierra Sagrada: The Sacred Earth Foundation from March 4 through 9 – has one simple message: melt the ice in the heart of man.
Angaangaq observed trickles of water coming from the top of glaciers around 1953. More than 50 years later, some of those glaciers are rivers. Other major transformations have also occurred. “The trees are coming back to Greenland,” said Angaangaq. “These trees are standing more than 9 feet tall now.” He explained how foreign the concept of trees was in a place as cold as Greenland, painting a portrait in my mind of an icy land covered with sheets and sheets of white snow. “We live with the ice,” he said. “We have never lived without the ice.”
I was wondering during the interview, what would Santa Barbara be like without trees? What would it be like to watch trees disappear, one by one, over 50 years? What if, like in Greenland, where rivers are replacing ice, other plants like cacti began to pop up instead of trees? This, unfortunately, is not such fictional notion anymore.
Angaangaq continues to foresee events in the future, including the extinction of a calendar as we know it. “The calendar is going to change,” he said. “We have spring, summer, fall, and winter. Those seasons will be no more.” With the crazed weather in the past decade, his foresight seems rather poignant. Imagine a world of only heat, where jasmine flowers wilt and fish float, belly-up, on the surface of the sea. This is scary, but as Angaangaq explained to me, it’s not enough to be afraid. It’s not enough to know what’s happening. “People must start to use their knowledge and take action,” Angaangaq said.
Angaangaq also believes that “one day, the sacred fire will come home.” He means that his community, which uses whale, dolphin, and seal oil to keep fires burning, will no longer need such fuel. Fire will be an easy resource, even in the land of ice. It’s an odd phenomenon to consider, but as Angaangaq warned, considering is not enough. We must act.
In Angaangaq’s native community, the people turn to the elders as guides. “If you follow someone looking at their back, you bump into them,” he explained. “Elders guide and hold your hand. You lean on them; they lean on you.”
He also explained how interacting with other elders in different native cultures across the country has helped nurture his desire to save the environment. “The elders hold so much wisdom and knowledge,” Angaangaq said. He discussed how, despite the apathy of most countries he’s visited, some leaders and elders care and want to see change. Angaangaq has met with various world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. He’s also convened with a slate of prime ministers across the globe. His firsthand experience with global warming sets his story apart from many other activists.
And the stories, as well as the prophecies of Angaangaq’s culture, live on and on, from generation to generation. “I don’t think anybody could exist without the stories,” Angaangaq said.
Although the confusion of global warming and the changes in our environment can often feel like a surreal dream, we must wake up. Glaciers are turning into rivers. Trees are growing where they’ve never grown before. Will it be after the first layer of water covers our helicopters that we open our eyes? What will it take to melt the ice in the heart of man and save the great ice in places like Greenland?
Angaangaq ended our interview by indicating that words don’t do justice for such a visual spectacle in his homeland. In a solemn tone, Angaangaq said, “I’m inviting you to come and see for yourself the changes in the north where I come from.”
Again looking outside my window, I imagine cacti replacing trees, and pinch myself. This is not a dream. We must act now.
Santa Barbara’s Tierra Sagrada: The Sacred Earth Foundation has an array of activities planned for Angaangaq’s stay in Santa Barbara, March 4-March 9. On March 4, at 8 p.m., there will be a presentation at the Victoria Hall Theater, open to the public, no registration required. For a list of other events, check out SacredEarthFound.org.