The Importance of the Kangerlussuaq Forest

Even though it is easy to think of agriculture as primarily an economic activity, it is other things also. Particularly, it can be an important cultural identifier. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond identifies farming as an important cultural identity of the Norse Greenlandic settlers of the medieval period. In his interpretation, their cultural attachment to farming proved to be both a strength, yet also an important component of their eventual decline. A European, farming-based identity provided a reservoir of cultural strength that Norse Greenlanders could draw upon as they made their livings in one of the harshest environments then inhabited by Europeans. Ultimately, however, the cultural attachment to agriculture helped bring about the Norse Greenlanders’ demise. Their devotion to farming proved maladaptive in the worsening climates of the Little Ice Age, yet the Greenlandic Norse insisted upon maintaining an agricultural lifestyle to the end rather than adopting a different lifestyle that might have aided their survival.

Spruce and pine trees growing near Kangerlussuaq

Spruce and pine trees, planted to provide a supply of Christmas trees to the region.

We have not seen anything that would really count as agriculture here in Kangerlussuaq, but nonetheless, there is an interesting instance of plants being grown for their cultural significance. Just east of town, on the road to the glacier, we have observed small groves of spruce and pine trees, struggling against the limitations of the Arctic climate. These trees, we learned, were planted to provide Kangerlussuaq with a local supply of Christmas trees. Although it is possible that somebody is making money on this venture, the “Kangerlussuaq Forest” seems to carry more cultural than economic significance. Just as the Greenlandic Norse clung stubbornly to their animal husbandry because it was how they identified themselves, someone in modern Kangerlussuaq has found the Christmas tree of great enough cultural importance to grow a local supply, even in a region well above the natural northern tree line. Like the Norse, agriculture, or at least plant cultivation, is being pushed northward not just for its economic significance, but also for its cultural meaning.

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