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3 March 2016

The landscape of Greenland was so empty, Morten Hilmer had to ration his thoughts

After two months on patrol, Hilmer and his colleague not only had nothing left to talk about - but nothing left to think.

By Antonia Quirke

An edition of Outlook Weekend (28 February, 8.30am, BBC World Service) heard from Morten Hilmer, who served in the Danish army and joined a special force that uses dog sleds to patrol the north-eastern coast of Greenland. For two years he ventured out in all weathers and for long periods sometimes in the company of just one other person.

We hear this sort of story quite often, but I can’t remember one that concentrated solely on what was going on inside the traveller’s head. “I remember thinking to myself,” Hilmer said: “‘Now I will drive for six hours every day into unknown territory.’ But after two months you have exhausted the things you can talk about.”

I travelled for a while up the west coast of Greenland myself last year, and I remember how completely absorbing it was just being befuddled by various facts. Needle ice, for instance, can be sharp enough to pierce a polar bear’s paw. The ice cap is so thick and heavy and pressurised that the centre of the island is warped. This sort of thing. But as Hilmer and his companion’s conversation dried up and then stopped altogether, he would gaze into the fog and conclude, temple-clutchingly, that “there is nothing to think about”. Essentially, Hilmer experienced a kind of enforced innate enlightenment, and the man’s hypostasising mind-tricks were awesome.

Travelling alone for months, he actively rationed his thoughts. Something would enter his mind – forests and friends, food and fire – and “then I stopped myself. ‘No! Wait! I can’t use that thought now. I have to save it for tomorrow, because tomorrow will probably be like today with a white-out for six hours.’ So I wrote a few good thoughts in my diary and forced myself not to think about them.”

Occasionally he would get a thought out – as a treat, to gloat – and then it was back to the unhappiness of accepting his brain as a palimpsest that forever wipes itself clean, while all around him (I suggest: because it’s perfectly possible, given where he was) there might have been a night like a long period of twilight, or a sun that was not even the sun but a solar mirage, its rays refracting in the atmosphere. Beat that for existing in the present. 

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis