Iceland was long isolated from the rest of Europe and maintained ancient, pre-industrial modes of creativity, economics and land use long after they had been rendered obsolete elsewhere. (What follows is an extended version of a post that appeared here a year ago, with new insights, text and images. It is part of a series on creativity I am exploring on my site www.okanaganokanogan.com, as part of an exploration of repairing human-earth relationships.)
The Beauty of the North, Skagafjörður
Many parts of Icelandic culture did not leave an indigenous sense of land until the Second World War, when occupation by American and British military forces completely transformed the economy.
Abandoned Turf House, North Iceland
The wind, I promise, is unforgiving here. The house is built directly in it, on the crest of a hill above the Greenland Sea, so that the wind will take the winter snow away. The rest of the year is scarcely warmer. I would have left, too. And I love the wind!
For one thing, in Iceland you’re always under the observant eyes of ravens, who range out to the left and right of the god Oðin, acting as the harbingers and scouts of all identity: thought and memory. Here’s one keeping an eye on me.
You Are Never Alone in Iceland, Hengifossá
One of the technologies that Iceland brought forward into the present is Nordic Mythology. It was preserved here, although lost everywhere else, and provides an alternate world view to all others. For one thing, it has humans dwelling on Middle Earth, between worlds of Fire and Ice. Middle earth is where they battle for dominance. The fire …
… and ice are never far, and come from beyond the world.
Snæfells, with Reindeer and Geese
This is a complex and deep heritage, which contains such creative technologies as haying …
Haying is the Art of Creating a Book out of the Sun
You can read it all winter long, or your sheep can. My book The Art of Haying explores these mysteries.
… the string …
Icelandic Horse Obeying The String That is a Human Will
… non-human personhood …
Icelandic Horse Scratching Its Head at the Mystery of It All
… the self living in the forms of the land…
Elf City, South Iceland
…in union with ancient story …
Raven Mountain, North East Iceland
… and creativity rising not from person but from space, in an ancient conception called the Tun.
Cow, Calf and Tun
All these technologies and many more meet in the culture of Iceland. The culture is their expression. Humans pass through this culture’s forms, in the same way they ride (or walk) across the land.
Golfing With Elves and the Dead, Too
In Iceland, nothing gets thrown away.
It’s the tun I’d like to talk about in terms of creativity today. A tun is something that you can observe (and take part in) everywhere in Iceland (and in the North). Here’s a tun in Denmark (the former colonizing power, grrr):
Den Fynske Landsby, Fyn, Danmark. The working courtyard in front follows the ancient Norse (and thereafter Icelandic) architectural model of a tun, an open air working room between buildings.
A tun is a building without walls or roof, where the money-making activity of the farm took place, and where the manure (the dung, a variant of the word “tun”) was stored, which could be spread on the fields to create future wealth. It is the source of economy.
Horse-drawn Wealth Spreader Waiting for Re-use
Hedge fund version 1.0.
The tun usually connected to the track to the next farm, or out to the world of trade. Here’s a variant on a tun, from East Iceland…
In this case, the tun is the road itself. It’s the architectural space (within the landscape rather than the farmyard) that carries forth the energy of the tun.
Icelandic Highway 1 in March, Mývatnssveit
Park your car here on the way back home from work.
The word “tun” is the German for “to do”. The English word is “doing.”
A nice triad!
It is a place of energy that creates the economy and trade and activity of a country (or a farm), or lets it efficiently take place. It is the place where the future is created. Without it, the activity of humans would not be as organized as it is, nor could it be efficiently packed up and exported from the farm (or the country.) Iceland, of course, is a sophisticated modern country, so we can expect this source of energy to take many forms today. Here are a few:
The pattern of tun-in-the-pasture is reversed to pasture-in-the-tun. (The tun is Reykjavik.) This pasture, though, is in the shape of a disused turf house. Clever stuff!
Note that this is a re-purposed building. In other words, not only is the movie theatre a contemporary tun, but the building acts as one as well.
A very useful tun for work with souls. In this case, the houses of the village take the place of the buildings of a farmyard.
The trees are part of a nation building program of the Icelandic government. They represent not only shelter and beauty, but future money in the bank. In this sense, they operate as a dung heap in a tun. The land itself has been separated from itself into a special tun space here. Here’s something different…
This tun represents a combined cognitive, social and bodily space. It moves around and around through Reykjavik, invading people’s dreams and re-shaping them into effervescent images of mineral water. Not into the dance scene? No problem…
Note the elf house in the foreground. It’s good to live close to your neighbours.
From the perspective of a capital economy, this capital has depreciated to the point of needing to be replaced with a new depreciation sequence paid for with interest. In a tun-based economy, the expense of taking wealth from the land in order to build structures upon it is a debt that will be erased only when the creative (tun-ish) potential given from the land and embodied in the building and the tractor are mined dry and these materials (dung-wise) rot back into the earth. They are, in other words, a fertilizer. You don’t paint fertilizer. You also don’t throw it away. Want something more adventuresome? Iceland has that too.
Svinafellsjokul, Skaftafell National Park
A glacier is part of the common wealth of a country, that which belongs to all of the people and brings water and energy to all. It’s not just the people, either. It also brings energy to the land itself. Here, you can see what that looks like, on the other side of the glaciers.
Aka glacier turning into light. Very good for the soul.
A glacier can attract tourists (and mine them for wealth), provide healthy recreation for the people (an idea of nature, imported from coal-smoke-choked industrial England), and even provide habitat for fish …
The Laugarfljót, with a view to Snæfells
These are both tun spaces. The mountain generates snow, which generates water. The lake collects the water, to provide habitat for fish. By concentrating energy in this way, mountain and lake make it available for human harvest. (Not that this is their plan.)
Unfortunately, capital-intensive economic systems can mess with that and simplify the idea of a tun almost to unrecognizability, like this:
Or art in the service of propaganda. Or a statue in the middle of a hydroelectric dam outflow channel that has diverted the water from Snæfells into the wrong fjord. Something like that. Here, here’s another look: See that? The ship steams upriver, loaded with generic manufactured goods, towards the economy created by turning Snæfells’ life-giving properties into cash, that can pay for electric toasters and Swedish toilet paper. It never, of course, arrives. Here’s its goal…
The Heart of the Mountain
The statue was erected on the notion of eternal wealth, just before the economic collapse made the whole notion questionable. Here’s a construction site (abandoned) in Reykjavik, based upon the economic version of this dam …
OK, So Maybe Not Such a Great Idea After All
If you get too abstract with your tun, you run the risk of running out of manure. Good to know.
Ah, perhaps you’re tired of farms by now? Well, here you go, way up in the north…
A Sea-Going Tun Space
Powered by human energy (doing). Any fish brought into the boat (the tun) are instantly converted into wealth. Well, as long as your arms are strong and the weather holds.
This particular moveable tun has been sitting on the shore for a long time, but the principle still holds. When you start powering that boat with diesel, then a good chunk of the fish you bring in are not wealth, but payment for an operating debt, and, if you bought the boat on credit, a capital debt as well. If you’re not careful, the whole thing becomes a debt. Instead of organizing the wealth of your labour on the sea (very wet common space) for delivery to social space, the tun organizes social relationships for delivery to you. You have, in other words, lost your tun (doing.) Here’s a solution:
The Akureyri Botanical Garden
This garden is planted in Iceland’s northern capital to see what plants will grow in a cold, northern climate. The concentration is on decorative plants. That is part of Icelandic nationalism, a way of dunging the country so that it brings forth wealth (in the sense of a tun economy, organized around human relationships to common space (land and water, mostly), beauty and fecundity are both forms of wealth.) So is this:
Hotel Edda, Akureyri
In the summer, the richly-endowed residential high schools of Iceland are converted into hotels, serving travellers. This doing (tun) allows for them to be sheltered and fed without capital-intensive infrastructure on the land, that would not turn a profit (dung) and would be a drain on the community (a kind of field.) In other words, without the Hotel Edda concept, travel in Iceland would be greatly reduced. That is pure tun! In the winter, the schools are tuns of a different kind, gathering Icelandic youth together for their common education. It would be best, however, not to think of these multi-use spaces as either schools or hotels, but as a space which allows for and serves both relationships to the land. See? Pure tun! Similarly…
N1 Gas Station in Blondüos
In sparcely-populated Iceland, a gas station is like a city in itself (Icelandic Staður, German Stadt [city] or Staat [country], English State, and in land terms a Stead, as in a farmstead. Here it’s a gas stead.) Everyone stops (where else?). Everyone eats (hamburgers, chicken, pizza and hot dogs, the national dishes of Iceland, and for the lucky soul a liquorice ice cream bar [available only in Iceland] if you root around long enough in the freezer.) The places so interrupt the roads in a tun-ish kind of way that even the police stop here. Rather than waiting at the side of the road trying to nab people of interest, they just hang out at the N1 and interrogate people while they’re filling up with gas.
Here’s a somewhat more esoteric tun from Kirkjubærjarklaustur:
A Window on the Tun …
… is part of the function of the tun, even when it’s a bit wonky from a stone cast up by a weed eater or, perhaps (judging from the repaired state of the wall) earthquake.
Similarly, a piece of propaganda-art (or is it art-propaganda?) in downtown Reykjavik provides an anchor point for tourists wandering down to the waterfront (very tun-ish, that)…
Leif the Lucky’s Aluminum Ship, with Modern Adventurers
If I was crossing the North Atlantic in a longboat, I’d want it to be a made out of aluminum, too.
… while reminding the Reykjavikers that the money that built their glittering waterfront…
Reykjavik: Iceland’s Tun
It interacts with other national tuns to create the worldwide tun network.
… came from the aluminum smelter (and glacial-melt electricity) across the mountain in Whale Fjord.
Aluminum Smelter with World War II Airstrip (aka bird sanctuary), Hvalfjörður
Leif’s ship points straight this way. This is a capital tun. That it needs space (Iceland) is rather incidental. It might have been British Columbia. Oh, wait, they’ve dammed rivers and diverted them through tunnels and extirpated salmon for an aluminum smelter in British Columbia, too! Like tuns, capital is everywhere. Sometimes it flows right through a tun and obliterates it.
Here’s Reykjavik’s most interesting tun, right on the waterfront …
The Reykjavik opera house and performance centre. It also houses a CD shop, a cafe, exhibition space, practice space for dancers, fashion shows and classical, folk and rock concerts. In other words, it provides a space for the concentration of cultural activity of all kinds in sufficient quantity and quality that it can be delivered to the people, the country, and the world. It’s also a beautiful piece of architecture that captures the sun light and casts it in coloured rectangles on the concrete plaza at its base, like sketchings made out of chalk. Tun all the way.
Not all tuns are so complex. Here’s one of the most basic (and powerful) of them all…
Right Between Church and House
Note the road that comes directly to it. The tithes that came to a church accrued to the landowner who had built the tun space for the people and were, as such, a major form of wealth for Icelandic farms. The byproduct was the dead, who were planted in the tun — a kind of social dung, fertilizing the future (Heaven) or the present (built as it is on human memory, the more the memory the richer the present.)
In this conception of wealth, capital (and money) aren’t exactly the goal, but a product of the tun space. The carefully-bounded space below, on the other hand, added to the tun space…
Without the line that bounds this field, there would be no inputs to a tun space. It would only be a potential space. Never underestimate a line, in Iceland or anywhere else.
Here, this image may illustrate that more dramatically. Here we are at Myvatn (you may recognize this image)…
Volcanic Slag, fenced and dunged = Field = Horse
If we lift the camera just a teensy bit, we get some perspective…
Volcanic Slag + Capital + Cleverness = Geothermal Power
Our horse is behind the rock.
You see how that works? The land has potential. It has a form of potential energy. The application of a particular technological approach towards defining it as space allows for different forms of energy to come out of it. A line gives us a field, gives us a horse. It will be brought into a tun, where this elementary relationship is retained. Capital gives us a geothermal power station. It will be brought into a city, where it’s own elementary relationships are retained. In the first case, the earth is full of life and living relationships. In the second, humans are separated from the earth, which is a field of energy, that can be harvested. The interrelationship between these two ways of being is complex, but at all times the elementary principle remains: creativity comes from the space that is outlined by technology; the outcomes are predetermined. In other words, we who are humans are not separate from technology and cannot just direct it to our will. All we can hope for is to create spaces, which create energy flows that lead to where we wish to go, but we should be very clear as to where they might lead. Here’s a kind of tun that got its start in Iceland over a thousand years ago:
The Thing Place in Þingvællir
The world’s first parliament convened on this spot at the confluence of the walking trails of Iceland in the year 930. All the people came and collectively decided their social arrangements, then followed the trails back to their home farms. This is the tun of tuns.
On the principle that space creates function and energy is latent in the land, some tuns are geographical spaces. Like this…
Arnarfjörður, from Hrafnseyrie
This was the view that Jon Sigurdson, father of Icelandic independence, took in as a child.
Here’s a slightly altered version:
Here’s an example of a common Icelandic tun: a ruin of a lost farm. The people of Reykjavik come from places like this that were no longer tenable in a capital-fueled society. They do, however, remain.
Ruined Farmhouse near Arnarstapi
The mistake should not be made, despite the astute and chilling observations of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, that such buildings were a betrayal of the debt of humans to their land, as they were too capital intensive and not constructed within the flow of seasons and fate. Instead, it’s better to think of them as graveyards and memory artefacts, that continue to bind people to the land, although only in potential, and offer the chance of return. The energy that was squandered (as Laxness saw it) on these buildings, remains in them, as it also remains in the land, and can be mined again. Only in the sense of capital is it lost.
Well, there are many other forms of doings in Iceland. Cataloguing them won’t add to that appreciably. But perhaps this image might sum it up:
Like the string that defines a field and allows for concentrated activity, a bridge is another technology both similar to a tun and connected to its energy. It allows for improved delivery of material to the tun, without the contamination of important water sources with the mud generated by foot traffic. In this case, perhaps not so well, but, hey, I used this bridge on my way to the Dwarf Church in Seyðisfjörður, and it did its thing. Oh, and as for bridges, here’s one…
Slowly, a people who have lost their connection to tun space are refinding it, in the golf course surrounding a church which was set up next to an elf city in the lava fields south of Reykjavik. Humans are like horses in a field. They really can’t wander that far.
Well, that’s the tun (our contemporary ton, or town), in many of its forms. It is in this space that Icelandic creativity takes place, because the tun (not the individual self, not God but focussed activity rising from location, here in Middle Earth, between cataclysmic forces) is where creativity takes place. In Iceland, it is Middle Earth, Miðgarðr, that is creative space. A similar set of illustrations can be worked out for the other technologies (string, etc) with which I introduced this post, but for now, I think you get the point: in Iceland there is a form of creativity and a corresponding land sense with little if any connection to American, French or German land senses. The culture, however, is more creative than those others. That’s worth sitting down in for awhile and getting to know. So, until next time when I will speak about Indigenous creativity on the Columbia Plateau, thank you for spending some quality time with me among the elves.
Harold Among the Elves on Miðgarðr