Category Archives: Art

Giving Thanks in Iceland

Here’s a stone marked by human tools in Neskaupstaðir. It is broken from the old sea cliff behind me, and lying on the old underwater shelf below. Note, too that it sits in a hollow.

That’s not a given. Here’s a sister rock, showing a more natural face to the world.

The thing is, in a country without trees, people burned peat to try to get a little warmth. Peat came from mountain bogs, such as the one that surrounded this rock…

… or this untouched one, in Njardvik, a few fjords to the North.

These bogs are lush, exotic environments. You could say they are the life of the mountain.

When you dig them, though, you are left with a hole and a simplified ecosystem.


They do have the potential to rebuild, however. Here’s one in Neskaupstaðir, hard at it. A photographer could do worse than peer into holes where the Earth is healing the wounds of limited human technology and understanding.

When these bogs run with water, it is often red with iron. It’s hard not to think of them as the blood of the land.

They’re quite wondrous when they spill their blood over the old sea cliffs.

And quite forlorn when, stripped of peat, they run dry out to sea.

And harder yet, when you see them give birth to fantastical creatures.

These now-rare environments are the survivors of a time in which they gave life to humans in the cold. You could say, easily enough, without the long, long life and sacrifice made by these bogs, there would be no Iceland today.

That’s why the mined-out bogs in Neskaupstaðir have been a nature preserve for nearly fifty years now. It is a way of giving thanks for life.

There’s an art to it.

Global Culture and Gunnar Gunnarsson

When faced with mysteries, like this troll on Reykjanes …

… the global human sees its emotions instead.

The Bridge Between the Continents, Reykjanes, Iceland

Some premeditation is involved. That’s what Pinterest is for.

It’s not original, but it’s a fun bit of colonization. What would Homus Globalus do, after all, if it saw the ogre climb her staircase above Gunnar’s birth house in the Lagarfljót?

Laugh, no doubt. Should we laugh about Icelanders in their own country? The question is absurd to people who would do this:

The global human loves humans and sees them as beneficial additions to all environments. Icelanders, being isolated island people, actually invited them in. This is the same bind that drove Gunnar to Denmark in 1907, to become a published writer, and then saw him ostracized in the 1930s, because he had published in Danish. There are always these double-binds. That’s the human condition. Even in Iceland. We should be gentle on ourselves.

The Politics of Farming and the Truth of Art

A century ago, most Icelanders were farmers. Now a few thousand remain.  Their Iceland is as complex as any other. For instance, the image below shows not only rich hayfields, with some drainage issues not-yet-solved by dredging, but the results of government farm-improvement subsidies (for dredging) that are one of the ways that Iceland keeps farmers on the land. Note the older style of farming in the foreground, with the sheep at pasture on the heath.

Borgarfjörður Eystri

If you travel around Iceland, you will see fields like this all the time. Few look quite like this one, though. Notice how the mounds of soil dredged out to drain the land are left beside the canals from which they came. If this were a prosperous farm, they would have been levelled out across the entire field, enriching and deepening the soil. They aren’t. Rather than enriching the land, in this remote, barely-prosperous farm, the dredging remains a political calculation at best. The view is a sobering reminder that although millions of people visit Iceland for relaxation, in most of the areas one passes through people are working at their absolute limit, and within a narrow set of political parameters. This tetchy balance between freedom and control is as much Iceland today as when Gunnar was driven off his farm when his workforce went to work for the Americans instead of under his beneficent dictatorship, or when Halldor Laxness wrote his great novel of orneriness, stubbornness and endurance,

…or  Independent People.

These things aren’t just in the imagination of novelists.

The Birth of a Painter in East Iceland

The boy Johannes Kjarval built himself a shelter out of these rocks while minding sheep.

And he kept an eye on more than sheep, out there in Borgarfjörður Eystri. Trolls, for instance.

 

Elf horses.

Elves, even.

So was Iceland’s great painter created. Here’s a painting of Esja, across from Reykjavik, showing what he learned out there as a boy in the East.

There are many roots to modernism.  This is one of the most integrative.

Gunnar and the Elves of Vopnafjörður

In downtown Vopnafjörður, right across from the slaughterhouse, there’s a fine elf hill. Gunnar Gunnarsson grew up in this neighbourhood. He would have seen this hill everyday, and no doubt climbed it often.

Now, it might be hard to visit a “real” elf here (at any rate, it’s out of your control), but you can visit Gunnar.

He has flowers and birds, and place for you to sit down.

This is a pre-Happy-Camper kind of Icelandic travel. There are a lot of Icelanders honours with their very own copper head in the trees. To visit them is a kind of pilgrimage.

Hi, Gunnar.

A Trip Through Fairyland

If we can set aside the re-creation of European indigenous life

as fairytale during the romantic period, in which elves and dwarves, trolls, ogres,

witches and other organic understandings of human-Earth relationships took on sentimental human form,

and life was removed from the Earth

and given to biology,

we should still be able to read the rock as something more than mineral. It is the nature of being indigenous to be of a place.

This does not mean that one inhabits it solely as an isolated biological body,

but that the place and you are also one. One of the consequences is that you will see your mind and body around you and read your thoughts out of the land

By moving across the land, you really move through it, and really are moving through yourself.


You can stop sometimes and have a look at what you, as the Earth, are thinking.

 

The simplest way is to read the stone, such as the cliffs at Ásbyrgi. It’s easiest if you remember that before a troll was a mythical, romantic being…

… it was a stone, or a person, anchored to a place and defining it. The understanding was that place has power.

And not just as a romantic artform called “nature”.

That is beautiful enough, but it has a lot in common with romanticized, humanized elves and looks, most of the time, like fairyland.

 

It is, of course, but not literally. What is literal is the rock, and how you can read your thoughts there.


Complex thoughts of many kinds.

Once you have seen through the romantic veil to that, you can relax and read the trees.

Such observations are usually called pre-modern thinking, but it would be both more fair and more generous, more respective of human nature, to call it non-individualized consciousness, or even earth consciousness.

Not a spruce tree and not fairyland. This is your body being conscious. You can learn to speak this.

And we need that.