The altar at Hólar is an example of what a tree can be made into, in a form of technology imported to Iceland.
The rowan tree in the graveyard outside is an example of how pre-Christian symbols can use a tree for the same ends of contemplation and memory. The cross is a third example.
Iceland’s history walks between these poles, but always the green tree is honoured most deeply, and at the least expense. It’s good to have one’s symbols take root and look after themselves, because there’s work to do.
This graveyard in a part of Iceland rarely visited fills me with joy. The church, like so many, is an imported thing, steeped in nationalism, colonialism and paternity, but the graveyard, ah, that is 1100 years living all at once.
And in a way that has no words, at least not yet. To date, it exceeds the capacity of the literary writers of Reykjavik, far to the southwest, but I like to think that some kid, alone here just below the Arctic Circle, is living the moments right now that in a decade or two will give it voice. What a day to look forward to!
Groves like the one below are ever-present in Iceland. They are a cross between a will to live, a claim to land, a museum and a graveyard. They are houses for both the living and the dead, on the sites of old turf houses. Almost every farm has one.
They are places of deep feeling, loss, and connection. A cathedral in France or Germany is a more expensive form of this same art form, but no more permanent, just as these groves are worthy of no less honour and respect. They are, in a sense, what viking ships become after 1000 years.