Tag Archives: Gunnarsson

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.

What’s in a Church?

Saubæjarkirkja

Inside a church are people. Outside of a church are dark cliffs. The church is maintained by the government, because it is on this distinction, this between space, however narrow, that it draws its legitimacy, in a long history of living under colonization. Gunnar Gunnarsson turned it on its head, in his book Svartfugl, or “The Black Birds,” meaning dark-souled people (including but not limited to priests) stealing the light from others, under the influence of a bleak landscape. The English translation is The Black Cliffs — the human oppression, and its intimate relationship with the land, has been wiped clean for an American audience. That relationship, though, is vital, as it represents exactly what one sees in the church above: a portal into the self. The result was a complex book, perhaps the best book of 1932:

So, a self and a book, and a whole lot more.

 

The Language of ice

Gunnar Gunnarsson’s published a fascinating ghost story called Vikivaki in 1932. Iceland is still writing them. Take a look…

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Ghosts, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

What’s a ghost? Why, something that’s neither dead nor alive and which brings a message from deep within your story.

As for people, they’re writing something else. Here’s what visitors to Iceland write upon the body of the land when they visit:

P1260717Troll People, Þingvellir

They just have to leave a record of themselves, it seems, using whatever is at hand.

For people who live within a landscape, language comes from the land, the water, the light and the air. Here’s a piece of just such a language from Iceland:

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Language Beginning, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

Forget about cuneiform and Linear B and language starting with bird tracks in sand. There is another way. Forget about writing for purely human audience and deferring the environmental costs of turning from the earth until the future. That future is now.

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Language Beginning as Art, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

Compare that to the lines in this stained glass window from the church in Reykholt, West Iceland:

window

Mary, The Christ Child, and Three Angels

Reykholt

Iceland is a country in which Christianity is uniquely bound to the soil. Unsurprisingly, Gunnar’s ghosts are a surprisingly devout bunch, called forth in a moment of nationalist zeal. This is one lesson I’m going to happily take home to Canada in 6 weeks. Sometimes the hidden people of a country can be the people themselves.

Next: I will explore these ideas further by discussing an Icelandic artist who paints with ice.