Tag Archives: Lagarfljót

A Vision for Writers from a Sculptor

There is a line that makes a story. It’s the path any person can walk along to get from one place to another, or the one my dog used to always find in the weeds, because the edges of the gravel are where everything happens, or maybe it’s just because it’s just where someone has passed by. This is a problem that doesn’t even bother sheep.

P1420751

Sheep Tracks, Hengifossá Canyon

If you leave enough tracks they don’t make a trail. They make a net. A net’s a great thing, but if you catch the world with one, what then? Where are you going to drag your catch? 

Maybe it’s not so hard. Maybe sometimes writers just need to be dragged out of their words and given a new pasture to run in.

blue2

Icelandic Writer Staying Close to Home at Feeding Time

Or maybe not. Maybe it depends. A couple days ago the sculptor Ken Blackburn asked me to go out and make a line in Iceland. Everything in the world, he said, starts with a line. So, I made a line. I liked this idea. I could feel what the very beginning of something looked like, and not a story already made which I stub my toe against, which is usually the case. Gunnar’s story (whose house I haunt here) is certainly like that. And would you just look at what found me in its first moment, as I set it into the world …

littlelinecloserA Line of Volcanic Stones

In this case, the edge is in the midst of the ice. It leads from itself to itself, and quivers there, while the ice could just as well extend to the edges of the universe. Maybe it does. Maybe it’s only humans who say, “Look! There’s an edge to this stuff.”

Imagine what a story would look like if it were written like that. The beginning and end would lie side to side, cuddling up close in the centre, and all the rest of the story would stretch out in folds of sheets and kicked off blankets to the sides. You might have to pick up the book, and read it any way you wanted. The edge would always find you. Maybe I didn’t stub my toe against Gunnar’s story. Maybe, as a man largely of the 20th century (so far), I was always in it and by walking far enough stubbed into the line that was always there — maybe at the centre, maybe way off to the side … who’s to know in a spherical world? But you see, that’s a writer thinking. What did Ken say? Make a circle, he said. A sculpture, he said, is just a line, too. A circle! Aha!

P1430091Well, Sort of a Circle

And, this right on the sight of that original line, too, which looked like this when I showed up today …

P1430070

Gone!

A most unwriterly art form. Writers are always thinking about making a mark that stays. This one, though, is gone … it’s finished. 

Still, a circle, eh. A story that was a circle and not a line, that might have a swan feather in its belly, that might at any time be blown off by the wind … what a book that would make: a book that would mean anything at all, depending on who you are. But wait… I know some books like that. They were the books that Gunnar wrote in the 1930s, especially his “Advent in the Highlands.”

51jjvzSMACL._SL500_SS500_

Advent in the Highlands

The Approved by the 1936 German Propaganda Ministry Version

Don’t jump to straight lines. That book, that Gunnar wrote to promote peace, was used to send German boys to Czechoslovakia, but 4 years later it was used to generate an American desire to go to war, in this edition:

0A36.3L

Advent for Americans

A message of peace for both sides — that circle was Gunnar’s intention. That it was used for other purposes was not. 

So, circles. I thought, well, what if a circle is not alone? What then? So I tried to find out …

P1430110

Two Circles

 Well, that felt good, you know. Look how they turn the space between them into a … well, not a line exactly, but a space that could be a line, or anything… a space of possibility. Not a No-Man’s Land, but an All-Man’s Land. So, I wanted to see how far this would go…

P1430114Three Circles!

Now there’s a line and no line, and the middle circle is within the position of possibility.

What would a story put together like that look like? It wouldn’t be a story, for one thing, so much as a bunch of stones and ice on a beach that the writer and readers could all walk around in together and stub their toes against … but would that be a bad thing? Is that what Gunnar was missing? A third circle? I mean, his stories were all about this…

iceringThe Shore of Life

It separates the island from the sea, or the colony from the colonizer, in Iceland’s case, and is deadly and life giving at the same time. Death and life are inseparable in Gunnar’s world. He does not means this as an easy sentiment.

But what if in all his haste to tell a story, to try to save Iceland from colonization and other invasion, through the admittedly ridiculous medium of words, he missed this?

P1430151They Float on Light!

Maybe novels and their traditional structures were the net that caught Gunnar. Maybe that’s an important lesson in literary form, learned from sculpture. I think it is.

Colonial House Building 101, an Icelandic Novel

Gunnar Gunnarsson, Novelist and boy from the colonies, left Denmark (the colonial heartland) in 1939 to build a farm on Iceland (the colony) that would provide in a physical form the cultural direction of his novels. His friend the North German architect Fritz Höger, who volunteered to design Gunnar’s farmstead, had in mind something like this …

010Half-Timbered Danish Farmhouse

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. Gunnar’s farmstead was to have a large an open tun between buildings, which was abandoned when the additional buildings were never constructed.

A German architect building a Danish-style building on Scandinavian soil for a man who lived his life between the German and Danish worlds would be a way of making peace with the Prussian takeover of Schleswig Holstein (Höger’s area of Germany) from the Danes. It was, of course, the time of an ascendent Nazi Germany, so the idea of a country house built by a German architect would contain some notions of German country houses, and in this case, a Tyrolian one (dominant at the time, with the annexation of Hitler’s Austria fresh in everyone’s minds, and all) …

Telfs, Untermarkt strasse, Tirol, AustriaTelfs, Austria

Note the balcony. It provides a commanding viewpoint. A central part of Höger’s design was to build a large terrace in a roman or Italian extension of this model. An absolutely key part of German culture is that Germans like to live outside. Their terraces are their summer homes. It’s not quite like that for Canadians, like myself, or Icelanders, who lives in countries a bit less amenable to lounging around in the cold. Still, what was done was done. What Gunnar had in mind was a totally different idea of living outside, much like this …

landhusLandhus Farm Barn, Fljótsðalur

This is a variation on the icelandic version of the previous two architectural methods: build the house out of the materials of the earth itself; your whole life is lived within and on the land. In such a situation, a terrace is rather redundant. Gunnar was committed to the idea of human habitation fitting into the land as if it were not even there, or as if it were an extension of it, like this…

housepointThe Foundation Walls of a Former Turf House

Overlooking the Lagarfljót

What he got is more like that than other houses in Iceland …

snugGunnar’s House Seen from Down the Hill

True to Gunnar’s vision, it changes colour with the seasons. True to Fritz’s, it is made out of cemented, rather than stacked stones. Fritz had in mind cut, square blocks of good German rock. There is no such rock in Iceland. The local boys settled on round stones from the river. Score: Germany 1; Iceland 1. A draw.

Thing is, Gunnar’s whole idea was that architecture, and especially how it fit into a landscape, determined the soul of a people and their ways of thinking. He was dead set against putting non-Icelandic architecture within Iceland, as it would, he felt, damage the people and their ability to survive. Now, one reason his farming venture failed is that there was war (started by his readers, the Germans), and a resulting invasion of Iceland by the British and the Americans, who paid so well for labourers to build their infrastructure that there were no surplus young men to care for animals like this …

top

Icelandic Ewe Demonstrating Ancestral House Roof Clambering Technique on a Hay Bale

Go, girl!

… and in this way the war ripped out the economic underpinning of Gunnar’s farm. What’s more, the rough and ready construction methods the young men learned on the American and British bases had a kind of effect that eventually led to this…

red

Definitely Not Gunnar-Approved Architecture

Thrown together for reasons of utility and nothing else. That is what farms look like throughout Iceland. There doesn’t appear to be the money on many to build anything better and, besides, it works. This kind of raw utilitarianism would not have appealed to Gunnar, and he would have feared that it would have led to sloppiness. He might have seen this, for example, as a consequence …

stuffSheep Pigging Out on a Haybale

But what Gunnar did not foresee was a permanent divorce of Icelanders from their land. A tiny fraction of the original rural population now has to grow more sheep, cows and horses than ever before … something has to give. The solution has been German, rather than Icelandic, industrial farming methods, capitalized on American industrial farming models. Has all this led to the wealth and security Gunnar was trying to create with his tun-based farmstead that would bring German agricultural models to the land and separate Iceland from colonial overlordship by teaching farmers how to get more wealth from their land, and keep it rather than giving it away to colonial capital managers?

0307-Iceland2_full_600Not quite yet. There’s more than one way to lose your sovereignity. Perhaps the process of decolonization is not complete and something can still be learned from Gunnar’s attempt. Heck, it could have been him holding that protest sign. Perhaps Gunnar’s time has come.

Sighting The Wyrm in Lagarfljót

The lake that runs to the sea from this old monastery site in East Iceland is called the Lagarfljót. It is a long and beautiful thing that catches the light from the mountains and the sky and softens them — not that they are harsh to start with. It also has a wyrm, like the monster of Loch Ness or the “Ogopogo” of Okanagan Lake of the North America’s Pacific Northwest. Cryptozoology is good for tourism. Here in the sacred birch forests of East Iceland …

P1370240

… with the elves catching the mid-day sun …

lichen

Lichen on Birch

(I hope to have the elvish connection to lichen ready for you in a couple days.)

… and a moment to enjoy the red berries that the birds missed in the winter …

berries

… because I’m a poet and poets are easily distracted by pretty things (so are wyrms, whose stories are similar enough to the serpents of the Rhine and the Celtic Moselle and the Ring of the Nibelungs to raise a poet’s eyebrow or two), but finally things were looking up. The government was there first, helpful as Icelanders are …

P1370118 A Good Place to See The Wyrm

Shall we? Down the trail through the old, slightly mouldering but still charming early-Nationalist picnic site, and, hey, look, already we see signs of an apex predator eating the locals…

P1370116

We Must be On the Right Track

And then I lost my doubt, because I heard the birds singing…

P1370166

See the Birds?

No, I don’t either.

There weren’t any birds, that’s why. It was the lake that was singing, like a choir of angels. That was actually better than birds.

P1370184

All Winter Long the Ice Has Been Singing As the Waves Break it Up and Knock it Around

Then they do it in the spring. It is haunting. What a magical lake.

And that’s when I first saw the wyrm (well, after a few more steps) …

P1360998

Wyrm

Being a Canadian and a bit biased towards polar bears, that’s what I thought it was at first. Here’s its head, so you can have a closer look …

P1370001

Wyrm Head

Note the nice ribbing. Even the Worm in Dune has that. (Look to my upcoming posting on elves and lichen for an explanation of how forms like this are cast up by stone.)

Then I turned and saw this wyrm…

wormhead3

A Dead Ringer to Tolkein’s Smaug…

… or a crocodile. Note the hump, too.

Now, to set things straight, here’s the story of the Wyrm in Lagarfljót: Read it Here. And here’s a video that played on Icelandic TV a year ago … View it Here. And here’s my warning on reading mythic imaginations literally, with photographs of the dreamtime stone that is Canada’s “Ogopogo” — or would be if there were greater general understanding of how pre-industrial people thought. Read it here. This is important stuff. A little respect for the truth of ancient story, and how it was laid down and how it was not, goes a long way towards rebuilding human relationships to the earth. To tell those stories, I am here at Skriðuklaustur.  It has been a beautiful day. Tomorrow, images of Easter in East Iceland, and if things go well the second part of my series on Gunnar Gunnarsson, Secret Agent.