A fine pair. Both present. One motionless yet breaking in two. The other without stillness, and spread across two wings. The human universe lies between these two poles.
At Vik, the old harbour north of Straumeyri, under Hafnarfjall, the night, a terrible force from the emptiness of the universe, does its best to freeze the sea. The sea, itself consumed with throwing itself upon the land and wearing it away, is consumed by this double battle and draws away to rest and to engage in battle again in the next cycle of the moon. The story of this battle of monstrous forces lies on the strand. It is, in fact, the strand, and can be read like any other book and walked like any other sentence. This is Iceland, Middle Earth, that small piece of land in a hostile universe where humans can make a go of it, amidst the forces of giants.
The strand (or tideline) on the gravel (or the seas grrrrrowl, that wakes with every human step. Tread carefully!
One learns to get by. In fact, reading the story of the night’s battle, and walking it step by step as it unfolds, is not only highly enjoyable but musical. The sea ice sings, screams, whistles, chirps and howls under your feet, translated from its long line into the rhythmic step of your feet, and so poetry is born. But do wear three layers of gloves. It can be cold reading out there, with nothing between you and the universe but a layer of silk, a layer of fleece and a layer of thermally-lined nylon.
Miðgarðr, the pasture set aside for human people, is also called “Middle Earth.” The forces that set its bound, as can be seen here at Þingveillir, the Meeting Place, are huge. This is creation. This too: click.
Settlement is the foundational theology of Iceland. In countries such as mine, Canada, or that of my ancestors, Germany, foundational theologies tend to be about colonization, either of the land and bodies of other people or of the self. Not in Iceland.
In Reykholt, Snorri Sturluson wrote the texts that define Norse theology. If you visit Reykholt, you will soon see that these books represent the landscape around Reykholt more than any historical theology.
In short, they are more a way of settling the land the of claiming it.
… much like the mountain up the valley, capped with its glacier from before human time.
It is a world in which ancient binary forces, ice and fire, create a human habitat, the world, which is a kind of whirlpool in the sea of the universe, which is, really, the sea.
Human activity has eroded the primal world, but that pre-human time still delivers water and the power that defines humans.
The church itself, exists within an ancient, pagan forest, blessed as the source of nationalism. It is an accurate depiction of Icelandic culture. Sure, it’s planted, but that’s part of the point of living within a settlement.
When summer comes, Icelanders don’t take to the sea, they take to the forests. They already live in the sea. It is settlement they celebrate, and that includes placing them within the forest like the old church at Reykholt. Tourists drive through the birch forests below, take a few pictures, and drive back and away to claim that they were there, but Icelanders turn off into them and settle for the summer.
… perhaps they will even realize, in a breathless moment, that this nature is not the Garden of Eden…
…and realize that you need tools to settle your panic in the face of such power, such as the fire hydrant in downtown (!!) Reykholt above, one of Iceland’s major urban centres, or in the pre-Christian tools facing the altar from the door to the world of the Reykholt Church below.
Balance, that’s the thing.
I mean, for those of you who can’t just drive on, because when you are at the intersection of all power in the world, either here at Bifröst …
… or here at Reykholt …
… or here in Reykjavik…
… the frame is not the golden power and will of God coming to the world out of nothing …
… but immediate and present power without symbols at all.
It’ll change you. Do you dare settle, within, in a point of balance?
Or will you make a claim, to display your presence, such as these (illegal) tourists cairns below, above an Icelandic summer village at þingvellavatn?
Or will you turn the ancient forest into the outflow for a hydroelectric dam?
Don’t expect the Icelanders to tell you. They don’t have to decide these things. They already live here.
On Middle Earth.
In the time of Gunnar’s youth, 120 years ago, the pile of stones in the middle of this image were the foundation walls of a house large enough to seek shelter in from winter. It was just large enough to lie down in (and shut the door.) The dog could find a place once the door was shut.
A man didn’t live there. He lived outside, in what you can see here. The less time spent inside there, the better. That’s why it’s called “the world,” the space of human habitation.
All are light.
It will take its toll.
In Advent, Gunnar Gunnarsson showed us how we can manage if we don’t do it alone.
Christ has arisen. This isn’t just a bit of a ghost story with a happy ending. If your imagination is rooted in the earth, or even in books, should that be your fate, it is mathematics and geometry. Here’s the middle view of Christ’s ascension, in this stopping house, this alms house, this shelter from storm, this cloister between worlds:
ValÞjofsstadur Church, Fljótsdalur
Note the mathematical precision of its construction. Note as well the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of the entrance, and how one enters through the Middle Way, Christ, the Son. That’s not an accident.
The Church makes eternal order out of temporary beauty. That’s kind of its point. It is a form of intellectual activity.
It’s not just a cross. It’s an entire intellectual tradition. All Western peoples today stand within it. It’s inescapable. Nor should it be escaped from. It is.
Gunnar Gunnarsson’s childhood farm, that guided much of his writing, faced out over the graveyard where the church now stands. Here’s how it looks today, with the old turf houses gone but the old trees remaining.
This is the week that the farmer brings the manure out by the wheelbarrow load and dumps it in his field. You can see some of it there in the centre of the image, just in front of the buildings. Sweet springtime!
Easter is a celebration of rebirth and renewal from the dead (and the stink of closed winter barns full of way too many animals). Another way of putting that is to say that the dead don’t leave the living, nor do the living leave the dead, but that they’re all travelling together on one road that leads out into the fields and the light after a long, cold winter. Here, then, is the real church, in its wild state …
The ancestors lie quietly in their pews, most with a form of mathematical perfection rising from their souls. It is a joyous place, a sanctuary from the work of the world, a kind of retirement, shall we say, a waiting.
I have been writing poems about Easter, so forgive my mind for wandering like this through the trunks of these trees, but look, both churches are standing together in communion, the church among the ancient trees, the ancestral church, and the new one rising from the mind …
All travelling together into the sky, all tied to the earth, on the middle way.
When the earth and its peoples are stood with organically, as Gunnar stood with them and that farmer with his manure still does, rather than under-stood, or standing under, as a priest might put it (especially in the past), looking down from his or her pulpit and speaking the Words of God to his or her “flock”, its patterns flow like water and light and know no bounds. A boy, or a man, such as Gunnar, perhaps, could learn to write books just by walking in the world with his eyes open.
The Church, the Cross, Chairs like Tombstones, the Mountains and the Ancient, Sacred Trees
Are all woven from light, from the inside and the outside, from reflection and what is seen through.
A window, now that’s an ancient word. Consider this, every river in Iceland has the same name. It’s an á, pronounced ‘ow’. In German, that would be an “au”, a meadow, a place of particular fruitfulness, naturally fed by wetland water — and usually the place at which Irish monks set up their missionary churches in the 9th century. That’s not far from Iceland, really, where the early farms were set up along river bottoms, which could produce the abundance of grass necessary for 10th century Norse farming practices, and these rivers were all variations on an á. One just down the road from Skriðuklaustur, for example, is the Hengifossá …
And the river of the wind? Ah, here it is …
The Four Cardinal Directions
Notice how the Wind’s Á, its meadow, opens from inside, so the outside can come in. First, though, one has to go inside.
The tradition of the church and its remarkable magical buildings constructed to ancient conceptions of mathematical balance and beauty go very deep, with roots in the world. Here’s the pulpit …
But not just a paper one. The world is part of the spiritual picture. It is through it that one finds the light. And the Word. And the word.
By “world” here, I don’t mean the usual thing. I don’t mean “the community of men and women and their children” and the national and international relationships they build up between themselves, as the word is often understood, but the world as stood with, which is often called the earth. There’s an old book in Nordic tradition, called Volvens Spådom (The Prophecy”, which in one of its opening passages goes like this…
Without a world, the sun and stars have no anchor. That is to say, no tether, no home, which is to say that they are not at-home, or, to use the old word, they are not haunting. In the middle way, on Middle Earth, things haunt.
Things haunt like the reflections in the windows above, like the trees growing from hallowed ground, and like this image that has been made from them, purified in the manner of making wine (in this case, making wine from light and the world) …
The Eye of God and the Mountains of ValÞjofsstadur…
…seen through the wind’s oh, its á, its au, its river of ValÞjofsstadur Church. The mind streams in with it. That’s the kind of spiritual place this world is, witnessing the mathematical beauty that streams through it, because, after all, a window opens two ways. It is, in fact, not a mouth or an eye, but a passage, a path, a way.
I took those images yesterday. Today, I went out to witness the sun rise, and I discovered that on this holy morning, before the first planes started flying to Keflavik from Europe, the Middle Earth was clear for all to see who were awake and walking. In the West …
The Moon, Setting
… and in the East, across the sky …
The Sun, Rising
… and in between …
The horses are spiritual creatures. Here they are in the words of the scottish poet Edwin Muir, best known for translating Kafka into English. This is written after the devastating war that Gunnar had hoped to prevent by uniting all Nordic peoples on the Middle Way. Ironically, it ws Muir, who endured more directly the anguish and fear of that conflict who found, in the horses of the world, the horses of God’s Grace, his Eden, his au…
(Dear Readers, it’s a longish poem, but not a difficult one, and it is one of the best in all of human tradition. If reading poetry is not your thing, why not scroll down to the images or listen to my reading of it here. The link will take you to a new page. When done, please press the back button to continue …
I hope you’ll listen and read and look at the images. That would be like being together on this day.)
Here’s am image to set the scene …
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.Edwin Muir