The Persimmon Tree

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Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

A Vínarterta Icelander No More

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I hate to admit it but I’m no longer a vínarterta Icelander.

You know the kind. I love going to Íslendingadagurinn, the celebration of our Icelandic heritage, that takes place in Gimli every summer. I do the rounds. The Viking village on Bill’s Hill. The Viking demonstrations of fighting with swords and spears.

At the harbour, I visit the tents with one million earrings made by hand somewhere east of Dauphin or imported from India. There is an entire village of tents filled with wooden toys, pottery gnomes, scarves from the Far East, fake shrunken heads, sweaters from Korea.

I never miss the sand sculptures. Or the bathing beauties playing volleyball. At the dock there’s the Something-Dunk where people sit on a slippery pole out over the harbour water and flail at each other with pillows until someone falls off.

The big event of the weekend is the parade. One thousand and sixty-seven Shriners, some Knights of Columbus, people dressed up like Vikings, the local potentates riding in convertibles, some Scots bagpipers (I think they are Shriners, too), a large farm wagon loaded with real Icelanders who often are members of a visiting choir and who regale us with songs, the words of which no one understands.

The parade is so popular that people start setting up chairs along the parade route two hours before the parade. By the time the parade starts, the crowd is three deep on the sidewalks.

There’s the Gimli park. This is the centre of the universe. It’s a block square, has a large heritage hall, a stage with backdrops painted with scenes from Iceland, plus the pioneer cairn that was moved from third avenue. The parade starts outside of town because all the floats need a large space to assemble. There are a lot of floats.

Often families are having reunions and when they do, they make up a float and march in the parade to let everyone know they are having a reunion. Just to be sure everyone understands why they are in the parade, they carry a sign made from a bed sheet that says something like VALGARDSON REUNION. They often come after a group of clowns on miniscule tricycles and in front of Shriners in glossy costumes with yellow shoes that turn up at the toes.

Interspersed are local politicians reminding the local voters who to vote for in the coming election.

Clowns used to throw away three and a half tons of candy but at the last parade I attended, I didn’t get to collect any candy. Some kid in New York dashed out for free candy at one of their parades and got run over by motor cycle cop and since that happened, no free candy for anyone. I didn’t think it was a real problem. When the candy wasn’t thrown far enough and landed on the road, I always just pushed the kids out of the way and said, “That’s dangerous. Stay where you are, I’ll get it.” I used to collect all the candy I needed to give out at Halloween.

At the Gimli park, at the head of the parade, the Mounties whose faces have turned redder than their uniforms from marching in the heat stop and stand in a respectful manner while sweat spills over the tops of their boots. The Fjallkona, that is, the Maid of the Mountains, the woman chosen in an enclave more secret than that which selects popes, descends regally from the car with her two princesses to place a wreath at the pioneer cairn. The Fjallkona is our queen for the year and wears a royal outfit, a headdress, a green robe with ermine trim and, of course, other things. For whatever reason, an older woman is always chosen. Someone said that she is supposed to represent dignity and wisdom. I’ve always thought the Fjallkona should be the current Miss Iceland. It would improve the male attendance at the ceremonies.

The dance hall is converted to a cultural centre for the weekend. Tables are set up to display those things that are culturally connected to the Icelandic community. Bags of Icelandic coffee (kaffi) are for sale. Historic pictures are for sale. Books–antique ones are sold by Jim Anderson, modern ones by Lorna Tergesen of Tergesen’s bookstore. Not just any books. Books by Icelandic and Icelandic Canadian authors like me.

Logberg-Heimskringla, the oldest ethnic newspaper in Canada, has a table where members of the board and volunteers encourage the circulating crowd to subscribe. It’s a hard sell. I may be biased because I was editor of LH for a short time when it was desperate for someone to check spelling, punctuation and grammar but in spite of my having been editor, I tell people it is worth purchasing a subscription.

There’s a kitchen that has Icelandic food and coffee (kaffi). I don’t go there anymore since I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. It’s too painful not to be able to eat vínarterta ( a six layer prune tort with cookie layers between the mashed prunes), kleinur (Icelandic donuts), pönnukökur (crepes spread with brown sugar and rolled), brúnt brauð og rúllupylsa (pickled lamb flank on brown bread), rosettes (originally Swedish, they are thin, crisp shells often served with a dab of whipped cream and strawberry jam). I can eat skyr (Icelandic yogurt) but a dish of skyr, as good as it is with local strawberries, doesn’t assuage my grief.

When it isn’t Íslendingadagurinn, I go to the Reykjavik bakery for coffee. The baker, Birgir, is from Iceland. I ignore the displays of Icelandic pastries. I particularly resent not being able to eat the cookies shaped like Viking helmets with horns. Which brings us to the subject of Viking helmets. Historically accurate Viking helmets are not adorned with cow’s horns. It’s too bad because the truth is authentic Viking helmets are boring. I’d never choose one over a helmet with horns. A helmet with horns is much more useful. In a pinch it can be wielded as a weapon or used to roast two wieners at once over an open fire.

Next to the Betel nursing home there is a large statue of a Viking with horns. I take a picture of it every summer. I’m not sure why. It looks the same every year. Thousands of people take their picture with it. They stand in front of it, sit on it, climb on it. Bus loads of people descend to have their picture taken in front of it. I don’t just take its picture. I also rub its knee for good luck.

A lot of the fun of being an Icelandic Canadian (American) is food. You get to try svið (cooked sheep’s heads), hakarl (deep sea shark that is rotted), mutton soup, dried cod with butter, seaweed and horsemeat. I can eat all of those. No gluten in any of them. But what is the point of cleaning your plate if there is no dessert as a reward? If you’re brave enough to eat deep sea shark that has been buried in the sand for six months, then dug up for your pleasure, you should be rewarded with all the vínarterta (iced) you can eat.

You can now get Icelandic beer in Gimli but I can’t drink that either (gluten).

It’s enough to make me embrace the Irish side of my family. I can eat all the potatoes I want. No gluten. And Irish stew. And tea. Maybe I’ll become a potato Irishman and go to celebrations of the spud and dance to the penny whistle. My father used to put a thick coat of clay on potatoes and pop them into a bed of coals in our back yard. They were delicious. Although he was Icelandic, I thought he baked potatoes this way because my mother was Irish and he was acknowledging her ethnicity.

Maybe I’ll go half-way and eat Icelandic mutton soup with baked potatoes. It won’t be the same, though. Nothing beats a plate of pönnukökur, vínarterta, kleinar, and rúllupylsa on brown bread with a pot of Icelandic coffee made in a poki (an old sock).

I’ll do my best. I’ll hang onto the sagas, onto Havamal, onto LH, onto an Icelandic helmet with horns. It won’t be the same, though. Someone who can’t eat vínarterta will have a hard time convincing anyone he has Icelandic genes.

Who Am I?

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My grandfather came to Winnipeg from Ireland before WWI. He already had three sisters in Winnipeg, all three married to Scotsmen. His Winnipeg world was very Anglo-Saxon. He and my grandmother lived on a street with an English family on one side, a Scots family on the other, and an Irish family across the way.

From the time I was very young, I was shipped on the bus from Gimli to Winnipeg. My mother would take me to the bus, explain to the bus driver that my grandmother would meet the bus at the station in Winnipeg and off I’d go. My grandmother, always faithful, would be waiting at the spot where the bus pulled in, standing on her tip toes to try to see into the bus windows.

The bus trips, especially in winter, weren’t without some anxiety. Dark came early and with it the landscape, especially the long stretches of highway without any farm houses or roadside stores, disappeared. There was just the fragments of highway, the odd sign, the occasional passing car, outside the tunnel of the bus’s lights.

Even when I was too young for school, as I sat in my plush bus seat that was too big for me, too high for me, I worried about what would happen if I got off at the wrong stop, if the bus broke down, if it went to some place unfamiliar, if my grandmother wasn’t there to greet me. How would I find my way back home? How would I find my way to my grandparent’s house in a distant part of the city?

These were the days before parents worried about abductions of children by strangers, of pedophiles prowling bus and train stations, or would be pimps lurking around transit points. My fellow passengers were young airmen. There was an airbase outside of Gimli and there was such a shortage of transport that the buses often had stools with metal legs and canvas tops that could be lined up along the aisle.

In those cases where an airman would push me out of my paid for seat, the bus driver rather than getting into a fist fight with some young, aggressive and often drunk passenger, would get me to come to the front and sit beside him on the flat hump between him and the stairwell of the front door. I could sprawl on it and no one had thought yet of seat belts or the danger of flying bodies or suitcases.

My life with my Irish grandparents was uneventful. They left Ireland for opportunity, peace and tranquility. They did not carry the conflict from Northern Ireland with them. In their house there was little to identify their ethnicity. My grandmother listened to the singing of John McOrmack. My grandfather listened to the BBC news on the radio. When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited “Master McGrath”. Once a year, he pulled his Orangmen’s sash out of a box, put it on and marched down Portage Avenue to drums and bagpipes. We watched the parade and didn’t know about the Troubles in Ireland because neither my grandmother nor grandfather talked about them. After the parade, we went to some nearby community for a picnic. Off in the distance there would be a stage and people made speeches. We ate ham and potato salad and the men had a beer. The only anti-Catholic thing I ever heard my grandfather say was “Down with the Pope.” That was after about three beer. He never said it after tea or coffee.

We tried to make them more Irish by giving them gifts made in Ireland. My brother and I both gave my grandmother a Belleek teapot and cups. They never got used. They sat on knick knack shelves, too precious to risk at tea time. We gave my grandmother an Irish towel but it was for Southern Ireland. No one had bothered to teach us any Irish geography or history.
When I was six or so, I remember my grandfather taking me to watch some soccer matches. It was cold and uncomfortable and didn’t make any sense.

I’m half Irish, that is both my grandparents came from Ireland. My mother was one hundred percent Irish. I guess I could go to Ireland and apply for Irish citizenship. I’m not sure what the point would be. Although she often told me that she was going to take me back to Ireland to visit, my grandmother never did. She never returned to Ireland. My grandfather returned to Ireland when he was on leave during WWI. That’s when he met my grandmother.

When he came back to Canada on a hospital ship in 1918, he was very ill from a shrapnel wound. It was a long time before he was able to leave the hospital. The war to end all wars was over. He didn’t choose to return to Ireland to farm.

He wrote my grandmother to ask her to come to Canada and marry him. She did that. As she said, there was nothing in Ireland for her. The land was entailed and she’d have spent her life being a servant for her brother’s wife, raising her brother’s children. In Canada, she had her own husband and children and her own house.

I miss them, I miss their accents.

A Northern Irish accent is wonderful. It is like being washed in warm water. I sometimes wish that my grandmother had kept her promise to take me with her to Ireland when I was in grade school. I’d have met some relatives, visited some castles and seen Loch Neagh and where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Who knows, I might have developed a passion for Irish literature instead of the literature of the American South.

They didn’t ask for their ashes to be sent back to Ireland. Their bodies are buried in a small Manitoba graveyard that is inclined to flood in the spring. They are within hearing distance of the waves of Lake Winnipeg on a windy day. They’d lived out their lives in Winnipeg with its fierce winters and muggy summers. They had a cottage at Gimli, the centre of Icelandic immigration to Canada. It was to Gimli that they moved when they could no longer manage on their own in Winnipeg.

They lived with my parents until they died. They couldn’t bring much with them for it was a tiny house, even for two people, never mind four. My grandmother kept her Belleek and my grandfather kept his black thorn walking stick. They kept their accents but not much more. Maybe that was appropriate because they’d left Ireland a long time in the past.

And me? Who am I? Are fragmented memories three generations on enough to claim one is anything? That essential Canadian question in a country that does little or nothing to help us define ourselves and saying we’re not American isn’t an answer.

Will You Remember Them?

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Many came to Amerika because they were desperate. Desperate to leave behind hunger, insecurity, ill treatment, poor living conditions. They risked going to Amerika because they thought there’d be food, security, better treatment, and better living conditions. A man (and a woman) could claim land, his land, her land, their land. The land wasn’t taken, wasn’t in the hands of the few wealthy farmers who hired indentured servants, daily and seasonal workers, who rented to crofters, farmers who were as one of them said, like Napoleon on their own land. The settlers risked everything for opportunity, for the future.

They went to Nova Scotia, they went to Kinmount, they went to the United States, they began a journey that, for many, seemed to have no end. The settlement in Nova Scotia failed. Kinmount failed disasterously. New Iceland, begun with high hopes, was virtually abandoned within three years. These were not frivolous people. They were desperate for good land, land that could be broken with a plough, that could, within a year or two, provide crops that would feed the settlers, clothe them, house them.

Many kept moving Westward. Winnipeg, Brandon, Vatnbygg, Swift Current, Markerville, Calgary, Edmonton, the Peace River, over the mountains to Vancouver, to Victoria, to Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Boundary Bay (Seattle).

With each move the Icelandic immigrant community fragmented.
Communities were formed and then dissipated. Some, like the one on Smith Island, persevered for decades. In some cases, individuals disappeared, became rumours, memories. One book says that there is a rumour of an Icelandic family in the Interior.

Many were your lang afi and amma’s neighbours. Sigurdur Sigurdsson Myrdal was one of those. He was born in Gil in Myrdalur in West Skaftafellssysla in 1844. He married Valgerdur Jonsdottir and left for America in 1876. They went to New Iceland.

“They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it. They lost two of their young daughters to that disease. In 1880 they went to Pembina where they lived for seven years. Sigurdur worked there in a store, and participated considerably in the Icelandic community, particularly in church matters.”

“From there the couple went to Victoria B.C., and then to Point Roberts in 1894. Sigurdur is a good carpenter and built for himself and family a quite nice single-storey wood house. Because of his wife’s poor health, he moved again to Victoria, where it was possible to get better medical help, but let his son Arni take care of his home. Sigurdur lost his wife in 1912 and was after that variously in Victoria or Point Roberts, until 1914 when he married…Jonina Solveig Brynjolfsdottir, widow of Amundur Gislason.”

I wish that someone had written down Sigurdur and Valgerdur’s story. They arrived in New Iceland in 1876. They buried two daughters in New Iceland. The writer, Margret J. Benedictson, says “They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it.” They lived a tragedy. How many of us have buried two daughters? They are, I assume, in the old graveyard in Gimli. If not, then they might be in the graveyard at Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Hecla. There are lots of graveyards.

Margret doesn’t expand upon “the other miseries”. I wish she had because then we would know what Sigurdur and Valgerdur overcame. They moved Westward to Pembina in 1880. Four years had passed in Gimli with its death and other miseries. What did they find in Pembina? What did they not find in Pembina?

According to Margret’s description, they moved to Victoria, then Point Roberts in 1894. This would mean they’d spent 14 years in Pembina before moving Westward to the very edge of the continent where there was deep sea fishing, mountains, good land for raising sheep and a community of other Icelanders.

Valgerdur died in 1912. She had been ill a long time. Eighteen years had passed since they’d settled on the West Coast. Moving, moving, always westward until they came to the edge of the continent, finally completing a journey that had begun in Iceland in 1876.

The Icelandic community in New Iceland lost them as neighbours, relatives, friends but it also lost their story, their stories that would have fleshed out what it meant to make that critical journey with the big group, what it meant to try to prepare for winter, to survive the small pox but to bury two daughters.

One could say, of course, but there were other people who stayed, whose stories remained, but Sigurdur and Valgerdur were just two of many who left and history is like a jigsaw puzzle, the more missing pieces, the less complete the picture. Everyone may be in the same place but no two people’s experiences are the same.

And distance and time dim memories. People forget, never learn and the lines of the journey, the lives of the journey, are lost and we are less because of it. I’ve been a part of one of those communities ever since 1974. My path was a crooked one, Iowa, Winnipeg, Missouri, Victoria. There are many others here, in Blaine, Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, Naniamo. I’m a newcomer compared to many whose families like those of Sigurdur and Valgerdur trace their roots back to 1894.

When I was editor of LH, I tried to include as much news of our far flung communities as possible. Without them, we are lessened. Without Chicago and Minneapolis and Markerville and Calgary and Edmonton and Vatnbygg and Minneota and and and, we are less, not just in numbers but in the story of our community. Without the stories of Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, Kinmount, we are incomplete. Our history, who were are, isn’t just New Iceland or Manitoba, although they are, without doubt the vortex to which we are all connected.

The INL has been doing everything it can to bring those pieces together, to reconnect forgotten connections, to make us aware of all of our story.

I met David Johnson at the INL conference in Seattle. He very kindly sent me a copy of Icelanders of the Pacific Coast: Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Marietta. I’m going to write about some of the people in this book, about our great grandparents friends, relatives, neighbours who kept traveling west until they couldn’t go any further. Unfortunately, I got one of the last three copies. There may or may not be two lef. I’ll do my best to tell you about some of the people who were written about in the Almanac by Margret J. Benedictson. Some of the people who appear in these pages. They are all a part of your history and mine.

Icelandic Diaspora

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There’s Iceland on the map. Out there in the North Atlantic. A chunk of volcanic rock with 300,000 people clinging to it. Along with the puffins and a lot of sheep. Nobody knows why they’re there. If asked, they make various excuses but at the heart of the heart of the matter, even if it isn’t said, the reason, somewhere in the subconscious is “I’m tough.” Icelanders are sort of like punch drunk boxers, broken noses, broken facial bones, bruises, battered brains, getting back into the ring for one more round.

They fight the isolation, the economy, the volcanoes, the ice, the snow, the rain, the wind, the crazy cost of everything imported and nearly everything is imported. If they had to live off local produce, they’d be eating puffins and how many puffins (that’s puffins, not muffins) can one person eat? In the 1800s, they often ate chopped up puffin stewed with lichen or they gnawed on sheep bones softened in whey. That’s whey, not why, but it does raise the question why? Denmark and Norway weren’t that far away. As a matter of fact, Denmark, at one desperate moment, considered moving everyone off this smoking, melting, belching volcanic rock and teaching them to be farmers.

Faced with being moved to Denmark, the Icelanders loudly, vociferously, unanimously declared, “I’d rather eat puffin.”

They’re very proud of their survival skills. They love to tell the story of the fellow who was on a ship that sank and who not only swam through turbulent, freezing water but then, in his bare feet, ran for miles over sharp lava until he found a B&B that would let him stay the night even though he didn’t have a credit card with him. They’re very fond of telling that story and emphasizing the historic hospitality of Icelandic farmers who took in hapless travelers because there were no hotels, motels, pubs or inns. Or credit cards. Strangely, they never talk about the other crew members who drowned or died of hypothermia but then they were not in need of a place to stay even though they didn’t have credit cards or driver’s licences with them.

Although Icelanders give the impression of being taciturn, reserved, cool, distant, even secretive, they have warm hearts. We know that from their relationship to their sheep. While other countries report vast disasters, terrorist attacks, the Icelandic papers report that an unseasonal storm is going to sweep across the land and that farmers are girding their loins to head into to the mountains to find and protect their sheep. Then there’s a headline that the storm has struck and that there is great fear that the sheep are in danger. The next day there is a headline saying the farmers have risked their lives on the mountain slopes probing the snow for buried sheep. The day after that there is a sorrowful headline that says six sheep found dead. There is collective mourning over this loss, even by office workers in Reykjavik. There is no bond so strong as that between an Icelander and his sheep. The bond is strong even when it is someone else’s sheep. Office girls in Reykjavik have been seen crying while reading the headline about the dead sheep.

Icelanders are immensely proud of their Viking heritage. That is in spite of their being not only Christian but Lutheran. That’s probably because Christianity didn’t come as a collective vision rising over Katla in which Christ or bands of angels rose up from the volcano along with lava bombs and poisonous gases. It came about as a political deal with the agents of the Norwegian king and, as usual with political deals, some money exchanged hands. Since there was no otherworldly vision that moved men’s souls (or women’s) and since the Icelanders got to keep practicing their pagan rites if they just did them in secret, there wasn’t any overwhelming need to reject the idea of jumping in a Viking longship and going off to loot, rape, murder and take slaves if the opportunity presented itself.

As usual, major historic changes didn’t come about because of great events but because of the mundane. Icelanders quit being Vikings not because of religious conversion but because Iceland ran out of wood. It got used up for making boats, building churches, parts of houses, making charcoal, heating and since there were sheep everywhere, nothing got to regrow. Sheep are voracious eaters. Although they didn’t realize it, the Icelander’s love of sheep ended their life as Vikings. Their women might not have been able to keep their men at home to look after them but their sheep did just that.

If you are stuck on a rock that now and again spouts lava, ash, poisonous gases, destroys grazing land, kills people and animals and you declare “I love it here!” If you live in a place where the cold North Atlantic wind drives freezing cold rain horizontally and you sometimes have to wear long underwear and a rubber suit in July and you shout out, “I love it here!” If the harbours fill up with ice, the grass refuses to grow, your beloved sheep die, their heads in your lap, their eyes beseeching you for a mouthful of hay, that is before you cut their head off, singe off the wool, bake the head and eat the eyes (and the nose and the ears), and you stagger up and shout, “I love it here!” it raises certain questions about your mental state.

My father’s favorite saying was “You’ve got to be tough.” No whining, crying, blubbering, sniveling, allowed. Once, he jumped into his fish boat and landed on an upturned spike. It went through his rubber boot, through his foot, up through the top part of the boot. The boot filled up with blood. He sat down, grabbed the board holding the nail and wrenched it out. My mother wanted him to go to town and see the doctor, get his wound bandaged. Not a chance. “You’ve got to be tough,” he declared, gave the starting cord on his outboard motor a yank and raced away to lift his nets. He didn’t have any sheep to love. However, he loved his fish. He wouldn’t leave them to rot in his nets while he coddled himself.

His Icelandic relatives would have been proud of him. We might not have volcanoes and jokulls and horizontal rain in Manitoba but there are challenges and he met them head on like any descendant of a Viking would. I’m sure that as he stood at the stern of his boat, tiller in hand, his boot filing up with blood, his eye scanning the lake for the buoy poles marking his nets, he was saying to himself, “I love it here!” and his Viking ancestors were giving each other hi-fives or whatever Vikings did when life was hard enough to make it worth living.