The Things We Care About

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Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.

Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.

My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.

My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.

So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.

A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.

In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.

The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.

We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.

There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.

The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.

When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.

There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.

There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.

There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.

I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.

I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.

When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.

Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.

Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.

And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.

I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.

There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.

But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.

In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.

In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.

In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.

In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.

There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.

The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.

Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.

The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.

Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.

That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.

Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.

So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal

Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.

Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?

With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.

What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?

Immigration

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When our Icelandic ancestors were faced with starving to death or risking their lives immigrating to North America, they had little idea of what they were getting into. An entire continent covered in endless forest. Just the size of North America was beyond comprehension. In place of valleys and mountains, there were days of traveling through dense forest. Winter, in Iceland, could be bitter, but not with the temperatures of the prairies.

The immigration agents came. There were brochures. There even may have been some letters from people who left early. But nothing prepared them for what was to come. The Canadian government was not soliciting immigrants for the benefit of the immigrants. They wanted immigrants to produce goods and order goods that would be transported on the railways. Politicians and businessmen wanted immigrants because they could make money on them.

There were no preparatory classes. No one said “We want immigrants to come to Canada. How can we help assure that they are successful?” No one bothered to look at the country of origin, learn about the immigrants and create a program to prepare them for what they would face. It would have taken very little to provide classes. Those could have been held in the harbours as the emigrants waited for their ships or they could have been held on the ships that went from Iceland to Scotland and from Scotland to Montreal.

How intelligent did someone have to be to look at Iceland and say, “No trees. They live in rock and sod huts. We’d better have a class on cutting down trees, preparing the logs for building, chinking the logs. Using an axe. There are no large wild animals in Iceland. We’d better teach them to use rifles and shotguns and how to hunt and trap. How to fish. The kinds of nets to use. The best way to clear land. The preparation of Canadian food. All of this, and more, could have been done on board the ships.

Local natives could have been hired for next to nothing to instruct the settlers how to best prepare for a winter in Canada.

The result was that the situation of the Icelanders became so desperate that they had to have help for internal relocation. They were the only group to receive such help. That help came from the sheer good luck of having Lord Dufferin as a powerful friend in Ottawa. Even with that help, there were desperate times.
What help and advice there was had to come from the Icelandic agents who helped recruit them. However, they did not have the resources to arrange for teachers on the ships who would over a period of two weeks or more teach the immigrants the basic skills they would need. The government and the railways had all the resources necessary.

The callous treatment of the immigrants wasn’t because the government didn’t have any money. They were spending millions on building railways. Graft was rife. To make matters worse the government, unless they were completely incompetent, knew that the immigrants were highly vulnerable. Many Icelanders didn’t speak English. They didn’t understand the Canadian legal system. They were dealing with corporations that cheated them on prices while providing poor equipment and food. All this could have been remedied by providing someone to represent them in business matters.

We often talk about the hardship of our pioneer ancestors but hardship can often be alleviated and alleviated at minimal cost. The hardship of the immigrants was, in large part, caused by dishonesty, corruption and callousness. Immigrants were seen as an opportunity for exploitation.

I’d add racism for many times I’ve heard about how Icelanders were not treated as equals by the British population in Winnipeg. Most people know the story of the Falcons and their struggle to be treated as equals in hockey. Or Icelanders killed at work sites simply being dismissed as Icelanders rather than as individuals.

Except, if you read Barry Broadfoot, you discover that even though the government preferred English, Irish and Scots settlers, they didn’t treat them any better. The immigration brochure at the top of this article makes no bones about how British subjects were preferred. Yet, the clerks and bakers and bookbinders from London, England who believed the propaganda about the glories of Canada and found themselves in sod huts on the prairies, miles from help and support, faced with trying to clear and break land, received less help than the Icelanders. The casualties were high. Suicide was common. Disease widespread. Despair everywhere.

And the agents that hung around the train terminals were no more honest with the English settlers than the Icelandic. Many cheated and stole at every opportunity.

Some decisions made by the government were just acts of gross stupidity. When people emigrated, they needed mutual support, they needed neighbours nearby. They couldn’t get that on 160 acres. The breaking of the land into quarter sections and, to make matters worse, often making intervening sections unavailable, isolated the settlers, deprived them of family, friends and community. How smart do you have to be to say this is not in the best interest of the settlers? We should organize the land in ways that made it easier for people to support each other. Instead, the land was divided up in a way that would maximize profit for the railways and the government.

However, the politicians and powerful businessmen, particularly those on the railways, weren’t interested in the welfare of the settlers, the Icelandic ones, the English ones, the German ones, none of them. Fortunes were being made by people closely connected with the power brokers in Ottawa. Your people and mine were cannon fodder. That they survived and, finally, prospered, is a miracle that needs to be recorded, honored, remembered.

When I look at old newspapers and magazines from Winnipeg and see advertisements for Icelandic businesses, I am amazed. The fishermen and farmers carved a living out of forest and lake and the Icelandic businessmen elbowed their way onto the streets of Winnipeg and made a living in a hostile environment.

To deny the callousness, the corruption, the exploitation, the dishonesty that existed is to take away credit from our people.

Putting food on the table, establishing a business, getting an education, making a place in society wasn’t made easy. It wasn’t just the land and the weather that our people had to overcome.

But people like my great grandfather, coming to Canada with nothing, created a dairy, bought a farm, partnered in a general store. I don’t think the establishment reached out a helping hand. For that, he needed the Icelandic community.

I think as we celebrate Islendingadagurinn, we need to pause and look around at what we have accomplished, as a community, in Canada, in the USA, and say, “The lives we lead, our place in society, was built on sacrifice and hardship, bravery and determination. We need to stop at the pioneer graveyards and say, “Bless you. Bless you.”

Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.

1879: travel in Iceland

ponies fording a river from girl's guide

Photo courtesy of: http://blessiblog.blogspot.ca/2012/11/have-icelandic-will-travel.html

How hard was it for your ancestors to get from their farm to the harbour where they would meet the ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Amerika?

Rodwell was in Iceland, the summer of 1879. He describes his trip. He’s traveling at the same time as some of our ancestors were making their trip over the mountain passes, through the lava fields, past the glacier covered mountains, over the bogs. Unfortunately, I don’t have a diary from my Great Grandparents describing their journey. However, I have Rodwell’s report in Nature.

This is what he says:

Climate.—The presence of jokulls covered with perpetual snow; of the Gulf Stream, and of an arctic current, tend to make the climate of Iceland very variable and subject to sudden changes. On August 20, when we left Kalmanstunga, in the centre of the island, the sun was as hot as during an English mid-August day; later in the day as we passed the Geitlands jokull a piercing icy wind bore down upon us with great force, and again towards evening when we entered the northern end of the Thingvellir valley it was warm and summer-like. During the course of that day we experienced a difference of more than 100 degrees F. Again on August 30, at Eyrarbakki, on the south coast….a crust of ice had formed on all exposed water. At 10 A.M. a bright hot August sun was shining and the air was still. At 3 P.M. rain and violent wind occurred, and towards evening, again cleared up. Frequently the wind drops suddenly and a complete change of weather may take place in the course of a few hours. The summer has been unusually dry and warm, but on August 31 the weather began to break up. On that day we travelled from Eyrarbakki to Reykjavik by way of Rekir (in Olfusahreppr), and we shall never forget the difficulties of crossing the Helliskard, a low spur of the mountain Hengill. The whole tract is either the living palagonite rock, or detached fragments heaped together in confusion. Hence it is only possible to proceed at a slow (sic)space. A violent wind swept over the face of the mountain, driving the rain in almost horizontal sheets along the surface. From time to time mists floated over the mountain, and it was bitterly cold.”

Did you know that? Did you know that this was what your lang lang amma braved? To come to Amerika so that her children and children’s children could have a better life? That your lang lang afi endured?

What he describes is not winter. It is August. “Piercing icy wind with great force” a difference in temperature in one day of a hundred degrees. Rain and violent wind. The travelling from Eyrarbakki to Helliskard is so hard that he says he will never forget it. The wind drove rain in “almost horizontal sheets”. It “was bitterly cold.”

It wasn’t just adults that endured this type of trip to the harbour. It also was children. In my family there were daughters. Everyone would have been on horseback. Luggage on horseback. Riding into driving, horizontal rain. Battered by wind. Unable to go any faster.

Why do you celebrate Islendingadagurinn? Why do you go to Thorrablots? Why have you got a name plate in Icelandic in your yard? Why do you walk to the rock? Why do you eat vinarterta?

I hope you do them because you are proud of your Icelandic ancestors, because you enjoy the events and the food. I hope, though, you take time to think about a line of Icelandic horses with people hunched against wind and rain, following the tracks cut deep into the ground from centuries of use. Because that’s why you and I are here.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 3

I’ve never been to an INL convention like it. It’s been all over the place re types of speakers and topics. I think people are discombobulated in a good way. They’ve had their conceptions un-concepted, they’ve heard and seen things that have left them puzzled, curious, excited. It is hard to capture the excitement that has been generated. I am so grateful, happy, that I decided to come to this convention. I’m not a great enthusiast but I’ve found myself being amazed, amused, bewildered.

David Johnson is the Co-Chair of this Convention. He has been everywhere, checking on everything, making sure that we all stay on time.

David is Mormon and he introduced the first speaker, Prof. Fred E. Woods. Fred is highly personable, an experienced teacher and public speaker. He presented a slide show with commentary. Some of his slides were pictures of Icelanders who went to Utah in the early years. Other slides were of documents from that time, often letters, that have been translated into English.
I have read quite a bit about the Icelandic Mormons but Fred’s lecture made me aware of how much more material there is that I did not know about. I, and I expect, many others, will be going online to read the work that has been translated.

He is working with the Icelandic scholar Kári Bjarnason, head of the Vestmannæyjar Folk Museum. Together, they are collecting and publishing Icelandic materials which are in Utah. You can read much of this material on the “Mormon Migration“ website hosted by BYU.

We went from this rather conservative individual who describes happy things as “sweet“ to Donald Gislason. Now, I have to confess that I‘m a great fan of Donald. That‘s because when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskingla, Donald provided marvelous interviews about the music and cultural scene in Iceland. I remember telling him at the time that he was the best interviewer I‘d ever worked with.

He has a Ph.D in Music History from UBC. He‘s made six trips to Iceland but given his knowledge of the music and cultural scene, you‘d think he‘d spent a lifetime there. I certainly did. He says he is a hopeless “miðbærritta“, that is a guy who thinks the whole world revolves around 101 Reykjavik.

It would be impossible to do justice to Donald‘s lecture, slide show without writing like Hunter S. Thompson.

We saw bands of every kind. And, in Iceland, there are bands of every kind. I‘ve always wondered where Bjork, Monsters and Men, Siguros, etc. Etc. Etc. came from. How come, with a population of less than 320,000 that there are musicians of very kind, playing multiple instruments, old instruments, space age electronic instruments, playing multiple styles?

Donald provided the answer. The system in Iceland provides funding for every child to have music lessons. The child in Reykjavik and the child on the most isolated farm. The cost is split between parents and state. I wish I could have hauled all those people into the auditorium with us, those people who want to fund nothing in the education system unless it leads directly to a job, to a trade, who think things like music lessons are a waste of the taxpayer‘s money.

Donald told us about Icelandic music culture. About the Airwaves festival which he describes as the hippest event on the planet. Five days of musical mayhem. He credits some things that Iceland doesn‘t have for the creativity and productivity of musicians and, remember, everyone is a musician.

What don‘t Icelanders have? They don‘t have the powerful influence of marketing companies. They don‘t have corporations telling them how they ought to be. They don‘t have fear of failure. They are playing among friends for themselves and their friends instead of for paid audiences of strangers.

Everyone, no matter what age, listens to the same music. Parents, teenagers, kids listen to the same music. Part of that has to do with demographics. Iceland‘s population is young. There is a lot of support for young parents and young children. Parents take kids to rock concerts. Musical events, a lot of the time, are family events.

I saw this when I watched a video about Of Monsters and Men. Crowds were streaming into an open area to listen to them. There were young parents with babes in arms, kids in strollers, kids holding their parents’ hands. There were even some people who might have been grandparents in the crowd.

What a contrast this morning, from Fred who is dedicated to preserving Mormon history to Donald with Reykjavik 101, party, party, dance all night, drink all night, listen to music all night, and then eat Subway type sandwiches for breakfast.

It’s all Iceland. It’s all part of our history. I know that I’ll be looking up those Mormon sources. Some of the letters we got to read were surprising, even shocking. I know that I now understand more about the Iceland of our ancestors. I also know more about the Iceland of the present.

Before I forget, did I tell you about breakfast? Before we listened to these lectures, about the scrambled eggs, the bacon, the scones, the jams, the fruit, the yogurt, the coffee black as the devil’s soul but, I’m sure, much better tasting?

Did I tell you that next year this party is going to be in Winnipeg?

Did I tell you…? Never mind. Later. I’ve got to get dolled up for the banquet tonight. Comb my hair, try to look respectable. More food, more talks. More surprises. I’m glad the Clipper doesn’t charge passengers by weight. It would cost more to go home than to come to Seattle.

The Winnipeg Icelander

guttormsson_gj

Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.

 

 

1987: Iceland trip

Ketil and Sophia. He may have come to Canada with nothing but he became a dairyman, a farmer, a general merchant. He prospered.

 

In 1987 I made my first trip to Iceland. Like most events in my life, it was not planned. I went not knowing what to expect. When I returned I wrote an article for Books in Canada. Much has happened in Iceland over the last 25 years.

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From Field Notes

My trip to Iceland

‘Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that will be wrong.”

 

It is still dark when the phone rings. I stumble to the study, pick up the receiver expecting the worst (I have survived my children’s adolescence but not without scars) only to hear the operator say, “Hold the line please. I have a call from Iceland.”

“Mr. Valgardson,” a voice says form somewhere so distant it was once known as Ultima Thule, the end of the inhabitable earth, “I’m calling to invite you to Iceland.”

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she replies. “We know all about  you. We now want to show you Iceland. Will you come?”

“Yes, of course,” I reply.

Outside my window, the apple tree is drenched in bloom and Victoria is soft green beneath the rising sun, but inside me there is heavy surf, the waves breaking over jagged, dark lava and a stark landscape of rock and ice. It is as if I am caught momentarily in a double exposure.

“Someone will write,” she adds. “Send you the details. Everything will be paid for.”

And then she is gone and I’m alone, staring, stupid with sleep and surprise, at the telephone.

My great-great-grand father, Valgardur Jonson, and 18-year-old son, Ketil Valgardsson, left Iceland in 1878. Driven away by erupting volcanoes that covered wide portions of the country with lava and ash, widespread hunger, and a political system that placed all power in the hands of the Danes, Ketil. Keteel. My great-grandfather, splitting wood in his backyard. An old man with a handlebar moustache. In this basement, his coffin prudently bought years before his death and set on two saw horses. In his kitchen a drawer that always held peppermints.

I was raised in Nya Island, New Iceland, an area in Manitoba once exclusively reserved for Icelandic immigrants. For days after the telephone call, the images of Gimli flood me. The people, the boats, the fishing, the houses, the Icelandic Celebration. It is like watching a dozen slide shows all at once, hearing a dozen competing voices in Icelandic and English. An Icelandic-Canadian friend tells me I’ve received a great compliment, that no one has been invited to Iceland in this manner since Stephan G. Stephansson.

However, nothing, as every ethnic writer knows, is as simple as it looks. Ethnic communities are filled with conflict, secrets, loyalties, unspoken rules. I take a young Icelandic woman to supper and ply her not with liquor but with questions. Some of what I hear I already know, but other things are new.

“Talking about yourself is worse than being the whore of the district,” she says. On an island with a total population of 250,000, with everyone related, no one is a stranger. It is not necessary to talk about yourself. Everyone else will do that for you.

“How curious will they be about me?”

“They will discuss even the hair in your ears,” she answers.

She has other warnings. As I eat, I shift my knife from hand to hand. She explains that Icelanders consider such ta le manners to be crude (they eat European-style with fork held firmly in left and knife in right), but it is the North American habit of eating things with one’s hands that appals them. I begin practicing keeping my fork in my left h and. Even my morning toast, I eat with a knife and fork.

Others tell me to buy liquor in the duty-free and take it as a gift. Liquor is so expensive that it is a generous way of returning a favour. Buy duty-free liquor in Winnipeg, then another two bottles in Keflavik (you can buy duty-free in Iceland before you enter the country). This is illegal, but I’m assured that no one will check.

If someone makes a toast, look him in the eye before he drinks or he will think you don’t like him. Take plenty of headache tablets for hangovers. Everyone mentions the drinking. I tell someone I don’t drink and he says, “They’ll assume you’re a reformed alcoholic. That’s the only reason for not drinking.”

Take long underwear (I find myself searching for long underwear in Selkirk, Man., the week before I leave) because even in July it can be cold.

The don’ts are formidable. If you’re offered salad, treat it like a condiment. It’s so expensive that they don’t eat it the way we do. If you are offered salmon, don’t eat more than one piece. If you are offered lamb, don’t take a second helping. Both are very expensive. Don’t say anything critical about what you see or hear. Take suits and ties, not blue jeans.

I leave Winnipeg on Icelandair on July 14 and fly into the midnight sun. It is impossible to sleep. Five hours later and a five-hour time change and we’re dropping onto the tarmac at Keflavik at 8:30 a.m. My first sight of Iceland is rows of American long-range bombers, AWAC spy planes, American fighters. Keflavik is a U.S. controlled military base and, secondly, a civilian airport. This the front line of the American cold war against the Russians.

Between Keflavik and Reykjavik, the land is barren. ON these shattered lava fields, nothing grows except moss, and that, often as not, is grey rather than green. My hosts, the national Librarian and a Lutheran minister, point out landmarks. The most striking one is a cone-shaped mountain called Keil. Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that, during the coming two weeks, will be wrong.

My lodging is the married-student quarters at the University of Reykjavik. The apartment is like a nicely appointed motel room with kitchenette.

I try to sleep but these are the days of the midnight sun. The sunlight floods through the drapes. I toss restlessly, give up, and return to my balcony. Below me, children are working in communal gardens.

I and my host, Finnbogi (Finn boy-ya) Gudmundson, are to leave the next day to visit my great-great-grandfather’s farm. I still have no idea what to expect. When I get up in the morning, I dress in blue jeans, then a warning I have been given earlier begins to sound. I take off my jeans, put on my tweed suit and knitted vest. When Finnbogi comes to the door, I realize I am suitably attired for I am nearly his double. Together, like two English gentlemen at the turn of the century, we face unknown impeccably attired.

It is to be a memorable trip. It is my first look at the hot-water mains that snake across the country bringing geothermal water to heat the city. Finnbogi points out Haldor Laxness’s  house (he won the Nobel Prize in literature). My host is a marvel. He knows stories about every rock, every farm. He tells me one anecdote after another. At first, I try to remember it all but, finally, sit back and let it wash over me.

Soon we leave paved highway and ride on roads similar to those in Manitoba during the 1940s – washboard gravel strewn with rocks the size of fists. We follow the ocean. In this country of fire and ice, of geysers and active volcanoes, the interior is still so dangerous that there is a tourist brochure called “How to Travel in the Interior of Iceland.” Among other things it says, “Wade across the ford before attempting to drive over, and check the condition of the river bed. Look out for quicksand. The man who wades across the ford should wear a life jacket and be attached to a life line. The cold water in Iceland can cause cramp in those who fall in and even death.” I face this in a tweed suit and $40 silk tie.

“We’ll know if they got a whale at the whaling station,” my host says. He opens the window and sniffs. The air is fresh, clear. He rolls up the window. Shortly, he rolls down the window again. This time there is a bitter, sickening smell, as if something has been left in the sun to rot. At the whaling station, we stop. Here, the smell is overpowering, making the air heavy, greasy, so that if feels like a soiled towel.

Behind a low wall, tourists are taking photographs. Immediately before us, an Icelander and a Japanese are cutting up long strips of blubber. The blubber is thick, gelatinous, flecked with red meat. The Icelander sinks a long hook into the flesh and pulls. The Japanese, with what looks like a long, heavy field-hockey stick the foot of which is razor –sharp steel, makes precise cuts, splitting the blubber into segments. The blubber must be heavy, for the Icelander, large, thickly muscled, strains to pull the strips aside. Behind the blubber is the carcass. It is massive, the red flesh dark and bloody. Another Icelander with a curved knife is splitting the carcass in half. As he cuts, a winch separates the two halves. Below me, the Japanese takes a whetstone from a leather holder fixed to a belt in the small of  his back. He is squat, as heavily muscled as a professional weightlifter. As he expertly sharpens the curved blade I think, “Samurai.”

We stop for lunch at a hotel. It could be any CPR hotel in small-town Canada. Heavy, solid, a room of nearly empty tables covered in white cloths. I am in for a shock. Soup is $5 a bowl. Fish fillets and the ubiquitous small boiled potatoes are $15. I make my first faux pas. I comment on the prices, then express a curiosity about cost unbecoming to a guest. When I realize that my host is offended, I start a discussion about something else. The food is good, solid, well cooked, but even though I am not paying for it, the prices stick in my throat like a fish bone.

As we drive along, Finnbogi points out a volcanic crater. Here, he says was a farm. One evening the farmer came in and said that a fissure was beginning at his gate. Where the farm stood is exactly where the volcano now stands. The cliffs are alive with millions of birds, and in one set of dark and brooding cliffs, an outlaw lived. We pass a s hallow salmon river where the water runs over and around bare rock in endless small waterfalls. Though there are no trees and the landscape is as barren as the moon, every turn in the road reveals startling shapes and colours.

That evening we stop at Borganes. The hotel is open for tourists, but its real purpose is to house young fishermen. Signs on the door say “Out of your shoes.” Rows of shoes line the foyer. These young men work long hours at hard labour. Set meals are prepared for them. I, although I know I shouldn’t be, am difficult, insist that I cannot eat another large meal. My host, emphasizing to the kitchen staff that I’m skald (a writer, that most precious of title in a land where every child knows the sagas the way our children know Saturday cartoons), manages to get me a toasted cheese sandwich.

Later, he brings out a copy of a book written by one of my great-great-uncles. As we sit in his room, he translates for me. My ancestor, it turns out, is more notorious than famous., “Did he ever drink so much that he fell off his horse?” I ask.

Breakfast is a buffet of cold sliced meats and cheese, salt and sugar-cured herring, marmalade (everywhere I will go for two weeks, there will be marmalade; it is the national jam of Iceland), bread, coffee.

We drive until we arrive at Adabol, my great-great-grandfather’s farm. There is still a farmhouse here. The land is still farmed. The farmer does not speak English. There is not much to see: a simple farm house, a shed, a lagoon, the homefield with its rich hay, the grey, shingle beach, the mountains behind. The sparseness, the beauty, turn and shift within me. It is as though never having been here, I yet know the colour and shape of every object. I want to touch everything. I pluck a daisy and press it in my diary I pick up a rock and put it in my pocket. When I walk on the beach and the farmer says that my great-great-grandfather used to walk along this stretch of beach when he need to think, I am overwhelmed, for I, too, do this on Vancouver Island on a similar beach. Again and again he mentions some habit or trait of my ancestors and it is as if he were writing a character sketch of me.

Although it is a warm day and he should be in the field drying hay, the farmer asks us in for coffee. It is a great compliment, for good weather is precious and is not to be wasted. Of everything there is to see in the house, my attention is drawn inexorably to four eagles’ feet hanging from the mantelpiece. These, the farmer tells me, he took out of my ancestor’s house before it was torn down. The feet were preserved by smoke because, for decades, they hung beside the fireplace.

When we have finished our coffee and go outside, the air is dense with ghosts, indefinable forms that turn the air thick, white, palpable. (Eighty percent of Icelanders report extra-sensory experiences. Those who don’t have them are psychically retarded.) As we begin to drive away, the unexpected happens,. Until this moment, I am distant, holding myself back. All at once, it is as if something I have carried all my life inside me leaves, and I, bereft of that something that has always been there, not me but with me, sit, tears running down my cheeks. I turn to the widow so my host won’t see. I have been brought up in a culture where to express any emotion but anger is a sign of weakness. My throat hurts so much that I feel I will choke. Back over the fence, over the homefield to the house, it is as though who, or what, has left me, slips through thick air. I want to ask the driver to stop, to let me out, so that I can run back as far as the fence, but I cannot speak for the pain and sense of loss, and the car carries me relentlessly away. This must be what they felt when they left, I think, leaving this beach this lagoon this field this ocean these mountains. Then the road turns and the farm is wrenched from sight.

______________________________________________________________________

Twenty-five years have passed since that visit and, in those twenty-five years, much has changed. The Americans have left. The Cold War is over, replaced by small hot wars in the Middle East. Planes don’t need to stop to refuel. The great economic boom has turned into the kreppa. Whaling has mostly stopped. Iceland is no longer a distant, exotic place. It is flooded with tourists to the point that it may not be able to handle anymore. Icelanders, once a rare sight in New Iceland, come by the plane load. The countryside has moved to Reykjavik. There are now 320,000 Icelanders.

The internet means that there is constant daily interaction. Endless photographs uploaded to personal websites and Facebook mean that no waterfall, no fjord, no glacier is a surprise.

As for me, I’m a little bit more knowledgeable about Icelandic immigration history. Adabol wasn’t my great-great grandfather’s farm. He and his son, Ketil, were laborers, indentured servants and may have been hreppsomagur, welfare cases. Valgardur was seriously ill when he emigrated. He died shortly after arriving in Canada and is buried in an unmarked grave, a grave long ago eroded by the waves of Lake Winnipeg.

None of it matters. A land made of fire and ice is a hard land. Many died of disease and hunger. I’m glad Valgardur and Ketil emigrated. They created a new life in a new place so that I can greet the descendants of those who stayed. Blood and history unite us.