The Things We Care About

saga book image
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

immigrant

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.”

A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

West Coast Icelandic Children

salmon fishing

In talking about the Icelandic settlers, we most often relate stories of their adult trials and troubles and not much is said about the children who were living the same life with them. That’s a shame because a child’s early life determines much about the adult he or she becomes. It also demonstrates qualities about the adults. How adults treat children reveals much about them.

We are fortunate that in Memories of Osland many of the people writing share anecdotes and details of their childhood.

Steina (Philippson) Degg “remembers going to the lake with other children and adults to skate in the winter and to swim and picnic in the summer. Steina remembers walking out to “Baby Island” in the mud (“Baby Island” is a very small treeless island near the Philippson and Luther Johnson homes). She took something to read, the tide came in and she had to sit there all alone till the tide went out again a few hours later.”

Gerald (Jerry) Philippson says “The kitchen was a place of wonders – cookies, cakes, etc”. “My Father and Grandfather talked very rapidly in Icelandic while I explored other areas, such as the kitchen, where Grandma Freda had the frying pan on while she whipped up the batter for Icelandic pancakes, the greatest treat known to a seven year old.”

And then there are experiences like Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher’s. “The Christmas that I was six years old really stand out in my memory. It was the time that Santa came to our schoolhouse. We were so excited when we heard him jingling his bells as he came up the sidewalk. Then he came into the school room – big as life in his red suit. As he bent over beside the tree to pick up our gifts his beard caught fire from one of the little candles on the trees. As Santa ripped off his beard we gasped in astonishment when we found out that Santa was really George Philippson.” She says we had “wonderful teachers. The would take us on nature walks to Bremner Lake. In the summer it was a popular spot for picnics and swimming.”

Loretta Vaccher Heuscher says Nina Amma Jonsson  “always had sugar cubes dipped in coffee and dried in the warming oven as special treat for us, and Gisli had special dried fish as a treat for us if we were really good.”

“Every Christmas we had a concert with plays and songs and all of us pupils got a chance to ham it up.” “Great for fishing – caught my first good sized trout about a quarter mile up what we called Frank’s Creek…In winter when the lake was frozen over it was excellent for skating and palying hockey. …One year Pop said if he caught over 2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that fall. One morning later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house. So I took Pop’s 30-30 and nailed it, a nice two-pointer. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”

Frances (Oafson) Hanson describes the community Christmas concert in a way many of us will recognize from our own experience. “Everyone at Osland looked forward to the Christmas concerts that were held every December. Our teacher worked with us – assigning our parts for the plays, teaching us the carols to be sung, and letting those of us who were willing to choose a poem to memorize for our big event. Parents assisted—men constructed a wooden stage at the cloak-room end of the school, so we had a place in which to put on costumes, ladies  made curtains (from bed sheets) to conceal the stage area between acts, someone cut a Christmas tree, and tinsel and decorations were borrowed for it. Families and bachelors contributed to the refreshments, music and games for everyone to enjoy after the concert”

“Following the concert and the handing out of treats to the pupils, there were games for everyone, then dancing to the music to the accordion played by Barney.

“Bull-head fishing, at high tide, was a favourite summer  ‘sport’ for children. I enjoyed fishing off the end of the small dock in front of our yard. Our gear was just a length of net twine tied to a stick, little fish hook (if one was available) or a safety pin at the end of the line and a piece of lead for a ‘sinker’. Worms from the garden were kept in a tin can for bait….Every Spring there were large clusters of frog’s eggs hanging from sticks in the creeks.”

Carl Olafson gives us a slightly different view of a child’s life. He says “little did I know that after you’re three you could participate in some of the action – later on it was called ‘chores’ – like collect the eggs, feed the cat, feed the goat, then when you got to be four or five, you were allowed to chop kindling and wood so long as you were careful not to cut off any fingers.”

Carl summarized life for kids pretty well when he says “We kept occupied, going to school, doing chores, skating, and playing indoor games like Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, chess, crib and rummy. On weekends the people would get together to have a social. The bachelors would supply the coffee, tea and milk, and the married couples would bring home made cakes cookies, and ponnukokur (Icelandic pancakes). The kids just had to bring their appetites.”

A touching piece in Mary Jonina (Jonsson) Heinrich’s description of her childhood at Osland is unique for it captures the sense of isolation from the larger world for children and the shyness that results. She says that her foxgloves weren’t as tall the last year as when she was young and “we used to hide behind them. A strange boat would tie up at the wharf and we children would run to  hide in masses of foxgloves. Many times it was the Rawleigh man, Mr. Evans. Afterwards we’d get the treats – syrups for making drinks, lemon soap that smelled so wonderful .Another boat that came was the “Northern Cross”. Then we’d have church services at the school house and sometimes on board the boat.”

“ I recall when we got oranges for Christmas each one was wrapped in tissue paper. Those tissues were smoothed out – of course for what else – the outhouse.”

There are a thousand thousand memories in Memories of Osland and it is difficult to leave any out so if you can, buy this book, it is a treasure. Many thanks to Frances Hanson and to all those who contributed to sharing with us the lives of the West Coast Icelanders.

As a last memory, I will use Alice (Kristmanson) McLean. “Once a year we would get lucky as the Dolly Varden used to head for the lake to spawn and we actually were able to catch something that looked like a fish. I remember having my first barbecue. A big bonfire on the beach, a grill and we’d cook our catch. To kids brought up on fresh fish and eating it two or three times a week thinking we were hard done by, I can’t believe we would get excited about barbecuing fish, but then again we’d never had fish burned by the fire – caught by us and cooked by us!

To the people coming to the INL Seattle AGM, welcome to our West Coast World. We have come here from the late 1800s on from Iceland, Winnipeg, Selkirk, Gimli, Lundar, and many other places on our journey westward. The West Coast is a world of wonders, from Skunk Cabbage meadows to apple orchards, from fresh caught salmon to halibut, from ocean shore to Rocky Mountains.  In spite of distance and time we still like our coffee strong, our ponnukokur rolled with brown sugar and our skyr sweet.

Laughter: Jeg (I), the cat and the cream jug

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It is 1892, my lang amma has been in Canada for 17 years. She is married, very Icelandic but has chosen an Englishman, an army officer, the son of minister who has a master’s degree from Oxford. Surprisingly, shockingly, he leaves the army at Fort Garry, moves with her to Gimli, Manitoba, and learns how to fish. However, letters reveal that, like everyone else, his struggle to feed his family means hunting, often without much result, taking on construction work. The fact that he is English, speaks English, has an English name, Bristow, doesn’t make life any easier for him or Fridrikka in the Icelandic settlement of Gimli. Perhaps, if they’d moved to Winnipeg where his name and accent would have counted for something, life would have been better.

Like the cat, Bristow, as he was referred to, needed to find another way of getting at the cream in the jug. Just as the Icelanders needed to find other ways of getting the cream out of the jug or the fish from under the ice.

These were real people, people who when they got up every day, wondered where the next meal or the meal after that was coming from, wondered where they could go to make enough money to buy basic food stuffs, clothes, equipment, dogs, a horse and sleigh. Santa Claus didn’t come along and say “Here you are. All the cream you want and you don’t have to do anything to get it.”

So, maybe when they saw this cartoon about the cat appear in the Almanak and his having to work out how to get the cream, their laughter may have been partly from self-recognition.

Here is my translation. Corrections and additions not only welcome but sought. Give me a more accurate translation and I’ll make the necessary changes.

It’s painful to be as hungry and thirsty as cat is. She cannot get her head into the blessed cream pitcher. She has tried and it is impossible.

Wonderful  is the taste of the cream even though the cat had to wait but patience, after all, is a virtue.

Pussy is not used to thinking things out and planning but when there’s a goal in mind, she can manage it.

And I, how often have I longed for the cream in the cream jug and how hard have I had to think, to plan, to work to figure out a way to get the cream out of the jug?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Icelandic Humour 1893

drunken

Did your lang afi and amma laugh? Did they smile? Did they have a sense of humour? Have you heard the rumour that Icelanders have no sense of humour? If you have seen Nelson’s pictures of the first settlers, they look dour, serious, like serious, serious but I know that my lang amma had a sense of humour, knew how to laugh. She needed to. She had thirteen kids.

Here’s a series of pictures and texts from the Almanak of 1892. I’ll post two pictures today, then two more each day until the entire series is complete. Here’s what those lang lang ammas and afis were reading in 1892.

I’ll put my pathetic translation below. If some readers would help by translating the captions properly, it would be appreciated by everyone who reads my blog. What is great about blogs is that it is easy to make corrections.

Picture 1 The goose saw that the brennivin barrel had a leak. She had a good taste of it.

Picture 2 After she’d been drinking for awhile, she began to stagger and sing and became unusually cheerful.

Here is Viðar Hreinsson´s translation.

1) Old Hans’ barrel of brennivín has leaked. His goose comes and wants to quench her thirst; she likes the taste. 2) When she has had enough to drink, she waddles away singing, and is unusually cheerful.

Viðar also says that he thinks this is copied from a European magazine, translated into Icelandic in a somewhat artificial manner.

 

 

 

 

Book review: The Rockey Mountain Poet

Viðar Hreinsson. Wakeful Nights. Benson Ranch, Inc., 2012, 607 pages.

In the 1870’s Icelanders began to emigrate. In Iceland times were difficult. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was so poor that massive numbers of Europeans were on the move. They were immigrating to places such as Brazil but the greatest number had as their destination, Amerika. Amerika was not a specific geographic place but a direction, a place of rumour, myths, and letters.

In Iceland, society was still medieval. Although the Icelanders like to point out to everyone that they had the first parliament in history, they conveniently leave out that this annual representation of the chieftains where real power was distributed and enforced lasted a short time. Internal conflict led to Iceland being ruled by the Norwegian king and, when Norway was taken over by Denmark, Iceland was, too. For hundreds of years Iceland was a vassal state, its resources and people sold off to commercial interests.

Although some English travelers in the 1800s made the mistake of declaring that because on Icelandic farms everyone slept in one room, ate in one room, worked in the fields or fished from the same boat, that everyone was equal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

What they did not take into account was who had the key to the food storehouse, who decided what and how much each person got to eat, what work they did, how many hours they worked, whether they would be employed or, if they were a tenant farmer (share cropper), whether their lease would be renewed. Only one percent of Iceland’s land is usable (not arable, for that assumes that it can be cultivated) and that was for pasture. Wealth was in sheep and milk cows and, for the larger farmers who had land on the sea shore, boats.

Stephan G Stephansson grew up in that society. He was “born in 1853, the population…roughly 60,000)”. It’s capital city was a village. There were no cities. People lived in little isolated worlds on farms in houses made of turf and rock and some wood from Denmark or driftwood. Wood was so precious that some houses used whale bones for rafters.

There were no crops except hay for no grain would ripen.

Stephan’s family was too poor to send him for a formal academic education. In 1873, he came to North America with some people for whom he had been working. His life was different from many of the immigrants right from the beginning because they did not go to Nova Scotia or Kinmount, Ont., or to New Iceland in what was to become Manitoba. He went to Wisconsin and began life as a farmer. He moved a number of times, settling, finally, in Alberta in the Markerville area.

His story is no different from many others except for one thing. In spite of his lack of formal education, he became a poet of great renown. He became known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains. His work was published in Canada, the United States and Iceland. However, he wrote in Icelandic and so, even though he took his material from daily life in North America, his audience was restricted to those who could read Icelandic. Today, as the Icelandic North American population continues to intermarry and disperse, there is the danger that Stephan G will be forgotten.

That is why Viðar Hreinsson´s new book, Wakeful Nights, published by Benson Ranch Inc., is particularly important.

Stephan G Stephansson was not just a poet, not just an excellent poet, but a man with a clear vision of what was right and wrong in society.  He was the conscience of society. He wrote about social issues, spared no one´s vanity or self-importance. His unwavering beliefs about social justice and religious matters brought him accolades but also enemies. His opposition to WWI resulted in a Manitoba MLA who also was of Icelandic background, trying to have him charged with treason.

The book begins with 65 pages of description of life in Iceland. I, personally, would have liked this section to be longer, more detailed, but that is because I’ve done a great deal of research into the 1800s in Iceland. For most readers this first part of the book provides a good historical perspective and solid base from which to understand the impetus for Stephan’s beliefs and actions.

The journey west which follows is well described. It has enough detail to keep the reader focused on what the trip was like rather than on some romanticized version.

The remainder of the book centres on the conflicts in which Stephan found himself embroiled. We are taken into the division of the community between Unitarianism and Lutheranism. Today, the remains of that battle can be seen in the capital of New Iceland, Gimli, Manitoba, with the Lutheran church on Third Avenue and the Unitarian church on Second Avenue and the gap between them like a vast crevasse on an Icelandic glacier.

“Over the years, Winnipeg had become the home of an increasing number of Icelanders in North America. They established newspapers, first Leifur, that lasted only a few years, then Heimskringla (1886) and finally Lögberg (1888).  The latter two papers became a spiritual and worldly battlefield between various groups of Icelanders. Lögberg was liberal in politics but conservative in religious matters, while Heimskringla was conservative in politics but liberal in religion.”

“Stephan examined social issues closely and developed a fascination with Felix Adler’s ethical movement. Adler, a German Jew whose family immigrated to America in 1857, had studied on both sides of the Atlantic and had read the works of Emerson and Kant. In 1876 he established an ethical movement, the Society for Ethical Culture, among radical intellectuals.” “Stephan with a group of farmers, established a society of liberal Icelanders who could accept neither the doctrines of the church nor the church’s declaration that religion was the fortress of culture and progress.”

Translations of Stephan´s poems appear throughout the book. The author does his best to provide the reader with translations of Stephan’s poetry but given the intricate forms that simply won’t work in English, settles for prosy translations that give the reader the meaning of what is being said. Creating translations of Icelandic poetry that capture the quality of Stephan´s work seems like an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that has already and will continue to keep English speaking readers from appreciating the genius that is declared in Iceland for Stephan’s work.

The book plays close attention to Stephan’s family life, the tragic death of one of his sons, the struggle to prosper at farming, his relationship with his wife and children. This helps to make him real, not a caricature of the embattled and battling poet. When he is honoured by being asked to visit Iceland and he tours the country to widespread adulation, Viðar describes Stephan as being worn and small, not the physical giant that some expected. The contrast between Stephan´s struggle to succeed as a farmer in difficult times and his success as a poet brings the reader close to the man whose search for truth in a world constrained by religious and secular dogmatism, makes him human.

I have found nothing to criticize about Wakeful Nights. There are a few typos in the text but nothing to distract the reader. I’m only grateful that the book has been written and published. For me, it has revealed and explained many things about my own ethnic community that I have not understood.

For many in the Icelandic North American community, the simple mention of the conflicts Stephan had with ministers, editors, members of the Winnipeg elite, will be enough for they will already know the background to the struggle. For readers outside the Icelandic North American culture, though, such references may hold no meaning, particularly those to do with the church. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary that explained each of those references but it would have made a large book even larger. One of the joys of Viðar’s writing is that it is easy to read. To have included more background detail in the text would have bogged down the story, taken away attention from the poet. Perhaps Wakeful Nights will inspire others to extract references and expound on them.

It would be wonderful if Wakeful Nights would help to establish a permanent place in Canadian literature for Stephan’s poetry. At the very least, this biography has brought us closer to knowing a remarkable man whose work bridged three countries.

(Wakeful Nights can be purchased from Tergesen’s bookstore in Gimli, from Jim Anderson http://www.abebooks.com/home/jimandersonbooks, directly from Benson Ranch Inc, 251018 Tower Ridge Estates, Calgary, AB, T3Z 2M2 or from Amazon. Local bookstores will order it. Copies will be available at the next INL convention in Seattle.)

 

 

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.

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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.