Icelandic Diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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