Kin

Kin

When I was in Iceland with my husband we stayed mostly in the west and north. Bruce and I met few others as we traveled the island, taking in the small and the grand, the elegant and the banal, the human and the natural in luxurious, small steps. We went to the seaside town of Akranes on a windy chilly day in May, the sun and clouds and showers taking their turn, in and out of a steely, panoramic sky. Our first stop was a tearoom on a graceful plaza where the mood was somber and hushed. Icelanders are not effusive but they are good-natured and welcoming. That day everything seemed too gray, even for early spring. After a warming cup we left the cafe and returned to the car.

When we travel in a new landscape we are always curious about inhabitation, the ways people have learned to live in their geography, and we explore it. We walk and drive main streets and side streets in town and city slowly, to see the unexpected everydayness of a place, to absorb and bask in its identity – to try on a place and so become new. Always we look for churches. The church of Akranes was a jewel – Nordic, modern, pleasingly prominent and yet also subdued. There was a service about to start and we recognized several tea room customers quietly mingling in their dark clothes; it was a funeral we realized, that had colored the day with reserve.

Of course we had to visit the lighthouse, another architecture that Icelanders do so well. Akranes’ was no exception, modest and yet well crafted and detailed. Here we met Gunnar, a very tall handsomely bearded Viking manning the decommissioned structure and hosting guests. Every level was used to showcase art, and Gunnar explained what we would find. As we climbed we saw the paintings, drawings, and collages of an American artist, an exhibit of local photographers’ work, and the crayon drawings of schoolchildren (processing their visit, learning …) We noticed the echo, our words re-sounding, and Gunnar told us of the singer Anna Jónsdóttir, who liked the acoustics too and recorded an album there. We found her CD Var after we were home, and it takes us back when we long for Iceland, for the quiet Nord, the wind and the sea, for the formative and primitive Earth so transparently there.

There was another photography exhibit at the lighthouse documenting the rescue of a pilot whale pod that had been stranded and beached. Gunnar was intense and passionate in his retelling of the local efforts to save the whales. The event marked a marvel, an evolutionary pivot, when Icelanders turned away from hunting whales to instead saving them. A new saga begun: heroism expressed in caretaking and stewardship, in the founding of new relationships with land and sea1.

And also a new definition of family. In The Coming of Age in Samoa Margaret Mead marked a philosophical sleight-of-mind2 regarding family and sexual relationships. Most of us think about these ideas as such: family is identified by lineage. But Mead instead used incest taboo to define family, explaining that family members are those you don’t have sex with. Icelanders who now save whales have redefined their family, I think, to be extra-human, and in so doing they demonstrate a paradigm new to most Westerners3.

Family members are those whom you don’t eat.

 

…………………..

For more photographs of Iceland, visit Bruce’s album at Flickr: Iceland 2015


 

  1. Also seen in Iceland’s reforestation efforts
  2. One way to solve problems creatively, by inverting presumed causes and effects
  3. Aboriginal peoples, while not vegetarian, do not eat the animals of their respective totems
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