Take: An Old Word Reborn

I am rediscovering old words and worlds here in Iceland. I can’t take the country home to Canada, but I can take this…




Spring Colours at Littlifoss, Lagarfljotsdalur

An inspiration for weavers and dyemakers.

“Take” is a word that has lost its charm to become possessive in modern English: in the most common sense, to “take” something today is to make it one’s own, to remove it from other people, and even to steal it. It is what settler culture did to the indigenous cultures of the place, the ones that understood the earth and how to work with it, and is what they are left with. The word, however, has the possibility for renewal and grace, and I think we should take that and run with it. A secondary usage of the word today is to “take” a picture — not in the sense of capturing and entrapping a soul or any other ancient alchemical bondage, but in the sense of “choosing” it, of finding the one most beautiful, directing the eye, the mind, and the heart to it, and honouring it by presenting it to others, like a posy of flowers that does not have to die in order to be presented to one’s true love. Today is Good Friday here in Iceland. In the language of Christian faith, if I may, look how the earth is bleeding and softening the thorns around Christ’s head…




Icelandic Purslane, in its Rare Red Form

Melarett, Iceland

That is the one that has taken root here (to use a yet deeper sense of the word). I am taken by it (to use a deeper one yet.) I hope that in this sacred season, whatever your faith, you can take (!) a moment to wander out into the weaving of the world and be taken by it, for a moment, or forever.







In Iceland, there is so much to remind a man indigenous to the Okanagan grasslands that English is not always a colonial culture at odds with place but holds deep indigenous thought of its own. Here in Iceland, the world is spoken by the oldest of words in the English language, ones that came before the language was ever spoken at all. It is a vision worth travelling for and worth bringing home. The word that I have been meditating on today in my room above the old cloister below Skriða in East Iceland is “haunt”. I am haunted by this landscape:

sheepsunThe Sheep of Eyrarland Farm, East Iceland

(Looking out over the Klausturtangi wetlands.)

Haunt is an old word. It means “home”, or “to be tied to one’s home” if one is using it as a form of energy rather than a place for that energy to centre. It is the way a sheep needs no fence on its mountain. Once it has been acclimatized to it, the mountain and the sheep are one. It is, as I noted in my journal yesterday morning ..

Horses move back and forth in the field, tethered by string and desire, always in tension, like beats on a drum.

Or, of course, like a heart, or the tide, or breaths. By “string” here, I mean the simple line of wire that represents a man’s will, that a horse will not cross, but which it will strain against, and which will gently push back, in the way of the lines of a poem. In the Cariboo region of central British Columbia, I once had a moose and her calf take up residence in my back yard. The cow could step easily over my barbed wire fence as if it were not there. The calf, even at one year old and taller than a horse, had to make a light hop to clear the fence, and clipped the top strand of wire with her back hoof. That action set the fences of half of the Borland Valley singing, as if she had plucked a guitar string and we were in an old Country and Western song among the lodgepole pines, aspens, foxes and muskrats. It is good to be home on this earth. I am pained that what passes for civilization often seeks to destroy it, but that is, I presume, also the way of things. I just don’t like it. It is to be remembered that tomorrow is Good Friday. This kind of anguish has been going on for a long time.


The Sun Rises Over the Viðivallaskogur, East Iceland

The view from my window — earlier every day now.

Tomorrow the first exhibit of the year opens here at Skriðuklaustur: an exhibition of crosses of wood, bone, bark and metal by Jón Geir Ágüstsson. My favourites among them are those whose arms don’t cross at the intersection of the earth and the eternal, but touch gently at a single point receding into infinity, like the beaks of four ravens grasping, or letting go of, the sun. The same pattern can be found in the basalt outcropping above the old monastery ruins below this shelf of grass before the mountain really begins, frozen now in the opening part of the year. It struck me early this morning that a word close to “haunt” is “honour.” I am haunted by that.

Writing and Farming Are One

Some thoughts on “writing” today, including my other love, “farming”, and another one, “art.” A smorgasbord, really! First a note: There are few writers left in the world (but many keyboarders), I know, but, still, with a little generosity for old paper-based technologies, writers write on paper (or keyboard onto screens) and farmers put up fences in fields and plow fields in long lines like epic verses … ah, you see? Writing. Here are one farmer’s animals in the Lagarfljót, Iceland, sitting within the boundaries of his pages… ahem … fields…


Horse and Sheep in the Spring Sun

The horse appears to be pushing at the boundaries of his rhyme scheme.

If you exist physically in a physical world, then farms like this are surely an art form. The pages are written on the land, rather than in books, but they are pages, nonetheless. In the age of  Creative Writing Departments and, bless us, Literature, it’s not the way we who write “words” like to think of our art, but it’s honest. After all, many of our languages (including English and Icelandic) were invented by sheepherders and fishermen. When we speak, or write (or keyboard), it is their voices that echo through the fields … ahem,  pages … of our books (or screens) — in other words, through our farms. Here is one of a farmer’s writing implements …


Horse-Drawn Hay Rake Put Out to Pasture…

… and ready to drive the earth up into the stars. So much for the Industrial Revolution. Why, once even typewriters like this were created in foundries and then set loose like horses into the folds, I mean fields, of the world.

I make light of this important idea, I know, but it’s only because I find it so delightful. Think, for example, of what writing echoes in this farmer’s language called English: one wrights metal (and stage plays), one spells words (and magic), one writes poems, one performs rites, one tells stories, and in the end what one has to show for one’s craft (and art) is what one has wrought, wrote, read, invoked, spelled and played. In other words, it’s like this:



A Tangled Mess of Manure Spreader and Hay Rake

… somewhat forgotten over the hill (if you were wondering where that expression came from.)

There is, however, another form of art, indeed a language of its own, which has not wandered into such tight fields of electrified wire and driftwood fenceposts and old bits of barbed wire tufted with horse hair, that can help us wrights and spellers and invokers through our gates into the pastures of the high country, and that is the art of painting, and it’s industrial child, photography. In painting, one lays down colour and fills it in (as, indeed one does in music, as well), whereas in photography, one “takes” a picture — not in the sense of theft, but in the sense of “taking a temperature” or of something “taking place” — in other words, one is engaged in a moment of presence, one is present, one is there, or, rather, here …

horsecraterThree Icelandic Horses and Pseudo-Crater at Lake Myvatn, Iceland

From these artists, we wrights and readers can take a blessing: instead of placing ourselves in the roles of givers and receivers of human intentions (stories, poems, plays and even novels, if your taste wanders in that direction), we can take a poem, lay down words, and be present, through our attention, in the world. This is what our ancestors meant when they created our language. This is what they are still saying when we “use” it, or “speak” it.

klaustur20My Writing Desk at Skriðuklaustur, Iceland

It’s about the light.

A long time ago I was taught to write poems by the orchard trees I lived among. After twenty seven books about people and their stories, the light has found me again and, once again, is wrighting me, and I am glad.



Reindeer Guides on the Long Road to the North

Ah, the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and Washington, a semi-arid region of brittle prickly pear cactus and sagebrush, with summers of 45 degrees and winters of 20 or even 40 Below! The marketting campaign to turn this valley into eternal summer has been extraordinarily successful, leaving those of us native to the place and its extremes scratching our heads. 10,000,000 Canadians travel to Mexico every winter to escape the cold. I travelled North to Iceland instead, to find it. Today I arrived in my home for a month, Skriðuklaustur. Here are some of the locals, scratching their heads at that.

reindeercroppedReindeer in the East Fjords

Sure, we have Caribou in Canada, but that’s not the point. The point is that I am among people who look North for warmth. The point is, I am home. Thanks for following me on my journey here these last 9 days. Tomorrow the work begins. Hey, maybe when I get home at the end of April, I’ll look much like this:

reindeerReindeer above Langadalsá, Iceland



Renaming the Seasons: Canada and Iceland in Colour

Spring in the Okanagan …


and winter in Iceland


and spring in the Okanagan

redgreeand winter in Iceland



Different colour palettes expressing different spirit, but it’s the same season. Here again, winter in Iceland …




and spring in the Okanagan …

redgreen and winter in Iceland


and spring in the Okanagan


and spring in Iceland



Really, these words “winter” and “spring” just aren’t doing the job!



Land Earth Horse Ice Star

The land is watching.

HesturSpring’s Horses, North of Hofsos, Iceland

If you stop beside the road, they will appear. And if you try to talk to that land in a foreign language?



An Icelandic Horse Discovers Sugar

Hmmmm. In the end, one horse out of forty accepted a sugar cube. She had three. It might be better to speak to the land as the wind…



Icelandic Horses Waiting for Me to Figure Out What They’re Waiting For

Hay, oats, and a bucket of water, I think. I think that’s all that the wind wants, except, of course, to play in my hair. And while the land is watching humans, what is the earth doing?



Oxárarfoss, Iceland

While humans are talking with their art form, the land, the earth is making art among the stars.


Salt Lithography

I have mentioned the need for a new Enlightenment, one which includes the earth. The following images show, I think, just where it might begin. This is a variation on the art of lithography from Iceland. Here it is not a human artist inking stone to print on paper, but the sea writing upon the snow with the land as a pigment (in this case ground volcanic basalt). I found these transitory prints written in a heavy spring snowfall as the tide was coming in at Sauðarkrokur in the Skaga Fjord.s3

I see the beginnings of a language here, and here …


Contemporary artists search for the lack of signification, yet this is the universe …


It’s just that it’s not a humanist meaning. Look at how the snow erupts in volcanoes when pressured from the sides! Stunning.

Next: A Language of Light and Shadow from Hofstaðir

Painting with Ice

Yesterday I talked about a language of ice. I’m still following that idea, of writing from the local materials of a place and going through the doorways opened by that kind of body language. Today, I want to share the Icelandic artist Páll Guðmundsson of Húsafell, who does a lot of work with rock. Sometimes he makes faces on boulders and scatters them in streams, where they look a lot like the boulders with natural faces that are already scattered there. It is like adding extra cards to a deck that is already stacked, or like adding words to the margin of a novel to extend its ideas with personal experience. It’s how birds learn to sing, so that’s a good model, right?




Eagle Cliff, þingvaellir, Iceland

Learning to sing in the Mid-Atlantic Rift.

On December 1st, 2008, the Church of Reykholt, Iceland, put on a display of prints of St. Cecilia, which Páll created by painting ice with images with pigments made of ground local stone, then allowing the ice to print them onto paper as it melted. They are inscribed with poems by Thor Vilhjálmsson. Here is one…  


St. Cecilia by Páll Guðmundsson

What an inspiring transformation of the art of lithography! If you can’t speak with the forms of your land, they are not yours. Páll is not the only artist in Iceland playing around with the interface between faith, ice and stone. Here’s a spontaneous piece of folk art I found at the sheep fold on the cinder cone, Glokur …P1280259The angels are among us. Good to know!

The Language of Ice

Here’s something I’ve learned in Iceland: use whatever you have at hand. Yes, I knew that already, because that’s how the Germans invented science along the old pilgrimage road between Paris and Minsk, but I hadn’t drawn the fullest conclusions from that, such as this:


Ghosts, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

What’s a ghost? Why, something that’s neither dead nor alive and which brings a message from deep within your story.

The lesson? A people and its land are one. If they’re not, they are a different people, and the land will suffer under their occupation. (And the Canadian Okanagan and its American sister the Okanogan are both suffering now.) The lesson is also: write with the forms of your place. Your place has a language. It is not the same as the social language that is called art or literature. This was driven home to me at the annual Okanagan Arts Awards in Kelowna a couple weeks back, a glorious gala event celebrating human social culture and the idea of creativity. What it didn’t celebrate, though, was this:

P1260717Troll People, Þingvellir

When confronted with a lake lying between continents, people start to write their story with the land. It’s messy, but it’s human.

There’s a lesson to be drawn from Iceland, that can be shifted to a confrontation with the Okanagan: start with a language, that comes from the land, the water, the light and the air. Here’s a piece of just such a language from Iceland:


Language Beginning, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

Forget about cuneiform and Linear B and language starting with bird tracks in sand. There is another way. Forget about writing for an audience and what they will pay. That idea relies on an environmental deficit. It replaces a human relationship with the earth with an interhuman one, leaving the deficit to be paid at some point in the future. That time is now.


Language Beginning as Art, Öxarárfoss, Iceland

Returning the earth to life, which is the same as returning human imagination to life on the earth, starts now. It has to. Artists know stuff like this. Writers? Well, now this one does, too.