Understanding Nature

This field of swiss grain above Lake Constance is a good example of the kind of conversations humans have with the earth. This represents technology brought from Asia to Europe and used as a tool for people to live on a land without enough resources to support their population without a technological intervention of some kind. These techniques were imposed on less settled peoples by a priestly class seeking to bring the world into the order of the Garden of Eden. They fine-tuned the rewriting the land as God’s Word in monasteries, and disseminated it from there. This is a middle-eastern field, a page from the Bible, written across old post-glacial space, and over the culture that preceded this field and its people. Its current lush green represents a new imposition: chemical agriculture, laid over what was a model farm in the 1950s for the perfection of pre-industrial, pre-chemical agriculture on a model of cleverness and discipline, also gifted to the Swiss by monks. In all senses, it is a profoundly cultural space, which can be re-read and re-written, should we wish. It is not nature.

The School of The World

Speaking of Schools on the Land, here’s one that didn’t quite work out… yet. The Icelandic Writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, who was famous from the 1910s through the 1940s for writing of peasant Iceland life from exile in Denmark, returned to Iceland in 1939, on the eve of war, to a model German farm that he built to modernize agriculture from the top down.


Gunnar Gunnarsson’s Bavarian manor in the East Fjords

Well, it never really got off the ground. The British Navy was in town, and for the first time Icelandic men made real wages. They put the ancient world behind them overnight and moved into town. Gunnar couldn’t afford the new wages, was hopelessly tangled with the German regime (although he argued passionately for Scandinavian independence, his fan base was in Germany), and quickly gave his farm to the state as an educational institution. The writing-agricultural dream had become a purely aesthetic one, and the world become just a little bit more urban. But not completely so. Here’s some of their educational work…

Archaelogical Excavation, Icelandic Style

Anyone can wander around down there and have a look. Security? Well, this is Iceland. People don’t even lock their doors here. This is the ancient monastery that gave the farm its name.

So, yeah, I wandered around down there in those old sod walled rooms. Look what I found:

Human Figure Scratched into the Rock

Some novice or hospitalized patient must have done this in a dark corner on some long winter night.

Here’s another shot…

Human Figure (Left) and Cross (Right)

Talk about writing right into the earth.

Here’s a closer view:

Long-Buried Cross

The bones of the church written in the bones of the earth by the bone of a human finger. Whoa.

Was it magic? Graffiti? A holy prayer? Hard to tell. One thing is for sure: thanks to Gunnar’s legacy, the excavation has taken place, and this glimpse of an ancient attitude to the earth on the edge of Europe (around 500 years ago) remains. Monasteries were learning institutions back then. One of the principle devotional methods they employed in Iceland, Iceland’s specialty in devotion, so to speak, was embroidery: stitching flowers and leaves into cloth. Imagine! Building an entire civilization around embroidering plants just the way they embroider the earth! Hey, the sheep do it, so that’s cool:

Sheep Stitching Volcanic and Glacial Leftovers into a Long String of Trails

(And wool.)

This is where contemporary Western culture comes from. See?

The Newest Grass Tastes Best

Heck of a way to prevent erosion, though.

And so culture erodes and changes, too. And yet, in that change it remains the best school of all. School is in the world. Its ancient traditions out there lie at the root even of urban life. Here’s just a tiny glimpse of the edge of that idea:

Gunnar’s Garden Shed

See what I mean? It looks like a bunker.

Once things become museum artifacts, they take on new roles — often colonizing ones. A useful shed has now become frozen in time. That’s hardly healthy, especially since time has a habit of marching on. One lesson to be drawn is that if urban life is returning to the land to colonize it (and it sure is), Gunnar Gunnarsson’s experience provides vital perspective. It would be a shame if the same mistake were made twice, or if the lessons about what life on the land needs and what it does not were not universally absorbed.