Creativity in Iceland

Iceland was long isolated from the rest of Europe and maintained ancient, pre-industrial modes of creativity, economics and land use long after they had been rendered obsolete elsewhere. Many parts of Icelandic culture did not leave an indigenous sense of land until the Second World War, when occupation by American and British military forces completely transformed the economy.


Abandoned Turf House, North Iceland

The wind, I promise, is unforgiving here. The house is built directly in it, on the crest of a hill above the Greenland Sea, so that the wind will take the winter snow away. The rest of the year is scarcely warmer. I would have left, too. And I love the wind!

For one thing, in Iceland you’re always under the observant eyes of ravens, who range out to the left and right of the god Oðin, acting as the harbingers and scouts of all identity: thought and memory. Here’s one keeping an eye on me.


You Are Never Alone in Iceland, Hengifossá

One of the technologies that Iceland brought forward into the present is Nordic Mythology. It was preserved here, although lost everywhere else, and provides an alternate world view to all others. For one thing, it has humans dwelling on Middle Earth, between worlds of Fire and Ice. Middle earth is where they battle for dominance. The fire …


… and ice are never far, and come from beyond the world.


Snæfells, with Reindeer and Geese

This is a complex and deep heritage, which contains such creative technologies as haying …



Haying is the Art of Creating a Book out of the Sun

You can read it all winter long, or your sheep can. My book The Art of Haying explores these mysteries.

… the string …


Icelandic Horse Obeying The String That is a Human Will

… non-human personhood …


Icelandic Horse Scratching Its Head at the Mystery of It All

… the self living in the forms of the land…


Elf City, South Iceland

…in union with ancient story …


Raven Mountain, North East Iceland

… and creativity rising not from person but from space, in an ancient conception called the Tun.


Cow, Calf and Tun

 All these technologies and many more meet in the culture of Iceland. The culture is their expression. Humans pass through this culture’s forms, in the same way they ride (or walk) across the land.



Golfing With Elves and the Dead, Too

In Iceland, nothing gets thrown away.

It’s the tun I’d like to talk about in terms of creativity today. A tun is something that you can observe (and take part in) everywhere in Iceland (and in the North). Here’s a tun in Denmark (the former colonizing power, grrr):

010Half-Timbered Danish Farmhouse

Den Fynske Landsby, Fyn, Danmark. The working courtyard in front follows the ancient Norse (and thereafter Icelandic) architectural model of a tun, an open air working room between buildings. 

A tun is a building without walls or roof, where the money-making activity of the farm took place, and where the manure (the dung, a variant of the word “tun”) was stored, which could be spread on the fields to create future wealth. It is the source of economy.


Horse-drawn Wealth Spreader Waiting for Re-use

Hedge fund version 1.0.

The tun usually connected to the track to the next farm, or out to the world of trade. Here’s a variant on a tun, from East Iceland…

landhusLandhus Farm Barn, Fljótsðalur

In this case, the tun is the road itself. It’s the architectural space (within the landscape rather than the farmyard) that carries forth the energy of the tun.


Icelandic Highway 1 in March, Mývatnssveit

Park your car here on the way back home from work. 

The word “tun” is the German for “to do”. The English word is “doing.” 


A nice triad!

It is a place of energy that creates the economy and trade and activity of a country (or a farm), or lets it efficiently take place. It is the place where the future is created. Without it, the activity of humans would not be as organized as it is, nor could it be efficiently packed up and exported from the farm (or the country.) Iceland, of course, is a sophisticated modern country, so we can expect this source of energy to take many forms today. Here are a few:

Parking Strip.

streetArt Project in Downtown Reykjavik

The pattern of tun-in-the-pasture is reversed to pasture-in-the-tun. (The tun is Reykjavik.) This pasture, though, is in the shape of a disused turf house. Clever stuff!

Movie theatre.

theatreThe Reykjavik Movie Theatre is Also a Place of Exchange.

Note that this is a re-purposed building. In other words, not only is the movie theatre a contemporary tun, but the building acts as one as well.


church2Vik Church, South Iceland

 A very useful tun for work with souls. In this case, the houses of the village take the place of the buildings of a farmyard.


treehouseSummerhouse in Kirkjubærjarklaustur

The trees are part of a nation building program of the Icelandic government. They represent not only shelter and beauty, but future money in the bank. In this sense, they operate as a dung heap in a tun. The land itself has been separated from itself into a special tun space here. Here’s something different…


truckA Movable Tun

This tun represents a combined cognitive, social and bodily space. It moves around and around through Reykjavik, invading people’s dreams and re-shaping them into effervescent images of mineral water. Not into the dance scene? No problem…


Icelandic Farmstead. 

Note the elf house in the foreground. It’s good to live close to your neighbours.

From the perspective of a capital economy, this capital has depreciated to the point of needing to be replaced with a new depreciation sequence paid for with interest. In a tun-based economy, the expense of taking wealth from the land in order to build structures upon it is a debt that will be erased only when the creative (tun-ish) potential given from the land and embodied in the building and the tractor are mined dry and these materials (dung-wise) rot back into the earth. They are, in other words, a fertilizer. You don’t paint fertilizer. You also don’t throw it away. Want something more adventuresome? Iceland has that too.


Svinafellsjokul, Skaftafell National Park

A glacier is part of the common wealth of a country, that which belongs to all of the people and brings water and energy to all. It’s not just the people, either. It also brings energy to the land itself. Here, you can see what that looks like, on the other side of the glaciers.



Aka glacier turning into light. Very good for the soul.

A glacier can attract tourists (and mine them for wealth), provide healthy recreation for the people (an idea of nature, imported from coal-smoke-choked industrial England), and even provide habitat for fish …


The Laugarfljót, with a view to Snæfells

These are both tun spaces. The mountain generates snow, which generates water. The lake collects the water, to provide habitat for fish. By concentrating energy in this way, mountain and lake make it available for human harvest. (Not that this is their plan.)

Unfortunately, capital-intensive economic systems can mess with that and simplify the idea of a tun almost to unrecognizability, like this:

P1390140 This is propaganda in the service of art.

Or art in the service of propaganda. Or a statue in the middle of a hydroelectric dam outflow channel that has diverted the water from Snæfells into the wrong fjord. Something like that. Here, here’s another look: P1390165 See that? The ship steams upriver, loaded with generic manufactured goods, towards the economy created by turning Snæfells’ life-giving properties into cash, that can pay for electric toasters and Swedish toilet paper. It never, of course, arrives. Here’s its goal…P1390138

The Heart of the Mountain

The statue was erected on the notion of eternal wealth, just before the economic collapse made the whole notion questionable. Here’s a construction site (abandoned) in Reykjavik, based upon the economic version of this dam …


OK, So Maybe Not Such a Great Idea After All

If you get too abstract with your tun, you run the risk of running out of manure. Good to know.

Ah, perhaps you’re tired of farms by now? Well, here you go, way up in the north…


A Sea-Going Tun Space

Powered by human energy (doing). Any fish brought into the boat (the tun) are instantly converted into wealth. Well, as long as your arms are strong and the weather holds.

This particular moveable tun has been sitting on the shore for a long time, but the principle still holds. When you start powering that boat with diesel, then a good chunk of the fish you bring in are not wealth, but payment for an operating debt, and, if you bought the boat on credit, a capital debt as well. If you’re not careful, the whole thing becomes a debt. Instead of organizing the wealth of your labour on the sea (very wet common space) for delivery to social space, the tun organizes social relationships for delivery to you. You have, in other words, lost your tun (doing.) Here’s a solution:



The Akureyri Botanical Garden

This garden is planted in Iceland’s northern capital to see what plants will grow in a cold, northern climate. The concentration is on decorative plants. That is part of Icelandic nationalism, a way of dunging the country so that it brings forth wealth (in the sense of a tun economy, organized around human relationships to common space (land and water, mostly), beauty and fecundity are both forms of wealth.) So is this:



Hotel Edda, Akureyri

In the summer, the richly-endowed residential high schools of Iceland are converted into hotels, serving travellers. This doing (tun) allows for them to be sheltered and fed without capital-intensive infrastructure on the land, that would not turn a profit (dung) and would be a drain on the community (a kind of field.) In other words, without the Hotel Edda concept, travel in Iceland would be greatly reduced. That is pure tun! In the winter, the schools are tuns of a different kind, gathering Icelandic youth together for their common education. It would be best, however, not to think of these multi-use spaces as either schools or hotels, but as a space which allows for and serves both relationships to the land. See? Pure tun! Similarly…


N1 Gas Station in Blondüos

In sparcely-populated Iceland, a gas station is like a city in itself (Icelandic Staður, German Stadt [city] or Staat [country], English State, and in land terms a Stead, as in a farmstead. Here it’s a gas stead.) Everyone stops (where else?). Everyone eats (hamburgers, chicken, pizza and hot dogs, the national dishes of Iceland, and for the lucky soul a liquorice ice cream bar [available only in Iceland] if you root around long enough in the freezer.) The places so interrupt the roads in a tun-ish kind of way that even the police stop here. Rather than waiting at the side of the road trying to nab people of interest, they just hang out at the N1 and interrogate people while they’re filling up with gas.

Here’s a somewhat more esoteric tun from Kirkjubærjarklaustur:


A Window on the Tun …

… is part of the function of the tun, even when it’s a bit wonky from a stone cast up by a weed eater or, perhaps (judging from the repaired state of the wall) earthquake.

Similarly, a piece of propaganda-art (or is it art-propaganda?) in downtown Reykjavik provides an anchor point for tourists wandering down to the waterfront (very tun-ish, that)…


Leif the Lucky’s Aluminum Ship, with Modern Adventurers

If I was crossing the North Atlantic in a longboat, I’d want it to be a made out of aluminum, too.

… while reminding the Reykjavikers that the money that built their glittering waterfront…



Reykjavik: Iceland’s Tun

It interacts with other national tuns to create the worldwide tun network.

… came from the aluminum smelter (and glacial-melt electricity) across the mountain in Whale Fjord.



Aluminum Smelter with World War II Airstrip (aka bird sanctuary), Hvalfjörður

Leif’s ship points straight this way. This is a capital tun. That it needs space (Iceland) is rather incidental. It might have been British Columbia. Oh, wait, they’ve dammed rivers and diverted them through tunnels and extirpated salmon for an aluminum smelter in British Columbia, too! Like tuns, capital is everywhere. Sometimes it flows right through a tun and obliterates it.

Here’s Reykjavik’s most interesting tun, right on the waterfront …



The Reykjavik opera house and performance centre. It also houses a CD shop, a cafe, exhibition space, practice space for dancers, fashion shows and classical, folk and rock concerts. In other words, it provides a space for the concentration of cultural activity of all kinds in sufficient quantity and quality that it can be delivered to the people, the country, and the world. It’s also a beautiful piece of architecture that captures the sun light and casts it in coloured rectangles on the concrete plaza at its base, like sketchings made out of chalk. Tun all the way.

Not all tuns are so complex. Here’s one of the most basic (and powerful) of them all…



Right Between Church and House

Note the road that comes directly to it. The tithes that came to a church accrued to the landowner who had built the tun space for the people and were, as such, a major form of wealth for Icelandic farms. The byproduct was the dead, who were planted in the tun — a kind of social dung, fertilizing the future (Heaven) or the present (built as it is on human memory, the more the memory the richer the present.)

In this conception of wealth, capital (and money) aren’t exactly the goal, but a product of the tun space. The carefully-bounded space below, on the other hand, added to the tun space…


field Stallions at Skriðuklaustur

Without the line that bounds this field, there would be no inputs to a tun space. It would only be a potential space. Never underestimate a line, in Iceland or anywhere else.

Here, this image may illustrate that more dramatically. Here we are at Myvatn (you may recognize this image)…


Volcanic Slag, fenced and dunged = Field = Horse 

Simple math.

If we lift the camera just a teensy bit, we get some perspective…


Volcanic Slag + Capital + Cleverness = Geothermal Power

Our horse is behind the rock.

You see how that works? The land has potential. It has a form of potential energy. The application of a particular technological approach towards defining it as space allows for different forms of energy to come out of it. A line gives us a field, gives us a horse. It will be brought into a tun, where this elementary relationship is retained. Capital gives us a  geothermal power station. It will be brought into a city, where it’s own elementary relationships are retained. In the first case, the earth is full of life and living relationships. In the second, humans are separated from the earth, which is a field of energy, that can be harvested. The interrelationship between these two ways of being is complex, but at all times the elementary principle remains: creativity comes from the space that is outlined by technology; the outcomes are predetermined. In other words, we who are humans are not separate from technology and cannot just direct it to our will. All we can hope for is to create spaces, which create energy flows that lead to where we wish to go, but we should be very clear as to where they might lead. Here’s a kind of tun that got its start in Iceland over a thousand years ago:



The Thing Place in Þingvællir

The world’s first parliament convened on this spot at the confluence of the walking trails of Iceland in the year 930. All the people came and collectively decided their social arrangements, then followed the trails back to their home farms. This is the tun of tuns.

On the principle that space creates function and energy is latent in the land, some tuns are geographical spaces. Like this…



Arnarfjörður, from Hrafnseyrie

This was the view that Jon Sigurdson, father of Icelandic independence, took in as a child.

Here’s a slightly altered version:



Stikkishólmur Harbour

Here’s an example of a common Icelandic tun: a ruin of a lost farm.  The people of Reykjavik come from places like this that were no longer tenable in a capital-fueled society. They do, however, remain.



Ruined Farmhouse near Arnarstapi

The mistake should not be made, despite the astute and chilling observations of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, that such buildings were a betrayal of the debt of humans to their land, as they were too capital intensive and not constructed within the flow of seasons and fate. Instead, it’s better to think of them as graveyards and memory artefacts, that continue to bind people to the land, although only in potential, and offer the chance of return. The energy that was squandered (as Laxness saw it) on these buildings, remains in them, as it also remains in the land, and can be mined again. Only in the sense of capital is it lost.

Well, there are many other forms of doings in Iceland. Cataloguing them won’t add to that appreciably. But perhaps this image might sum it up:


bridgeLike the string that defines a field and allows for concentrated activity, a bridge is another technology both similar to a tun and connected to its energy. It allows for improved delivery of material to the tun, without the contamination of important water sources with the mud generated by foot traffic. In this case, perhaps not so well, but, hey, I used this bridge on my way to the Dwarf Church in Seyðisfjörður, and it did its thing. Oh, and as for bridges, here’s one…

Golf Course.

golfSlowly, a people who have lost their connection to tun space are refinding it, in the golf course surrounding a church which was set up next to an elf city in the lava fields south of Reykjavik. Humans are like horses in a field. They really can’t wander that far.

Well, that’s the tun (our contemporary ton, or town), in many of its forms. It is in these spaces that Icelandic creativity takes place, because the tun (not the individual self, not God but focussed activity rising from location, here in Middle Earth, between cataclysmic forces) is where creativity takes place. In Iceland, it is Middle Earth, Miðgarðr, that is creative space. A similar set of illustrations can be worked out for the other technologies (string, etc) with which I introduced this post, but for now, I think you get the point: in Iceland there is a form of creativity and a corresponding land sense with little if any connection to American, French or German land senses. The culture, however, is more creative than those others. That’s worth sitting down in for awhile and getting to know. So, until next time when I will speak about Indigenous creativity on the Columbia Plateau, thank you for spending some quality time with me among the elves.

Godafoss and Lake Myvtan 342

Harold Among the Elves on Miðgarðr


Words, Humans, Earth: the Relationship Renewed

Let’s open with poetry today, and then stand firmly in science. First, the earth turns towards the sun …P1310912

(Trumpets tooting … can you hear them?)

… and the starlings hold the moon for a moment in their beaks…



… and then the earth is born.


Walnut Leaving its Husk

… and falls to the ground. When you crack it open, there is your brain, and when you eat that, it tastes a lot like this …P1310914It is a beautiful world, full of energy traded this way and that. In the oldest form of English, Old Norse, that was the role of language. It was something people spoke to the earth and the sky as much as to each other. It wasn’t that the earth warmed with the sun’s heat, but that the earth entered the state of the sun’s heat and so was heated. It wasn’t heated in the sense of having its temperature rise by a transfer of calories of energy, but by becoming for a time heat itself. This kind of sympathetic transferal of energy was no different than the transferal within the language that came out of it, Old Norse, and from that, through a long journey, English.

P1310753Okanagan Falls, Thanksgiving

This hawk that chirrrrrrred in a couple minutes before is not about to fly from this ponderosa pine using its own energy but is about to commit itself to the universal energy of flight, which is present everywhere in the universe, much as wireless signals and radio chat shows are in the earth’s atmosphere today. This ‘flight’ can also be entered by this creature…

lac35Can Anyone Name This Beauty for Me?

It looks great against a paper wasp nest, doesn’t it.

… and when it spreads those green sails to catch the winds of flight that blow invisibly through the air, it becomes flight and is said to fly. In fact, flies have earned their name by this correspondence.


A Fly in the Fall Asters

This is the capacity within the English language which is, today, called metaphor and which is given to poetry, as if it were a form of allegory. It is not allegory. It stands in for nothing except itself, and is not a primitive form of science. It is a wholeness which science only hopes to approach and to elucidate. This capacity of energy to flow into objects and back into objects, from the essence of flight into the verb to fly into a creature that flies and back into the air, is the foundation of English. Onto it is laid the object-based magic of Anglo Saxon, from the next wave of invaders of England. They gave us our names for the things of the world, for emotions, and created day to day life out of the world of cosmic energy through which the Norse passed and to which they spoke.

P1300874Magical Implements

Modern inheritors of the Anglo Saxon tradition.

These too…

P1300784 That this birch leaf is an object, with a name, which can be used practically, well, thank the Anglo Saxons for that, and thank them for this:

P1300728This kind of object-centred magic is infinitely portable. Objects can be arranged in sentences as if one were playing chess. In a way, one is. The result is a language of the earth, with both the capacity for efficient, practical, object-centred work and for magical transformations of energy. Onto this was grafted the language of another invader, the Norman French, who provided a language of abstraction and administration. The ultimate result of that, is stuff like this:


Antique Freight Truck with a Flat Tire

… and this…

P1310372Hi-Tech Winemaking

Meyer Family Winery, Okanagan Falls

Those are good things, and a most powerful use of language and the capacity it gives for interfacing with the earth. Problems crop up in human-earth relationships, however, when the three languages that make the parliament that is the English language, Old Norse, Anglo Saxon and French, are used interchangeably, or the diction appropriate to one activity are used in place of another. For instance, in the following view of the flood control dam at Okanagan Falls,

P1300966one form of energy (administration transfer of human currency between the United States and Canada in exchange for holding back water, which can be released slowly into the Columbia River and thus modify river levels to support the massive series of hydroelectric dams and nuclear reactors on the river) is supported at the expense of another. The earth, the stuff of Anglo Saxon and its energy, the stuff of Old Norse, which is our common wealth, is mined for the benefit of administrative structures. Nothing is returned to the earth, which is said to be wild and even sacred, but which is, really, increasingly deprived of energy and impoverished. And so, here we stand, with millions of pages of environmental legislation and a planet that is dying. Fortunately, we can fix this the same way we broke it, but in reverse, and our wealth can come home, instead of going sideways.




Where Words Make Sense

Every day I rise 15 minutes earlier with the earlier sun. Today that was around 4:30 a.m. It’s not the light, but a different pull. When I draw the curtains, the sun is not even a knife blade yet, prying up the sky’s lid. When the light comes, it comes from all points in the valley at once, not from the sun. It’s not light, exactly, but a vision. Yes, a vision. It just is, without source. In other words, after 3 weeks in Iceland and a week here in the Fljótsdalur, I have become the valley. I am astounded at how little time that took, and at how complete the union.

P1400333Melarett in the Late Afternoon

A rett is a sheepfold, used to sort sheep driven down from the highlands in the fall. Reykjavik empties as farms call their kin home to fulfill their obligations. They gladly come. Each fall, every inch of the country is combed on foot, and it’s not a small country.

Sheep like this…


Now, this kind of place-based identity I know well from my home in the dry valleys east of western North America, but it’s a little different here, because here the words are right. Icelanders speak Old Norse, and continue the culture that birthed it. English is a variation of Old Norse, that travelled through many conquests and much history to arrive on the Pacific shore. It is a global language now, in which words have ‘meanings’ and ‘histories’ and ‘subtexts’ and ‘meta-meanings’, and much more, but here, in this valley that is just here, the words are just here. They are nothing else than the valley, and all the history of philosophy, science, theology and literature that has been built up around words is just talk.


Swans Walking Across the Lagarfljót

I’m charmed.


The Language of Magic

In Germany, if one of these fellow travellers crosses your path, it’s a witch and you’re done for. In England, you salute them, to avoid bad luck. Here in the land of the wild cherry and the mock orange? Well, look…

 A Friend Aloft, or …

… to dig down into the Old Norse and Anglo Saxon roots of English, a favoured one in the sky. Intriguing that the words for the physical world sound a lot like poetry.

English gets spoken a lot around these parts. It is a strange language, made out of a few ancient magical ones like Old Norse and Anglo Saxon, with layers of French and Latin hammered on. The result is a kind of parliament on our tongues. It’s no accident that parliamentary traditions began in Iceland and Britain. The language made sure of that.

Two Levels of Language Meet, Vernon

They look good together, I think.

In the quest of finding words for this land, I think it’s best to remember that English speakers know more than they think. They think in French, but they see the world in Norse and Anglo Saxon. Our friend the magpie, for instance, is not a thing in that part of English that human bodies experience. There, he is an action. The word I’ve used for him, a friend, doesn’t describe him by his colour, shape or scientific nomenclature (Pica hudsonia), but by his movement and by the movement of feelings I give to him. The action is love. Why not? He follows me in unending curiosity and grace through the grass, and so in my heart I’ve set him apart, made him sacred, and have protected him with a bond of freondscipas our language would say in an Anglo Saxon moment. This isn’t history. It’s a living thing. It’s tenuous, fragile, unmeasurable, and yet remarkably powerful. It’s also the way that English works as a language. Yes, English is a language of freondscip. Good to know.

Magpie Watching Me Through a Screen of History

In the language of the land, this Chinese weeping willow is a newcomer, the way latin and french are newcomers. This moment we live in allows for them to exist together and create new relationships. This coming together is also a form of freondscip.

Our words are even deeper than this. In another ancient sense of a friend, for example, this magpie is free. He lives in friðu, or peace, a shifting place that moves with the attention, just as he does, just like the wind. We all know this language that shifts between action and being, human and earth, in a chain of relationships and obligations and careful attention.

Magpie in a Land of Weeds…

…proving that tumbleweeds are useful for more than spaghetti westerns.

In this sense, the magpie at the opening of these musings lifts up, a word drawn from the force of a wind cresting a headland above the sea, a specific energy of the universe called lift, that has been recognized as a part of this creature’s movements.

Icelandic Golfers Dealing with a Bit of Lift

Oh, just a country churchyard south of Keflavik on a Sunday. Many a skip has broken up on the billows out there. In some fjords, 9 holes of golf in Iceland are listed as par 75. Bracing!

The language is even deeper yet. Our magpie has caught the wind on his feathers. His feathers. Yes. Wings are a newer word, drawn from the extensions of a church into the arms of a cross. They describe a shape. That’s beautiful, and wings are beautiful, but feathers, ah, those are an action again, a force that has become a thing. To feather the lift is to leave the ieorðe, which our anglo saxon ancestors remind us means “the planet we live on,” the earth. A twittering creature, a brid (breet! breet!), a bird aloft has left this “planet we live on” and is in the lift. It is aloft. This is magic. It is also the inter relational space that science seeks when it speaks of how the nature of the form of measurement determines the thing being measured.

Fences Measure the Land and Sift Humans Out of It

Magpies, though, see a great perch. They flit, or fly, down onto it, and catch the lift again to leave. Fences are for humans.

This inter relational world of interdependent ecosystems and observational strategies that drove the German poet Goethe to distraction, caused him to refute Newton at length, and which is being rediscovered today in hundreds of ecological studies programs, has always been here. It has only been forgotten for awhile, and not by our bodies, either.

What the Magpie Couldn’t Care Less About But Human Bodies Long to Get Through

A public good, fruit, on an unownable place, this planet we live on, is segregated according to social relationships. If there is the freedom of friendship here, it comes at a price, but then, if you pay for it, is that freedom? I think we need to work this out a bit, especially considering that orchards like this are going broke.

Scientists are not discovering the nature of relativity out in the world. They are discovering it in language. The rest of us are on the same path. How could we not be, as creatures all sharing this same moment on the earth? And as for the language, well, we already know everything that they’re going to find.

Magpie Re-entering Earth

As a photograph, well, an out-take, but I’m not likely to get a better one, so I’m celebrating it.

Tomorrow: these musing lead into the relationship (or not) between grapes (and wine) and choke cherries. Mmm.