Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Iceland: Painting the Landscapes of our Lives

 "I realized that the story of even so small a place can never be completely told and can never be finished. It is eternal, always here and now, and going on forever."   --Wendell Berry

The beginning of the painting of "Foss Farm" in Westfjords, Iceland

The finished painting this week...

A few weeks ago Elias finished a painting of a Westfjords, Iceland landscape. The painting is of some nondescript cliffs with a gushing waterfall that spills into a tempestuous river. The river flows and widens in a stone's throw to a fjord in the Greenland Sea--the far north Atlantic Ocean. If you want to be specific, it is called the 66th parallel north--the circle of latitude that is 66 degrees north of the equator.  If you have ever been to Iceland, waterfalls are almost as plentiful as the sheep that roam the fields and countryside. But this waterfall is uniquely special to our family. You see it is not just any waterfall. My great-grandfather, also named Elias, was born on this remote farm overlooking an inlet sea fjord. As I walked along the road in front of the farm, I imagined him daily hearing the roar of this waterfall while it supplied his family with constant water.  

It was early summer when I took the below photos at 11:30 pm. It would be a few hours before dusk would momentarily descend on the scene. The wind was not howling on that night. We could gaze out at the tranquil fjord's calm waters where my great-great-grandfather, Eggert, had left the farm in his boat to head to Norway. His motive to leave? He was a ship captain, trained in Denmark, and took upon himself the responsibility to leave the Westfjords to bring back food for the villages around him. They were practically starving that year so he turned his head to the wind and left his Westfjords farm. He would make the trip a few times in his lifetime. 

My grandmother told me the cliffs that rose above the farm hid puffin nests. My great-grandfather, Elias, would be tied up with a rope from his brother or father. and then dangle from the cliff to retrieve eggs. I can't imagine gripping a rope while my young child would be suspended in the air--probably swaying in the gusty wind. Puffins only lay one egg each year so it is not like there were abundant eggs in the nests But my great-grandfather and his family were hungry, and those eggs would give them some nourishment. Sometimes it was hard to get out to the sea to fish, and eggs were there on the cliff if you wanted to dangle above to fetch them. 

I grew up with these stories of "Foss Farm." Being there brought me a deeper connection to my ancestors--like they were almost there. I closed my eyes, yearning that those people who lived there long ago could be next to me. I wished we could share a cup of cool water together before the sun dipped down for a minute into the sea. I wanted them to show me where they found the puffin eggs and how they survived a Westfjords winter.

Sometimes I think of them and the landscapes of their lives that shaped them. I am sure my great-grandfather would never think his posterity would care that he perilously dangled above the air to grab one puffin egg. But I do. Or, that he would row for three days while the rogue winds and waves tried to blow him to Greenland when he tried to go out to get some fish. But I do. Because my grandmother and father told me the stories. 

Lately, we have not just been telling the stories, but painting the places where they happened. Elias wanted to paint where the other Elias long ago lived. Watching my Elias paint these skies and cliffs this week has made me remember to tell the stories of those who lived in those landscapes long ago. I might not have to swing on a rope to get a single puffin egg, row for days in a blizzard storm off the coast of Iceland, or sail to another country to get food for my community. Yet, I hope we/I can do some hard things too. Somehow, to paint the strokes of a waterfall, not just any waterfall, but the source of your ancestors' life, made us very happy this week. There are many ways to tell the stories of our lives...

What are the landscapes of your life? And how are you going to tell their stories?

Elias Shumway on "Foss Farm" where Elias Vatnsdal was born.

                                                    Looking out to an inlet of the Greenland Sea...

                                                      Wearing Icelandic sweaters--of course...

A very special night to be at Foss Farm

Stuffed puffins you can buy all over Iceland

Not too far from Foss Farm... 

        Looking out the fjord that Eggert Vatnsdal sailed away to bring back food in a near-famine for the community around him. 

                         Peter going up the cliff to taste the water from the same waterfall his ancestors drank from.

                                  The glacier water that streams down to the North Atlantic Ocean

                                                                     No one wanted to leave that night...

One of my mottos