Awakening with landscape in Iceland’s Northwest
July 26, 2018
Words: Ginni Seehagel/
Photos: Mike Seehagel
The work of artist and writer Ginni Seehagel is grounded in the careful observation of nature. On a recent artist residency in Iceland, she explored spring within a framework of the parallels between the human and the natural, seeking a greater state of awareness.
March through May in Iceland officially constitutes an ‘awakening’. The description in my artist residency acceptance letter outlined Iceland’s seasons as if they were loosely predictable. Spring: An awakening of the landscape. The snow would melt, the grass would green up, and the darkness would wane to light. I was immediately taken by this metaphor as it suggested comparisons I’ve made between humans and nature in previous work. With the chance to witness such a dramatic transformation firsthand I was keen to take part.
Awakening, transformation, magical; waterfalls, greenery, sheep, puffins – all words nested in statements from those who have taken trips there. Even as independent thinkers, we had underlying hopes of our trip to Iceland being 'life-changing' or 'mind-blowing' in some way.
Then we lived it - and our expectations were met. It was life-changing, and it was picturesque. But it was far less novel than originally pitched. We didn’t saunter the Icelandic cliffs and hillsides with ease, our own shift mirroring the seasons’ the moment the calendar told us as the equinox had arrived. ‘Spring’ wasn't the most accurate verb. It was more gradual, trying, testing, temperamental. We arrived at the nip end of February and left as May folded up. Within this time, there was a definite stirring of the landscape, and arguably of the locals, but it was not linear. One thing we noted within hours of being there was how dominant a force the weather was, namely the wind.
“Transformation in the natural world has very little to do with ‘doing’ and a lot to do with ‘being’ – seizing opportunities when they grace you, and relaxing when they don’t.”
Most days were cold and hard. We spent our first two months stationed in Norðvesturland (Iceland’s Northwest) in a small town called Blönduós; population less than 1000. There was an often frozen estuary and a pool, and there were farms – lots of farms. The geography provided a lack of urban distraction, making it an ideal setting for creative work, and also offered endless time for self-reflection.
With the risk of sounding like the experience was a giant, freezing disappointment, we’re glad to report it was almost nothing we expected but everything we needed, without much interference from us. We swiftly learned that we were second or third in line to the natural elements, the livestock and the wildlife, all of which were unbelievably hardy. We certainly did transform with the landscape. Along with every freeze, thaw and refreeze; each ebb and ‘blow’.
This might be the best way a personal revelation can occur. Transformation in the natural world has very little to do with ‘doing’ and a lot to do with ‘being’ – seizing opportunities when they grace you, and relaxing when they don’t. Plants and animals have their systems. They bloom, they seed; they mate, they molt. But it happens in a more organic way than how we think about change, in terms of goal setting, excessive planning, disappointments when things don’t pan out as hoped. We’re always trying to ‘make things happen!’ If Icelandic lupines took this approach they’d be left limp and lifeless before the 10-month snowpack even thought about melting and would surely miss their opportunity.
The residency I worked at was textiles focused. Iceland has robust traditions in textile making and is known for its weatherproof wool. As lambing season was soon approaching, we visited the residency director’s farm for an early shearing in preparation. We were awed by the resilience of both the animals and the shearers as they carried on amongst the elements like it was ‘a magical stroll on the Icelandic hillside’. All the while, we felt self-conscious in our discomfort.
“Change is a collective occurrence with many entities working at once – nothing is a single-handed win.”
A phrase we heard on many occasions, especially in the north, was ‘Þetta reddast’. It means, ‘It will all work out okay.’ This was conditioning enforced by specialists, practiced and rooted through generations of Icelanders. ‘How do you think the Vikings survived?’ Our hosts asked us with a slice of sarcasm. We latched on to the phrase. It put into words what we were discovering in the shifting seasons. It was a mindset of the whacky but wise, yielding joy from circumstances that our own culture tells us are miserable. In a place where the weather dictates a lot, you have to succumb to it. You can’t skip the hard parts. By the end of it, you bless your weathered skin and appreciate the difference between 90 and 97 km/hr gusts.
Iceland could be made over as the land of ‘presence’ rather than of ‘magic’. Magic implies fantasy; an experience of being swept away from where you are, leaving you anxiously questioning. There is some of that – falling asleep to a window projected with northern lights might make you ruminate on illusion and reality. Whereas presence concerns current experience. Being truly present involves a complete roster of senses. It allows you to be there instead of striving for the future or longing for the past. When wind pushes your body meters forward across frozen seawater, or physically prevents you from opening the car door upon arrival at your destination, it’s impossible to think about anything else except then and there. And with that, desire for control dilutes and a sense of being prevails.
Things happen that we can’t control, things happen that we shouldn’t control, life is not a straight line. Change is a collective occurrence with many entities working at once – nothing is a single-handed win. Northern life, even just a glimpse of it, showed us this. We were part of the awakening.