The Land is Alive

One of the things I am thinking a lot about on this sabbatical pilgrimage is the role the natural world can play in spiritual practice. In Western thought, the spirit and the body, the natural world and the spiritual world are separate. This is most often the case in Christianity as well. 

However, for most of human history, land and spirit, body and soul were one. People saw the land as a living thing and themselves as part of it. In many cultures, humans were stewards of the land, not its conquerors, like Western thinkers believe. 

Here, in Iceland, the deep human connection to land is very evident. 

Iceland is a stark landscape, the land of ice and fire, where the tectonic plates of the American and Eurasian continents meet, where volcanoes erupt often, and huge glaciers dominate the landscape. People have been living here on this island continuously for not quite 1,200 years. 

Eruption of Fagradalsfjall from Reykjavík

They have not always been good stewards, as is often the case, and the fact that the island was deforested almost completely centuries ago is one example of that. However, Icelanders care deeply about the land they live on and clearly have a long history of connection to it. Also, reforestation efforts are underway and there are small birch forests (Iceland’s only native tree) everywhere.

A young forest on Öskjuhli∂

The first thing that struck me is how every rock formation and lava field has a story. There is a long folklore of the huldafólk and elves living in the lava fields and hillsides. They are supposed to be the wise ones, the hidden people who help humans, who have their own farms and homes and churches. Not too long ago, a local woman lobbied to save lava fields from a road being built across it. A sweet documentary called The Seer and the Unseen just came out about it. 

Elf houses built into the hillside by Strandarkirkja church’s graveyard

When we visited the Snæfellsness Peninsula, a small hill to the north on the Reykjanes Peninsula, overlooking the water, is called Helgafell or holy mountain. The first family to settle there believed that they would all go into the hill when they died and some people say its the doorway to Valhalla. According the the sign, you are supposed to walk up the mountain without looking back or speaking, and make three wishes on the top. It is maintained by the local farmer, whose dogs love to come and play with tourists, and the hill is covered in crowberries. 

On the west side of the peninsula, on a lovely black pebble beach, a rock formation is said to be a troll woman carrying fish on her back. She stayed out too long and the sun turned her to stone. If you look close, you can see it!

One of the few sunny days of our visit, at Djúpalónssandur beach

And where the two continental plates meet most visibly is †ingvellir. This was the place of the first Althing, where all the local chieftains and go∂an would gather to read the law and settle disputes every year. A river runs through it and it is sheltered by rock cliffs and tumbling waterfalls. 

A path through Thingvellir

It is not hard to imagine that every tree, rock, and plant is alive and inhabited by spirit in a place like Iceland. And, even after centuries of Christian teaching that emphasized the distinction between nature and spirit, the culture of believing that everything is alive persists in this place.

One way this is expressed is the explosive growth of the Ásatrú fellowship here in Iceland, a heathen group that practices the faith of the old Eddas, the oldest written manuscripts-written in Icelandic- detailing the belief system of the early Norse inhabitants. Ásatrú as practiced here in Iceland is a faith deeply aware of the natural world and our connection to it, deeply invested in preserving the environment, deeply supportive of queer people, and a blend of the best of Icelandic scholarship and the oldest faith of its people. 

I feel honored to be able to witness all of this beauty and reminded of how deeply we are connected to the land. It reminds me too, in a time of deep division and hatred and destruction in our world, of the value of seeing everything as alive. In this way of looking at the world, every plant, every rock, every person is a living soul, deserving of respect and honor. 

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