It wasn’t obvious at first. The snap of the wind off the Atlantic, and the sheer scale of the mountains plunging into the sea all around us, didn’t initially suggest that Iceland’s landscape was one that invited people in very much. Our first glimpse of a highway outside of Reykjavik was covered in slush half the way, and it was hard to look out the car window, because the snow in the fields was so bright.
My partner Finn and I were in Iceland last month trekking around snowy peninsulas, saga museums, and glacial creeks. I caught the bug so many of us have, listening to Björk’s music in high school, and then urgently needed to see the land of eruptions and emotional landscapes she sings about.
Maybe the first hint of the vision was how reverently our guide that day talked about the creek we were about to swim in. Called Silfra, it is a small watery crack in an expanding continental fissure between two tectonic plates, and that 4-kilometre long plain grows as fast as your fingernail. Over the centuries, the drift opened up this channel wide enough for groups like us to snorkel in. Before we slapped our snorkels and drysuits on, our guide cautioned us to let the current from the glacial melt push us along, and take time to meditate as we peered down to boulders many metres down through the ghostly blue-green light of what he called “the cathedral”.
Or maybe the first hint was seeing Hallgrímskirkja, the towering Lutheran church that overlooks most of Reykjavik, with its narrow pillars sweeping up to its belfry. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have been inspired by the shape of the basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions around the island. It certainly became more clear when we swished our fingers around in a hot spring pool that had been built about eight centuries ago. It was hard to deny when we visited a geothermal plant helping deliver Reykjavik’s supply of electricity and steam heat — almost entirely collected from boreholes deep beneath the earth channeling superheated water to the surface.
But it was impossible to ignore when we met an artist named Páll Guðmundsson. Páll was initially described to us as a pretty interesting sculptor who made faces out of rocks. When we drove into his village of Húsafell though, and saw stone cairns in circles along the road leading up to a workshop nestled beneath a grassy hill, we knew it was something more.
A friend of his from a nearby museum called ahead for us and asked Páll if he could show us some of his art. There, in the shadow of icy slopes overlooking farms and broken lava fields, this gentle man in a knit toque opened the doors of his workshop for us, and walked us past his sculptures to a musical instrument I didn’t recognize – because he had built it. On long tables against the walls, he’d laid out rows of narrow stones, some with lichens or charcoal faces. He called it a steinharp (or stone harp), and he told us he found the rocks himself in the mountains and canyons nearby. Then he pulled out two handfuls of mallets and played us Bach, and a composition he wrote himself.
Through the clear, hollow notes of the steinharp and the rocky faces he showed us in the fields outside, I realized I was literally seeing people in a landscape, and seeing their image built out of the land itself. I couldn’t stop saying “Wow,” over and over.
What Páll showed me, and what I saw in that power plant, and in the church columns, was a model of how to imagine a world with space for humans. Many of us live in spaces that say nothing about the land we live on, or its history. If you drive to the outskirts of any urban centre in North America, you’ll see roughly the same drab squares of home improvement and furniture stores. Our finest buildings could be plopped down anywhere (and in Edmonton, they’re often designed for a Californian climate). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to imagine living like we’re part of the land.
There is a space for us everywhere we are, though. Our homes don’t necessarily have to be made out of handfuls of rocks and lichens from the creek down the street. But we can find ways to carefully observe what’s around us, what we can add to the land to make it better, and how we can reflect our histories in ways that respect the place they play out on.
There are stories to be told about the land here in Alberta. We can live like we’re here for good.
On the advice of my mentor, I am sharing more small updates about what I’m working on. In the past couple of weeks, my thoughts and stories have been with a remarkably caring family on the streets, and with a bird desperately in need of friends in Alberta.
My story for the CJSR Homelessness Marathon was quite a challenge to put together. I can’t remember ever before spending a whole afternoon recording hours of tape, then whittling it down to a 20-minute mini-doc for radio. In this case, we had many months of time to prepare for the national marathon of community radio programming about homelessness in Canada. I used some of that time to get to know the people on the Boyle Street Community Services winter outreach van, which roams all over the city offering people a chance to warm up, get some hot food and supplies, and share the company of people who care about them. I discovered that it isn’t just people on the streets who benefit from this van’s work, though. Together with the staff, they make a caring family that feels it deeply when one of their own is lost:
This week on Terra Informa, my friend Danielle Dolgoy and I chased down a story about one of Alberta’s most threatened species. University of Alberta researcher Mark Boyce estimates that over the past few decades, the number of greater sage-grouse in the province has dipped from the thousands to a few dozen. There are so many reasons this is happening – oil and gas development, farming pressures, hawk predation… millions of reasons why the federal government sat on the sidelines for so long before issuing a special protection order under the Species At Risk Act to dramatically protect the bird. We were curious to know what finally motivated some of the parties involved to see what’s in it for them to protect the greater sage-grouse:
I’m headed to Iceland soon, and will be back near the end of March with some good stories about the archetypal land of Ice and Fire.
Before I pull on my warmest toque and toughest boots, I’m quickly scribbling out this note to let you know about an intrepid day of programming that I’m part of today on CJSR: the Homelessness Marathon. From 5 PM Mountain Time until 7 AM tomorrow morning, we’re coordinating a nationwide marathon of radio programming all about homelessness. This is the first year that CJSR has been the host of the event, and other community radio stations around the country will be chipping in with their own hours of programming throughout the evening.
My own contribution is a story about the people who work on, and visit, the Boyle Street Community Services’ outreach van. Once I dash out the door here, I’ll be following them along their route to a couple of the city’s bottle depots, where the van parks to provide a warm meal and essentials like gloves and socks for people living on the streets. I had the pleasure of meeting most of the crew last weekend, and I’m proud to be able to tell a story about something else the van provides: family. Tune in tonight around 11 PM if you’re interested. We broadcast on 88.5 FM in Edmonton, and stream online at cjsr.com.
When the January cold dropped off into that warm, wild wind last week, I found myself sprinkling gravel on my sidewalk as quietly as I could in the morning. It was already an inconvenience having to address the fresh ice that had spread out over the walks, and when I saw a woman get out of her truck to move a branch that had blown down from our tree into the road… well, I’m not proud of it, but I slunk away with my bag of gravel, lest she think I threw the branch there or something, and harangue me into arriving even later to work.
All in all though, the warmth was a treat. Which made me wonder who’d be really annoyed by the weather. That’s how I met Delayne Corbett.
Delayne is the Artistic Director of the Ice on Whyte Festival — a fact I discovered when I penguined over to End of Steel Park and shouted across the gates that I had a microphone and I’d love to talk to anyone inside. Ice on Whyte, you see, is the local ice sculpting festival that spreads through Old Strathcona in January. I had a hunch that if anyone resented the temperature hitting 6ºC, it’d be the folk who had a week left to finish building a mini-empire of ice and snow. As an ice carver, Delayne said, 6ºC with full sun was a complete disaster.
Delayne was the only one working on the site at the time, and he let me watch him for a while as he ripped cardboard covers off 150-pound rectangles of ice. He clamped one of them with metal tongs he swore were older than him, and threw it on the snow so he could “walk the dog” and shuffle it into place with the rest of the ice slide he was building. The slide would bring you to the bottom of a mountain of snow his team had stomped into the ground. All things considered, he was in good spirits.
-15ºC, Delayne told me, is the ideal temperature for ice sculptors. The ice doesn’t crackle much when you add water, and the cold wicks away the sweat you’re building up. The warm weather made him want to rip off layers, but he couldn’t because it was so wet and goopy that he had to keep his rainpants on.
Even worse, the wind had blown sheets of cardboard all around the site. That would have been okay, except that the record-setting gusts also tossed an 8-foot tall plywood box into the fences “like a bowling ball,” and he spent most of his morning gathering cardboard that had sailed into nearby streets.
He said something that stuck with me though, about the ice slide and the whole business of working with ice. He was in the process of adjusting the slide to make it a little slower at the bottom, by adding a little more distance. I mused that people building roller-coasters didn’t have that luxury.
“Those are all so planned meticulously,” he agreed. “Basically when I get here, I don’t know how much snow I have… so I kind of have to just go with the flow, rather than pre-plan.”
That, I think, is a skill we could all stand to learn. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.
I also told this story for a 3-minute story challenge on CJSR. Have a listen.
In case you want to hear me definitely ace my second-ever live interview on the radio, on Tuesday, January 7th, Terra Informa will be broadcasting live from Edmonton’s City Hall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our home station: CJSR 88.5 FM. From 5-6 PM, tune in for a special one hour episode of stories about leaving a legacy.
You’ll hear music from across Canada, and stories about artist Richie Velthuis’ delicate carvings in ice and the echoes of Chinese immigrants on Edmonton’s food culture today. I’ll be interviewing Linda Duncan – Alberta’s sole NDP MP, an environmental lawyer, and a recurring guest on Terra Informa over the past few years.
Edmonton listeners can tune into the broadcast live on CJSR 88.5 FM at 5 PM on January 7th, and listeners in other communities will hear both halves of the live show over the next two weeks. There’ll be more celebrations throughout 2014 marking the history of one of Canada’s most outstanding community radio stations. Hope you can join us.