Essay: The farmer invites us for a tour of the small church a short walk from his farmhouse. It’s a remnant of colonial days when Iceland was under the rule of Denmark, their attempt to turn pagans into Christians. We are guests staying in the manor house on his farm in the southern part of the island, here to ride the famous Icelandic horses. This farm, we are told, is the closest property to the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano that erupted almost twenty years ago, spewing plumes of ash into the sky that wreaked havoc all over the world, yet this family of farmers has chosen to live here for seven generations. The church is actually more like a chapel, with its plain boxy architecture and simple steeple topped off with a cross lit up with white light bulbs. It’s perched on a gently rolling hill near the tree lined cemetery, painted white with a red roof, as almost all the buildings in this small country are.
Mummi leads us diagonally across the meadow of long grass combed in one direction by the North Atlantic winds. His movement is slow. He’s not in a hurry for anything it seems, like he’s pacing himself. Long days on the farm, work that never ends, the physicality of it all, the energy needed to be the person in charge of caring for all living things around him. I find it challenging at first to slow my stride down to walk with the farmer. I prefer a brisk pace, which feels more efficient to me, so slowing down takes great effort. But as I do, my breathing slows and I find myself relaxing, really noticing the glorious glowing greens of the meadows and fields, colors only known in this part of the world, so bright it almost feels like it comes directly from the heavens, striking in its contrast to the severe flat gray that the volcanic mountains provide as a backdrop. Is that why the farmer walks so slowly? So he can watch over his land and his animals while he’s out and about? Taking time to notice everything, not getting lost inside his own head, full of thoughts and lists, like I do. It’s his job to survey his world around him. Sure enough, he notices one of his lambs in a bush just off the trail, alone and separated from the group. I didn’t even see it. He takes a moment to reunite the lamb with the herd.
Inside the church the farmer casually leans against the railing that separates the altar area from where the congregation normally sits. We take a seat in the pews near the front. Mummi’s arms are crossed and his heavy black work pants, rubber boots, and white tee shirt match his cropped salt and pepper hair. He is a round man with a gruff look on the outside, but the moment he speaks, a sense of peace and kindness emanates from him. Behind him is a wall-sized mural of Jesus Christ.
“I just do my best,” he says in thickly accented English. “What more can I do? I’m not here to tell you what to believe, or how to behave. We all have to figure that out on our own.” And then gesturing to Jesus behind him, “But if a white-skinned bearded man from across the world from two thousand years ago helps you understand how to live, I’m fine with that. All I know is that I am here to take care of my family, my land, and my community. After all, what else is there?” Our children fidget a bit from the confinement of the wooden pews, which doesn’t faze the farmer, and the rest of us all nod in agreement at his simple message. It’s so basic, I think in this moment. Why is it so hard for us to see how simple our priorities in life should be? Why do we get so distracted?
He proceeds to tell us how he sees religion in Iceland, about the Islandic culture and the land which requires an intrinsic respect for nature. The forces here are much stronger than us, he tells us. We cannot conquer the volcano, or the fast-moving waters, and most certainly not the forward-moving force of time. The idea is to find harmony with the natural elements, and not bump heads against them. The culture stresses that while everyone is imperfect and life is full of challenges, learning from our mistakes and misfortunes help us gain the wisdom to deal with the next challenge coming our way. The more we learn to live in harmony with nature, with respect and tolerance, the less conflict we will have.
“You understand?” he interjects loudly again and again. Yes, we do, we tell him. He’s got it all figured out, it seems: what’s important in life, what he knows, what he has. It’s all he needs.
Mummi tells us he’s not Christian, and someone asks why he has a church on his property. “I’d like to tear it down,” he replies, “but my sister would have a fit. She’s in charge of this church, and the cows for that matter.” So why offer to give us a tour of the church that means so little to him, I wonder?
After the tour of the church, Mummi takes us to the top of a steep hill on the other side of the river by crossing a narrow homemade bridge. He suggests that by staying on this path we will be well rewarded. Later we ascend up what feels like a nearly vertical hill, the last segment accessed by climbing up a ladder wired onto a large boulder embedded into the side of the mountain. It’s kind of rickety, and I think twice before climbing on, but I know Mummi wouldn’t send us anywhere that wasn’t safe. As we continue up the canyon, the river is roaring, the sound so soothing and comforting even in its wildness and sheer strength. Although I respect and almost fear its power, being near water is invigorating and healing to me. Like baptism. Like bathing. Like drinking and hydrating. Calming and meditative, as long as we respect it.
As we hike up the bumpy mossy trail, I hear a small tributary creek on my left. I’ve got the sound of flowing water in stereo now, crescendoing. The right ear filled with the powerful river in the canyon, the left ear filled with the sound of the babbling creek, gentle and soothing. It’s beautiful. Extraordinary. I’ve got to watch my footwork on the winding trail, for there are obstacles. Rocks everywhere, and cliffs off to one side. Because of the constant moisture in the air, everything has potential to be slippery. And the wildflowers. I stop and wonder at the delicate flowers along the trail that fill the fields before me. The purple, pink, and lavender clover. Perhaps a weed to some, but not here. Here they are forbs, and forbs are what the sheep love to eat. And the yellow meadow buttercup, and the pink-tipped grasses that put a layer of rose in the spring green field. I can’t help but breathe in the colors.
The trail is less steep now. I want to be absorbed into the pillows of moss that cushion me and absorb my weight, physically and mentally. Softening my existence, telling me to breathe and take in what I have right now. This is my comfortable place, surrounded by the world, my senses activated in full, in stereo. Aware of both the joys and dangers around me, I feel alive in my focus. In a world where we are all trying to get ahead and stand out, maybe finding where we fit into the natural order is what we should be searching for.
I begin to understand. Mummi started the tour of his church inside a building with four walls and a roof and a painting of Jesus that was built on his farm by imperialists, but then took us to his real temple, which is the whole of the land that he calls his own. In the confines of the church building, the message is written in the bible, read and interpreted for the people in attendance. But outside, walking up the trail behind the church into the vast volcanic canyon, where any time now the next eruption could occur, one feels the real power of nature, a religion to live by daily, with every step in the green grass, the rocky trails, the raging waters. Even the wildflowers have a delicate power and purpose. It all does. We all do.
BIO: Beth wrote, “I hold Masters Degrees in both Urban Planning and Public Administration, and am currently working on a memoir, one essay at a time. Salt Lake City, Utah is where I have called home for seventeen years now with my husband and son.”
Photos and text by Beth.
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