Don’t go. Don’t go to Iceland unless you know how to be reverent, deeply reverent, to the land and to all that is less-visible. Don’t go with a Western mind that feels something is owed to it, that feels it has inalienable rights to go wherever it chooses without first asking permission or seeking to make communion with the residents there. Don’t go just for a good time. I’m sure you’ll find that there, as anywhere, if you want your idea of a good time badly enough.
If you go to Iceland, go alone. Even if you are amongst crowds. Even if you travel like an Indian, with your whole family in a van. Still, go alone. Discover the hidden worlds within and without. Be quiet. Reverence is stronger, deeper, than respect. It hinges on awe and a sense of repercussion. Few of us these days even know what this means much less live with it. I think of it like having a powerful parent. When you do, that parent can communicate without ever raising her voice, because you sense that the repercussions of your insolence will be direct, dire and regrettable. So you respect what this parent asks of you. And this parent loves you, cares for you, in fact has created you and makes it possible for you to continue to exist. So there is no question of disrespect.
Iceland is like that. The land is the powerful parent. There have been moments when it erupted in furious and fast fire. Moments as recent as a few years ago. This land is alive and it is clear who has more power here. Nowhere else, yet, have I experienced what I imagined my ancestors on Turtle Island lived by—walking on the earth as though walking on the body of your own mother—tenderly and with as little disturbance as possible. Look around you where you live—has man been this polite with the land? Or has he carved into it relentlessly, seeking treasure and leaving little in exchange? All-ways in a rush without time for tea or tenderness. In fact, scoffing at even the idea. Or simply never having had the thought, or been taught, that life is not about having but about giving.
Give yourself time to truly know where you go and to know what you go with so you don’t mindlessly drop your shit with every step, poisoning further a powerful yet impressionable planet.
Mesmerized by the landscapes of petrified lava, I saw myriad figures and faces–stories in stone. Deeply in love with the abundance of thermal pools to counter the cold air and in awe of the fire beneath the earth’s surface that made these formations and pools possible, it occurred to me that perhaps Iceland is one of the earth’s chimneys. I imagined that all the dead bodies buried into the earth around the globe, buried with their trials and tribulations, their unresolved issues and unpaid bills, that they were the fodder for the fire. Pulled into the molten core of the earth, conflagrated, and then pulled up the chimneys into the volcanos still active in Iceland. Of hundreds of volcanos about 30 systems are still active. For an island that’s roughly 100,000 square kilometers or 40,000 square miles, that’s a high percentage of the land mass that has the potential to erupt like the volcanos in Eyjafjallajökull and Grímsvötn did in 2010 and 2011, slowing other nations in their stride with the ash fall-out.
And I felt that that was the point. That the powerful parent said, ‘Thus far and no farther humanity. Slow down. You must slow down and reconsider your intentions here. Reconsider your human-ness and your mortality. Look closely, listen to me. You will die. You are dying. You were born to die. Are you going to live like a blind person while you still have your life to live and your beautiful eyes to see? Or are you going to widen your view and realize each step you take affects billions? Step wisely.’
So I imagined that all the shit we don’t purge in life goes into the earth with us when we’re buried there, and that, by the grace of this good planet, it is purified and purged out through these lava flows–the chimneys of the earth repurposing our poop. I imagined that the formations, figures and faces I felt I could read on the surface of the volcanic rock were the stories of so many who had not done their work while they were living. What would happen, I wondered, if more people saw the value of leaving things better than they found them? In living their lives (alongside enjoying the pleasures of being alive) they also weeded out the superfluous, made amends with their loved ones, did the hard work of growing up and then went to their deaths with less debt? What if, instead of focusing on acquiring and accumulating stuff—none of which can be taken across the line into the afterworld (whatever that might be, if anything)—we focused instead on inquiring?
Inquiring means to start from the position of “I don’t know”. It’s a vulnerable position in a world that postures, bullies and considers domination a virtue. Such mixed messages we give ourselves. We have campaigns against bullying in schools, but they’re within a system that idolizes the one who dominates, who imposes his will on what he sees as “his” world. We’re doing the classic unconscious parenting of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ Or consider the campaigns for responsible drinking that even stretch as far as the alcohol ads themselves. ‘Look at how glamorous or fulfilled your life could be if only you bought and consumed this alcoholic product’, yet—in fine print—’do it responsibly’. Poison yourself responsibly. While all that surrounds you are industries, mindsets and systems that, if their actions were writ large in bold words, would say ‘Poison everything you find as fully as you can. Your body, the bodies of your children, the bigger body that holds you—this earth—poison them all until they are destroyed.’
Now I realize there are places for alcohol and even for poison in good measure, so take this as a metaphor, yet also notice any defensiveness that arises in you around this idea that poisoning your own system by making yourself sick for a quick thrill is a fractalization of how we treat the planet. Seems like people are saying, “I can take it! I can hold my liquor.” It’s a point of pride how much you can drink and not get sick or not show how sick you’ve gotten. How is that any different from saying, “Ah, a little DDT in the soil never hurt anyone or anything.” I would even venture to say that this denial of the effects of poisons on our systems and our psyches is the true sickness.
It’s said that First Nations people don’t have the gene or the enzyme, the capability, to process alcohol–that it is more directly a poison to them than to any other peoples. And it’s my understanding, though I have sadly never experienced this way of living, that they lived with the land and not so much on it. So their own land, their own bodies, could not cope with poisoning and they in turn did not have practices of poisoning the land of their mother, the earth. Hmm.
Seems like such a small place to start–with oneself. Yet it is the only bit of land that is truly yours and even then, even then, even, even then–when that body has no more life in it, it too must be left behind. So while I sometimes feel I’m not doing enough to save the world, I come back to the only true piece of terra I can save and nurture and heal—mySelf. And I get busy taking out the trash.
Great thanks go to my dear friend Lindsay Alderton for giving me a new view of the word reverence, insisting that it involves awe, even a little fear, and that we are sorely missing this in our lives these days. This post is for you.
I have had the great privilege to be able to travel to amazing lands and visit with amazing people in the past few months and will be writing more about these journeys and encounters. I love hearing from you so feel free to comment on anything in this post that beguiles, annoys, or confuses you…