Happy Solstice all! And may this turning point blow in the winds of positive change for all things. In the midst of the darkness, I bring you light and colour – a tale of summer.
Like a film flickering in a cinema hall, the bright images of my summer perforate the darkness as the winter evenings draw ever closer, infiltrating the deeper places as I take the time to sit. So as we gather round our hearths in the northern hemisphere, here I shall share some of the colour painted into my evenings. This, like the last post, was also written a while ago in Iceland.
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As always, my Icelandic summer was a period of hyperactivity. This year it was especially so as, on 23rd June (Midsummer’s Night, or Jónsmessunott as it is called in Iceland), I gladly wed my man Orri. And what a festival it was! Months of planning and dreaming were woven with the many journeys taken by our dear ones from all over the world to converge in something that shall stay with us forever.
Years ago, when we first met and were beginning our relationship across the seas, I made him this collage. I have always collected images and textures that interest me, and sporadically they make themselves into something, especially when there is love flowing through it.
“It lingers in the heart like a piece of haunting music”.
This one certainly made itself, and little did I know back then just how much like my wedding day this would look. It is as if, with every cut and laying down, I was creating a blueprint for a future time. I was reminded of this beautiful quote:
When the soul wishes to experience something
she throws an image of the experience out before her
and enters into her own image.
~ Meister Eckhart ~
Photo: Roman Garba
It was at once the most exciting and challenging creative act I have ever pulled off, to make a myriad of threads come together in a foreign culture. It is a culturally accepted norm that Icelanders can be incredibly last minute about everything. But they are fortunately also some of the most resourceful people I know. Added to that, there is a different take on commitment to arrangements. Somebody may agree to something, but if circumstances change, that agreement is not necessarily honoured, or an alternative found. It is deemed that the circumstance having changed is a sufficient excuse. So ‘believe it when you see it’ is the basis on which you make ‘plans’. Or, as the Icelanders put it, “Þetta reddast” (that will work itself out). I hate to generalise about entire cultures but ask anyone who lives there, and that will be quoted as one of the most often used phrases! I have become used to this in the day to day, but for a wedding it was a little more precarious!
My now husband and I live our lives frugally and with respect to the earth – reusing, inventing, creating as we go – and this wedding was the ultimate expression of our DIY/low impact values: we did almost everything ourselves, off grid, and managed to leave a very light footprint. Partly so that we could afford to live our dream with integrity but also because I don’t know who else could make those many particular threads come together. And it was a very rich experience to have such beautiful canvas to plant our ideas in, once the snow had melted.
The house where Orri’s father was born. Photo: Norbert Pilters
The place we chose was the land where my man Orri’s father grew up. It lies along the black sandy shore of a long fjord in the Westfjords of Iceland. On it is the house were he was born which Orri’s parents transformed into a ‘guesthouse’ and campsite for our guests. About a kilometre down the shore, a summerhouse (with a very special history which I wrote about way back when) became the kitchen, bridal suite and site of the festivities.
What to do when your man is jewellery phobic.
Non weather dependent preparations started months beforehand. My man feels claustrophobic in rings or any sort of jewellery, so I had the idea that the act of wrapping him in a shawl and fastening it with a bespoke hand wrought brooch would be an appropriate symbol for a life cycle of care and companionship. Luckily there is a self-taught blacksmith in a neighbouring village who expertly translated my design, loosely based on Jörmungandr and The Ouruboros , using an iron rod and an old nail.
Important things like Norse pagan officiants (of which there are only three in Iceland that can conduct marriages) were booked, a rather unusual form of bridal transport (a Viking ship) found, and a wedding outfit hunt spanning several countries embarked upon. Not to mention renovating a guestroom, kitchen, living room and sleeping loft ourselves, suitable for all the guests that would be staying at our house!
But there were many things that just had to wait until the snow had melted, and the ground had thawed. This doesn’t happen until May this far north. We wanted an entirely outdoor wedding, but with the weather being as changeable as it can be we knew we would need some sort of shelter. Rental marquees were rather unattractive, expensive and had to be brought up from the capital, Reykjavik. So my man decided to build one. Finding long wooden poles in a largely treeless land is no mean feat. But, in a stroke of genius and foresight, back on January 6th 2012 when Christmas was danced to its close by elves, my father-in-law to be laid claim to the town’s two Christmas trees – a good five metres of pole each. And the rest were found here and there in the town refuse dump and the scout hut, and retrieved from an avalanche guard construction site. Orri’s brilliant design had a roll up tarpaulin roof, open to the skies if the weather was good, but creating shelter if the wind or rain came. We of course had all weathers, except (thankfully) snow.
Dancing in the end of Christmas: there’s our tree at the back.
Stock piling long wooden things – a rare commodity in Iceland!
Wedding tent under construction
Wedding tent – the aftermath! Photo: Col Atkinson
(sometime after 2am on Midsummer’s Night)
Portaloos are also ugly and expensive, and full of chemicals. No thank you! So we built luxury compost toilets with vanity area (!) from reclaimed wood…
Friends helped us paint signs onto wood we found hiding in the corner of a charity shop…
Photo: Roman Garba
And the stage was made with discarded palettes.
Photo: Roman Garba
The table flowers were beautifully arranged by my friend Alyssa using wildflowers from our garden, which seem to sing loudest on Midsummer’s day…
Photos: Roman Garba
The bouquet and ornamental flowers were grown in a geothermal greenhouse in the south of Iceland, where one of Orri’s many aunties works. I was stunned by the variety and freshness of them. I had asked her to bring rejects from the ‘not straight enough for sale’ pile, but she ended up bringing the best of exactly what I had dreamed of!
Photo: Col Atkinson
The wedding feast was supplied by various friends and relatives, who reared, slaughtered and prepared it themselves. We were given two lambs by one of Orri’s aunties, a whole lamb by family friend, and two extra emergency mutton thighs by a friend when, rather disconcertingly, a lamb was lost in a chaotic cold store 3 days before the wedding. It emerged in the nick of time, to defrost before being spit roasted. Needless to say we had enough for the feast and many many meals afterwards.
Photos: Roman Garba
Monkfish was caught by Orri during his days at sea. Lake trout was caught by Orri’s cousin on the farm where Orri’s mother grew up. We were given 2
two wild geese to make into canapes by a chef friend who, in yet another classic Icelandic moment, turned up with them whole, frozen solid, with the feathers still on, in a supermarket shopping bag! Wild sorrel and dandelion leaf salads were gathered from the hillsides and prepared by Orri’s mum and aunty.
And on a rare moment of calm togetherness in the days before the wedding, Orri and I gathered some wild mountain thyme from above our house to use in the lamb marinade. By chance, when I asked my cousin and uncle to sing a song during the ceremony, Wild Mountain Thyme was exactly the song they had up their sleeve!
Making cake plates
Photo: Norbert Pilters
Three different flavours of wedding cakes loosely symbolising Yggdrasil , the Norse Pagan world tree, were baked by yet another of Orri’s aunties, and stunningly decorated at the very last minute by my hugely talented aunty Pauline Thomas . The bottom layer – chocolate and beetroot – referred to its roots; the middle layer – black forest gateau – to its fruits; and the top – lemon and birch polenta cake – to its leaves and the life inhabiting its branches. These were all laid out on cake plates we made by sawing up unusually large tree trunks a neighbor had cut down.
Photo: Roman Garba
The festivities were deeply rooted in various elements of Icelandic ‘tradition’, though very few Icelanders have a wedding like this one. But I also wanted to express some of my own journey which includes being English and having grown up and lived in equatorial climes. My parents (who still live in Kenya) cut out and stitched many many metres of bunting (an unmistakeably English addition!) from kangas and kikois which are both typically East African fabrics. Kangas are brightly coloured printed cotton cloths worn by women which always include in their design a Kiswahili saying. These are a woman’s means of expressing (often very obliquely and through metaphor) how they are feeling to the rest of the community. My mother chose such classic sayings as Our marriage is a light that shines and everyone sees it and I love you truly. The world is witness!
Photo: Ed Aldcroft
And, in a delightfully serendipitous chance encounter in southern Iceland many months ago, we found an Ethiopian restaurant in a place that is effectively The Middle of Nowhere. It is known mainly for the geothermal greenhouses where we had been looking at the flowers that were available. We had a delicious meal cooked by the lovely Azeb, and the most gentle, strong coffee I have had in a long time. We thought it would be lovely to have her and her coffee at our wedding. She had never been to the Westfjords before, and was game for an adventure!
She kept the coffee flowing all night and created a lovely coffee ceremony space in the ruins of an old stone boat shed.
Another magical lady who is always up for an adventure, was film maker Alba Sotorra Clua, who I met at the Worldfilm Festival in Estonia. At the closing party, she said “I want to come to your wedding”. After considering her rather direct request for a while, I thought it might be fun to have someone film the wedding, given everything that had gone into it. She went one step further and came a week before to film the final preparations. This would have been fun if it didn’t involve a death in the family, a chef cancelling last minute, a lost sheep and 2 sleepless nights. All great material for a documentary, but a little more challenging when it is your life and you have a house full of guests! I was interested to experience how it feels to be filmed. But I had no idea what a week was in store for us. I only hope it’s entertaining now the storm has passed! There certainly were many beautiful moments, which we shall now have the opportunity to appreciate.
There was one truly indulgent part to the proceedings: my arrival in a replica Viking longboat! A carpenter in a neighbouring village spent many days making this beauty which sadly doesn’t get used enough. As I am an útlendingar (outlander) I thought it would be fitting to arrive from across the seas with my family. He and his wife liked our idea and agreed to make the three day round voyage it would entail. That’s one of the things I love most about Icelanders…they are ready to try anything!
Photo: Norbert Pilters
Photos: Roman Garba
It all felt otherworldly, and yet perfectly natural. The magic of the day was heightened perhaps by it being Midsummer’s night – the date when the sun never sets, when the cows are said to speak, and the seals are said to remove their skins to reveal their true human form.
My experience of our wedding was as if it was a strange and magical beast that we had been leading around for many months. When the day came, we were finally able to mount its back and view the landscape we had traversed and the gardens we had planted, as a whole. I felt suspended in a dream. You see before you all your dearest people, in this wild place in the middle of nowhere. It does not seem possible. It seems even less possible to put any of it into words, and nor do you want to try. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t, for so long.
It just is, and you drink it in. Days later you wake from the dream and remember that this friend and that relative was right here in this spot with you. You wish that they still were, now that your mouth is able to form words again. But, as my dear friend and ‘best man’ Aitan so beautifully put it, in this age where friends are scattered far and wide, and many relationships are largely sustained remotely, “There is something very strengthening about spending time in three dimensions.”
Photo: Norbert Pilters
On this day, the opposite of the day these words were written about, it is the time to gestate these images, this intensity of feeling, and retreat into the embrace of the darkness as it tips its balance.
This winter, though, we have decided to make our boundaries clear to the darkness. I have spent two winters feeling what it really is to be an extension of the landscape. And when the landscape is frozen and dark, it means your energy also slugs into submission. As beasts, we should be hibernating and attempting to carry on as normal feels absurd. I do not want to do as many do: take pills and sit in front of an SAD lamp at the hospital. I have decided that the darkness may not creep all the way into the middle of my day anymore. We cannot stop the darkness doing its wild thing, and nor do we want to. Like the birds, we can only move our bodies to where it cannot touch us for so long. A lot has brought us to this decision, and we do not know yet what it will yield. But often, committing to change what you do not want is enough to begin with. There are many many ways in which this landscape and culture have shaped me, but that will have to be another story.
In the midst of the darkness this year, there is promised to be many spectacular dances of light - the aurora borealis being at their most intense in fifty years. There is even a great website where you can check what they’re up to, though my advice would be to just go. If there’s a clear night they’ll likely make an appearance at some point. We have been busy making our handmade, heart-loved home into a guesthouse/ home stay. It is now ready to welcome guests and we have had some very happy ones already. If the thought of a Nordic winter journey, with aurora in the skies and the crunch of snow at your feet, is something that rings bells in your heart, we welcome you to base yourselves within the lamp glowed reindeer skins of our Little Icelandic House. Please spread the word…quietly!
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