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Grass No. 5 - Laxness, Towns & Cities, Weeding

Halldor Laxness chimes in on Rural & City Life
Grass No. 5 - Laxness, Towns & Cities, Weeding
By Hudson Gardner • Issue #5 • View online
Halldor Laxness chimes in on Rural & City Life

Eagle Cap Wilderness
Eagle Cap Wilderness
In the morning I found myself at Beth’s farm, weeding cilantro. As the morning wore on the day grew hotter, and after awhile I heard people come in the lower gate. It was Christina and Cole who are building out a caboose to live in in Lostine. The day passed as we worked the field together, three osprey wheeling overhead.
I felt we were self-standing folk from Laxness’ Independent People, hewing away at the earth interminably until the sun’s heat reflected off the ground and into my face, and I drank two bottles of water in an hour. We talked about place, and what it means to care about where you live. When I chanced to look up, wiping and flinging sweat from my brow in one motion, I saw that the grass is now far from green on the hillsides, but golden and bright. But the blue mountains still rise and the snow comes off them and flows as water through the rivers.
I’m still getting used to living here. In most directions from town you won’t see anyone. And really, people don’t notice the way you look here. There isn’t a noticeable culture of comparison. Years and years ago my friend Israel once remarked, on coming to this county, that you’re anonymous here. You lose your personal solar system, and suddenly you’re no one.
Being out here, I’ve discovered that cities have a certain social gravity to them: they pull people to them. In cities you can be known, feel important and high up. And there are many cross currents colliding, things happening, and motivated people working hard to become something, start things, make things, change things. There are feelings found in a city, and feelings found outside of a city. I love them both, and I feel divided finding a balance between the two. I have spoken with many people my age who want to live in a place like this, but also want to be near a city. But here, where it’s truly rural, the nearest city is four hours away. Whenever I drive into cities, the pace of everything increases, even an hour outside you can see people drive faster. So it’s hard to live near a city and not be part of it in a way.
I think now about times in the past, but maybe not so far off, and happening now in other places I don’t know about—when people lived simply in small places, and there was less thought of other places. And I wonder if they were happy or miserable back then, not knowing there could be more. But sometimes they would hear word of towns with beautiful streets and buildings, large markets—And the humble rural folk would look off into the distance in the direction of such a place and think “ah, if only I could go to the towns… but my work and home is here.” And maybe the city people also wanted the open air of the country. Maybe it was not so different from today. But today cities are bigger, and most of us can move around easily. And we do.
“Townsfolk”, said the poetess, “have no conception of the peace that Mother Nature bestows, and as long as that peace is unfound the spirit must seek to quench its thirst with ephemeral novelties. And what is more natural than that the townsman’s feverish search for pleasure should mould people of an unstable, hare-brained character, who think only of their personal appearance and their clothes and find momentary comfort in foolish fashions and other such worthless innovations?”
- Independent People
Gary Snyder wrote once that to care about a place you have to stay there. It takes time to get to know a place, and knowing it fosters care of it. But many people grow up and move someplace else. It’s the exception to be content, because there is a whole world to see, and who wants to limit their experience? Travel is important because we live in a globally connected world. But I think it’s important to be from someplace too, to have a home.
I’m sure I’ll discover more about home and discontentment as I read from Laxness’ novel about farmers who raise sheep in Iceland. So far the sheep have gone out to pasture, and Bjartur’s been wed and has begun his homestead in a cursed valley that a river flows through. The folk there look into the distance and wonder about things that are not where they are, they speak poetry and conjecture about this and that. But everything not at hand really is far away, too far even to think of anything but where they already are—
“The countryman, on the other hand walks out to the verdant meadows, into an atmosphere clear and pure, and as he breathes it into his lungs some unknown power streams through his limbs, invigorating body and soul. The peace that reigns in nature fills his mind with calm and cheer, the bright green grass under his feet awakens a sense of beauty, almost of reverence. In the fragrance that is born so sweetly to his nostrils, in the quietude that broods so blissfully around him, there is comfort and rest. The hillsides, the dingles, the waterfalls are all friends of his childhood and not to be forgotten. They are a grand and inspiring sight, some of our mountains. Few things can have had such a deep and lasting on your hearts as their pure, dignified contours. They give us shelter in the valleys, and bid us give shelter, too, to those who have neither our size or our strength. Where,” asked the poetess, “is there bliss so bountiful as in these tranquil, flowery mountain glades, where the flowers, those angel eyes, if I may so express myself, point to heaven and bid us kneel in reverence to the almighty, to beauty, wisdom, and love.”
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