Can One Love the Land?

Can One Love the Land?
Hagafellsjökull glacier. Photographer: Mats Wibe Lund

Can One Love the Land?

Imagine life without love. Imagine no love stirring in beating hearts. Imagine no eyes sparkling with affection. Imagine blood flowing cold through veins devoid of the warmth of love. Imagine there was no more longing. Desire disappeared. Imagine if love ascended to heaven and never returned. Would life be worth living? What would become of poetry? None can speak of love quite like the poet Jónas Hallgrímsson in his poem about the plover:

"Dirrindee!" the plover sings,
darting up on little wings
bathed in morning beauty:
"Praise the gifts of God on high,
grassy fields and shining sky---
that's our daily duty!

The absence of love allows indifference, negligence and disrespect to flourish. Even strict laws and punishment fail to protect the things no one cares about. But what are the things we are able to love? We love the things we know. The things we adore, trust and derive our strength from. The things that empower us and fill us with confidence. The things we miss. And beauty; all things beautiful and pristine, because beauty is one of the cornerstones of love, along with goodness and the desire to overcome death and the vicissitudes of human existence.

We can love one another, we can love animals, and others love us in return or at least show us affection. But the land? Can we love the land, be it in its natural state or bent to the will of human design? The land and the life it harbors: mountain, plain, valley, moor, hill, mound, salmon and lake, stream, plover, ravine, cave, lava field, raven and green meadows? Can the love of man and land be mutual?

The trees, the plants, the flowers; could it be that all flora is an emanation of love from the land? Whereas our love for the land manifests in our behavior towards it and the poetry it inspires in our hearts, as in the poem about the plover that shows us what boundless love is:

"Back inside the berry patch
babes of mine eat all I catch,
this and that and the other:
bees and wasps with burnished wings,
bugs and worms and tasty things
brought them by their mother."

Those who grow up and live in close proximity to the land, away from the bustle of city life, harbor an innate, instinctive and subconscious love for the land. They need not consider their loving relationship with the land and hardly seem aware of it until they move away – and die of homesickness. Such was Jónas Hallgrímsson’s love for the land, but he moved to the city, and poems about this love immediately started burgeoning in his heart. Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness once remarked on this love: “Jónas has never uttered such declarations of love for the motherland that other great poets are wont to do (…) this love other poets confessed to so ecstatically was simply too self-evident for Jónas to ever feel the need to mention it.”

We can fall in love with the land. We are drawn to certain places. They take a hold in our hearts and beckon us there time and again. The reason for this is unclear, hidden, essentially indescribable, but perhaps we are indeed speaking about the mutual love of man and land.

Trees that stood as if dead next to abandoned farmsteads have been known to come back to life, as soon as farming commenced anew. Trees that drooped gloomily in remote areas become imbued with new life as people move in for the summer. All life is interconnected. The chain of life binds together all existing things. Man’s interaction with the living nature of the land is a matter of life and death. The benefits of talking to flowers need not be stated here. Words are like fertilizer that brings vigor and growth. In the chain of life all living things affect one another; land, people, animals and plants, and beauty itself. Indifference destroys the bond between man and the land, while love strengthens it.

Gazing at the dread beauty of the mountains, listening to the song of bird and brook, catching the scents of different places - yet knowing they are all variations on the same tune, touching and bathing in the morning dew, tasting the wild berries and cultivating the land until comfortable fatigue drives you to sweet repose… This is what it means to be in love with the land like the plover in Jónas Hallgrímsson’s poem:

Over meadows moist with dew,
moorlands, brooks, the plover flew
home to seek her haven.

Only two things make a difference in this world: to love and to behave responsibly. That is all we can do. That is all that is in our power. We nurture the things that are ours. We hope and trust that all will be well, yet we know that we are not in control of the outcome. This fickle world will never allow us to be perfectly safe, no more than the plover that flew home to her nest to feed her young:

Not a word the nestlings said:
each and every one was dead,
eaten by a raven.

Gunnar Hersveinn

More on Jónas Hallgrímsson
Poem translated by Dick Ringler



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