Tag Archives: The Guardian

Getting everybody connected to country

A very important and provocative article published in yesterday’s The Guardian online: What if Aboriginal people helped all Australians to connect to country?


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The voices that we listen to

Image source: The Guardian online. A painted ‘elf door’ in Selfoss, Iceland: the country’s rocky landscape is said to be home to many ‘hidden people’. Photograph: Bob Strong/Corbis

I came across an article today which caught my eye, it’s not everyday that you see mainstream media outlets publishing stories about elves, planning authorities and road builders. Far from being trivial, the article, In Iceland, ‘respect the elves – or else’ (by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian online), sheds light on the ways in which some Icelandic people relate and listen to the land and entities that (might) dwell within. The claimed presence of elves, dwarfs and ghosts, which live in parallel communities to humans, is at the heart of several communities’ attempts to redirect developments which would otherwise affect the dwelling places of these entities. Wainwright writes,

The rock, known as Ófeigskirkja, has been at the centre of an eight-year battle to stop a road being built through this 8,000-year-old landscape, a spectacularly barren and evocative terrain a little to the north of Reykjavík, which some believe is a site of supernatural forces.

I am interested in what underlies these beliefs, or more subtly, a lack of denial of the presence of more-than-human land-dwelling entities. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the function that fairy tales and folklore serve  in maintaining balanced relationships between people and the land. Many of us left behind the notion that the land is enchanted when we stopped reading fairy tales, if not before. Folklore stories must hold real currency and exert agency in Iceland if people continue to relate to the land in this way. Or, perhaps other stories that lead to a disenchanted view of the land never quite gained as much power as their predecessors… Stories have the power to hold together truths, just as they have the agency to disassemble them. I am not particularly tied to any story in this instance, I am more interested in which ones are BIGGER and hold people and place together in particular ways.

In relation to people’s relationship with the land, Terry Gunnell, a researcher from the University of Iceland suggests that,

It’s about respect for nature, which is something Icelanders know is very much alive … When your house can be destroyed by an earthquake, when you can can be blown over by the wind, when boiling water from your taps tells you there’s lava not far beneath your feet – then you don’t mess with nature.

And at what cost do people ignore these entities? Wainwright recounts,

In Kópavogur, south of the capital, a rock known as Elfhill has caused disruption since the 1930s, when attempts to build a road through it were abandoned after a series of accidents. Plans to level the hill re-emerged in the 1980s, but problems recurred and workers refused to go anywhere near it. Even TV crews said their cameras failed to record anything when pointed at the rock.

The approach now taken by some developers in Iceland is one of caution. In some way, the voices of the elves – who can literally be heard by some and interpreted through significant happenings by others – are being heard and the enchantment of the land is allowed to exist.


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Speaking the land

In deep summer I wrote about the relationship between stories and the land – Stories that endure – yet, what about words and their ability to connect us with place?

Sitting beneath the Woronora bridge by the river’s side, Uncle Max asked me if I knew any language names for country. I said some, mainly place and plant names and some animal names. He told me that I only needed to know a few, that I should say these names as I moved through country. Was he encouraging me to invoke the spirit of place through these words? A language that the land could understand?

In a recent article published in The Guardian, The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape,  Macfarlane writes about the ways in which words shape our sense of place. He reflects upon his time on the Isle of Lewis (UK) where he came across Gaelic words and phrases that described with stunning beauty the landscape of the moorlands.

Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

Each word and phrase is a well that once stepped into, takes us deep within the interior of the land. We see the land in new (and old) ways, we remember that there is profound beauty that we are connected to. We say the names that invoke and acknowledge this beauty and these connections. But how often do we utter these words that take us beneath the veneer of the land, deep into its heart?

Macfarlane shares his dismay at the erasure of our connection with the land which is precipitated through the erasure of powerful words from our memories and lexicon.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 and the way in which words that reminded people of their humanity, humility, freedom and connections were systematically erased to create a new reality based on control and compliance. Languages that speak the land and people-place are crucial if we are to keep remembering who we are and what we are connected to, so that our imaginations can continue to roam and dream in country.

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