David Crouch is a dad and husband; an exhibiting artist, gardener and a Professor of Cultural Geography, Humanities Department, Arts and Design, University of Derby. His first book, with Colin Ward, The Allotment: its landscape and culture, was published by Faber and Faber [currently with Five Leaves], followed by The Art of Allotments. After numerous essays, articles, book chapters and five edited books, his most recent book, Flirting with Space: journeys and creativity was published by Ashgate in 2010. His writing ranges from things we do in our everyday lives to the making of art and our encounters with it.
When I was in Iceland in 2008 I felt that as a place it was the bleak side of awe. Getting over a bad cold and throat did not help, nor the October weather. My first time in the country. I guess I was uncomfortably surprised at my reaction. Having visited the Nordic countries over fifteen years, I was familiar with the sites and did not expect such a feeling of detachment. The advertisements and the literature welcome one to the wonder, diversity and superb vistas that are this country. I am sure in many ways they have a point. Over the years I had grown to feel close to the sites, the settings, landshapes and light, colours, vegetation, and just occasionally in Sweden, wonderful moose, even a couple of white ‘elks’ as they are known in Europe.
A friend talks to me about ‘place’, as though a place has a distinctive feel that is almost primordial and reliable, a genius loci or underlying spirit, its depth radiating out, or perhaps even tangible. That feel seems to be something inevitably, endurably of the site, prefigured and unavoidable, and advertised in the travel material. Iceland does seem to be multiply endowed with an almost spiritual power; in its grand landshapes; its steam clouds that rise from its very rock, that I found mysterious, leading me back to fairy stories and old descriptions and venerations in its sagas. Being there certainly included a grasp of the awesome: I was closely aware of the large spaces of suppressed vegetation, once the result of grazing reindeer, though now the wind and cold do the job. Yet, across the western third of the country, I continued to feel alien and detached.
The philosophical writer on mid-twentieth century art and education, Herbert Read, found deeply-embedded significance in a place he walked as a child. Walking there, his place, decades later he wrote that he felt wholly back ‘there’, engaged in its enduring moment. The moment is accentuated by the sound of a bird calling, a signal to re-enliven the depth of his connection. There is a kindly warmth unavoidably felt as I read his account. His feeling in the writing, the way he engages a place, comes across so intimately that I felt as though I must know it too. This is his heritage of a very personal kind. Read wrote with deep feeling; his place, his moment of complete connectedness. There, in the upper valleys on the east side of the Pennines he found it possible to recover a moment fixed in memory, an arrival habitually made; recovered and revivified in moments felt refreshed. He was exercising a ritual, treading the place in an atmosphere entirely his own. This was his place, his heritage from boyhood; borne by and coated, soaked in his doings and memories. Gently drenched in welcome feelings he knew so intimately, a need to remember, to recall it as it was, or as he had come to remember and feel it.
Yet feelings for familiar somewheres we encounter can be suddenly very different, surprising, disorientating. It was the unexpected that caused the mid twentieth century abstraction artist Peter Lanyon to feel a deep admiration in disorientation. He discovered a deep reviving emotion as he visited places he knew very well, had walked from childhood, finding home-places vibrate in him in a very different way. He visited and revisited a series of his familiar haunts in Cornwall’s western tip. Sometimes the change of colour and register in his encounter owed something to the weather, an intense wetting of the ground interrupting footfall or a momentary swerve of the wind. It would occur also due to a change of his own temperament. The old haunts he now came across ‘unawares’, as though he had never been there before, never sketched them endlessly: they were no longer secure in the feelings he found. He produced some of his most stirring images in this way, from these feelings. I don’t think that it is duration of immersion or repetition of visit that sculpts the security of an embedded retrospective encounter.
In Iceland I was left with detachment. As open as I am, mind and body, to where I am, connection never happened for me there; there was and is no ‘my Iceland’. Many places I have visited, in southwest Donegal, a particular area of Andalucía, southern Sweden, Berkeley California and central New York, I have found myself engaged immediately. Having a personal feel and attachment to Scandinavia, I was aware of its general cultural and land configuration. Sometimes those stories, films and pictures, either promoting a place or merely featuring it in another narrative, can fool me with skewed anticipation. In what they show and in the way they do so, they don’t show this place on this day, or this weather. Nor do they convey ‘it’ through how I feel this moment: they do not connive with my feeling on this day.
Cold, claustrophobia, isolation, loss and absence: emptiness and vulnerability. The middle of October. In Iceland I was in a group of colleagues, friends. We stepped around together, exchanging curiosities, interests and observation; feelings of cold, wonderful light; extreme drama of the spaces around us. The hosting Icelanders acted as though proud to show us around and expectant of resonance; those from the UK eager for the positive side of awe.
After a good conference day, an outdoor swim had been organised for the evening in a manmade pool that taps into warming geyser groundwater and wells up in an adjacent, small dug circle: the real thing: warm, tiny and deep, with soft, muddy, slightly welcoming ground. Outside the water the air was thick, heavy, cold and dark. Harsh winds pulled down directly from the almost vertical and treeless slope that commenced only a few metres from the pool’s edge. Looking like mountain and cold enough this high slope of rock and low grasses lent a sharp and cutting edge to our scene – and to my feeling. After all, I know from my friend’s climbing magazines how driven and engaged the climber’s encounter is with excitement, achievement, drama; perhaps above all with wonder. That collision of steep uncertain rockface and his own strenuous yet highly tactical movement and quest.
Following watery amusements we were taken back to a typically Scandinavian dinner of good food, laughter and singing some distance from our lodgings and not far from the pool. Such enjoyments mingled a little, warming into and slightly melting my flecks of connection with where we had been. We returned to the bar adjacent to our dwelling-place in the nearby village. In the morning a severe wind blew in from the north, straight up the nearby fjord and amongst the few buildings: ‘our’ tired bar and conference venue; our house of bedrooms; on the opposite side of the track a house converted to tell the seventeenth century Iceland witches’ story, itself full of cold detachments.
Next day after calling at the witches’ venue I was driven by a Swedish friend along the north coast, eastwards to a huddle of houses and an aged church, and the apartment where I would stay for three days. Everything seemed to me to be stronger, more severe than other lands of Scandinavia. In my new venue, each morning before breakfast I walked outside my lodging. The wind seared my wakefulness and my feet studied the damp and slippery ground. Yet the sky was friendly, blue-cool; smiling with me. Being surrounded by thick-bodied slabs of rock on almost three sides crowded me in, half blocked out the austere beauty of their steep slopes; with their three strip colours helped by the sunshine: grey-brown, yellow and white at the top. I felt strangely in the presence of broad spaces, but still hemmed in.
Where I walked on lower slopes I felt I must be already at the top of the bald and bleak hill that looked and felt like a mountain, the whole atmosphere just right for it except the accelerated wind funnelled through the alleys of those lumpen hills. I did find something quietly dramatic here, almost elating: an accentuated sense of being on the cold edge of the world. This I felt more so here than ever I have been on the end of Cornwall or the south-westernmost cliffs of Donegal. I think that in Iceland I was propelled by the abrupt configuration of the land in the determination of the wind, but also in my handling of it all.
Whatever was, or is ‘there’ I didn’t get it. I didn’t connect. ‘It’ didn’t reach me; or I was not rightly open to its vibes, those underwritten essences. I regret this. I realise I felt disoriented yet reckon it unlikely that with any longer immersion there my feeling would have changed. I doubt it is merely an effect of time. Other sites I have experienced for equally short times across Scandinavia. One January in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle through Finland, or on the walks on the low rises above the sea south of Kalmar in Sweden’s Smaland, I have engaged, felt resonance.
Ironically, amidst all of this I enjoyed the stay in Iceland: familiar colleagues, talk and jokes, new people, glimpses of wonderful land and sky. These mingled with and becalmed a little the resisting, pioneering feel of the rock, damp, relentless and exaggerated relief and weather; a distinct edginess. Of course Iceland is not ‘a’ place, but a series of sites, locations, multiples; each with diverse yet distinct appeals. Each component, in its distinctive features, broods with the potential of feeling ravishing. Yet each refuses me – or I am insensitive to, or self-protective of its poetics.
I came away with fragments of feeling: impressions, recollections, but little elation. Those sites I had visited do not ‘come to life’ in my memory. No heightened awareness that might be called spiritual, no stirring energy. I didn’t leave a sense of place behind, or carry one with me; just some rather quiet flecks that seem further away from me than places I sojourned twice or three times as many years ago. I can ‘set’ a place for once and for all, coloured in feelings and depth. Yet even the ‘for all’ can be agitated. Once calm, almost avuncular, it can become unsettled in my mood. The sought after memories shuffled. I can lay it back into its familiarity and suspect secure repetition. This ‘laying to rest’ in Iceland did happen in little moments, as in my early morning walks near the north coast. Yet to recall that is difficult. I work at it; agitation and that sense of bleakness return and almost overwhelm it. Those flickers turn out to be unreliable: a landfold, reverberations of life, stumpy trees, grass blowing, awareness of gentle movement. No, I haven’t been back… yet.