In Iceland’s rural Westfjords district of Árneshreppur, a struggle brews for the memory of the land. The unexpected tension lies between the construction of a hydropower dam and the erection of a yurt. Árneshreppur has been the focus of interest for its notable depopulation over the past decades. The district currently has 53 residents. Over the past thirteen years, Vesturverk has been planning to construct the Hvalárvirkjun Dam—a divisive project of concern to residents and Strandir-interested folks alike.
In the wilds of Árneshreppur, Elín Agla Briem has erected the yurt.
Elín Agla is a self-professed vernacular culture farmer, and the yurt has become the vernacular culture farm. Elín Agla describes vernacular culture farming as a way to practice culture. “You don’t study or discuss culture, or write about culture; you practice in a particular place, you get to know the place and the place will tutor you about her culture.”
In her work as a vernacular culture farmer, Elín Agla advocates for cultural memory embedded within land and traditional practices. Her dream of establishing Árneshreppur as a site for knowledge exchange and cultural activities has come to fruition this summer, housed in her yurt.
Are you a witch?
Elín Agla was formerly the headmistress of the region’s rural school and is currently the harbour master. Her own ties to the region stretch back over a decade. After she was married there, she saw an advertisement for the position of headmistress. “I saw this old ad out of the corner of my eye. It said, ‘ARE YOU A WITCH’ and I was like, what’s that? And I looked, and it was that little school where I just got married.” Elín Agla got the job and moved to Strandir.
When asked if she identifies as a witch, Elín Agla replies, “The word in Icelandic would be norn, which is the same route as north. This is a practice of the north. The seiðr practice is a practice of what we now call magic, but it’s a practice of letting words affect what’s happening. Let words tell the story. I’m a definite believer in that.”
In addition to her commitment to vernacular culture farming, Elín Agla currently works as Norðurfjörður’s harbour master. “It’s such an amazing group of men who come there to fish in the summer. I get to be with them everyday and see all the cod coming onto shore. I’m on the forklift, weighing the cod and chatting to the fishermen. It’s a really good life.”
Land as culture
The importance of inhabiting Árneshreppur, for Elín Agla, lies in the gift of land-based memory and practices. “What Árneshreppur gave to me was this memory because it was lost in my surroundings in Reykjavík and in my family lines—just a direct connection to memory, in my marrow, in my blood. But you can’t tell people that logically, that you should move there because it’s important to preserve culture. You could put it in a UNESCO catalogue. It has no life, that’s the funeral description of culture. If it happens, it happens.”
Through her University of Iceland Masters studies in cultural ethnography, Elín Agla focused on the philosophy of sustainability in conjunction with the population of folks who live in Árneshreppur. In 2014, Elín Agla held a community meeting to present the idea of Árneshreppur being deemed a cultural national park. Such a designation, she suggested, “would get us a better road. This will supply us with some jobs. We can preserve our culture and live here. It’s a win win win win win situation.”
While the cultural national park idea has stalled, Elín Agla has continued her efforts within Icelandic and Westfjords cultural heritage through establishing the yurt.
Yurt versus dam?
Over the last two months, a team of volunteers erected the yurt in Seljanes, 300 metres from a one-lane gravel road and over the edge of a cliff. “So many people came and helped day after day. People told these incredible jokes, just to lighten the whole situation because it’s highly political at the moment. We were getting relief and joy from being a community together, to give some beauty back to the land.”
The yurt is situated—physically and metaphorically—where dissent has reached a fever pitch over whether or not the construction of Hvalárvirkjun should move forward; it overlooks the location of the proposed hydropower dams. Elín Agla voiced her own opinion on Hvalárvirkjun two years ago. “I organized a big conference for two days where everyone was invited, the people who were making the dam and their opposition. After that, I haven’t spoken about it. Everyone knows where I stand but I’m not fighting anyone.”
While the dam construction and road development received a permit from the Árneshreppur district council on June 13th, the project has since been levied with multiple legal complaints.
Four environmental organizations—Landvernd, Rjúkandi, Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands, and Ungir umhverfissinnar—have issued a complaint to the Environmental and Natural Resources Complaints Board for the Árneshreppur district to reconsider the issued permit. The appealing organizations contend that the Environment Impact Assessment conducted of the site was not taken into consideration by the district council, since hydropower development would impact a protected lake and violate environmental protection laws.
Drangavík landowners, the site where part of the hydropower dam would be built, likewise filed a complaint on June 24th against the district council’s decision to grant the permit. They claim that the area slated for development is based on incorrect property boundaries, and that landowners of the site in question have not agreed to the development. The appeal requested for construction to halt while the matter is investigated.
When the hydropower project faced legal obstacles over the past month, Elín Agla explains, “the people who want to make the dam view the yurt as the symbol of everything that has gone against the dam. All of the protests, all of the articles, they relate to me. They have focused their whole rage against the yurt because now everything is falling to pieces. Their last fight is against the yurt. It’s quite incredible to put these as opposites.”
Elves, stones, stories
Elín Agla relates yet another legal action, this time taken by landowners in Ingólfsfjörður against road development undertaken to support access to Hvalárvirkjun. “They started to nibble at the rocks where there’s an elf colony. The people in Ingólfsfjörður pressed charges, saying we own the land, we own the road. You are not allowed to do this.”
Elín Agla continues. “The belief in elves and hidden things is really strong with Icelandic people. We’ll move roads because of elves, we’ll really do it. You shouldn’t move stones unless you need to. This is his home, you know? The battle now is a battle of the stones up in the wilderness. The rift between seeing stones alive with spirit and wanting to crush them in a 270km square area, because they’re so ugly, this is the story we need to hear.”
The yurt officially opened on July 13th, with a feast honouring women excellent at handcrafts. One guest of honour was Marianne Tóvinnukona, who has become prominent for working wool with a Settlement-Age spindle. Kvæðakonur, or women who perform Icelandic chanting, sang to the land at the opening.
The next event, on July 22nd, will feature Canadian storyteller Stephen Jenkinson and musician Gregory Hoskins as they present Night of Grief and Mystery. There will also be a course at a later date on constructing morning altars.
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