All flesh is grass

The few houses of Öræfi face this plain, open to the sea

Now we see it as it is. But we can also imagine the peat church (Hofskirkja) of the small community of Öræfi in the south of Iceland as a simple farm house, a place of refuge and necessary retreat facing the desolate meadows open to the sea. There they also buried their dead, under an unfriendly earth and after a lifetime of hard work. This area was always isolated from the rest of the island, because the neighboring, easily flooded plain made impossible the maintenance of any road. The steep rocks behind it have always closed out any alternative way. Now the Iceland ring is complete and safe, and Öræfi can be reached from Reykjavik in a breath.


Life in the farm of the Hof has hardly changed since the present church was built between 1883 and 1885. It was surely erected above another one, whose oldest written record goes back to as far as 1343. The building in its present form is made of blocks of strengur (one meter long and 5-10 cm large blocks of peat). It belongs to a period when this type was widespread all over Iceland. The few surviving ones are in urgent need of maintenance, if only as a testimony of a far away past. And, of course, to be integrated in the tourist industry that feeds the island.


However, it seems that the attempt to protect these buildings as parts of World Heritage, is what will bring to their end. Their building materials are very unstable – indeed, they are living material –, and they require constant attention and quick renewal. The conservationist cultural policy of these buildings, as if they were medieval paintings where you must preserve at all costs the exact pincel’s stroke of the author, has resulted in the fact that the few traditional masters, who still build with these techniques, refuse any active collaboration in their maintenance, complaining that they are even required to number the blocks and to put them back to their original place after every intervention. For them, the building has never been something settled once for all, but a living organism, which must survive by regenerating and, if necessary, completely renewing itself, like the nature revives and explodes in this volcanic island every year after the ice of the winter.


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Around the church, there are whole generations of anonymous graves, soft mounds of earth. On some, they have renewed the crosses, and the plaques with the names and dates are clearly legible. And there are of course some really recent ones. Under the cold freeze of the surface during so many months, the land of Iceland is renewed every year. One can see everywhere the volcanic roots holding the island. How easy it is to recite in this cemetery the surrealistically sentimental poetry of the Uruguayan Juana de Ibarbourou:

Amante: no me lleves, si muero, al camposanto.

A flor de tierra abre mi fosa, junto al riente
alboroto divino de alguna pajarera
o junto a la encantada charla de alguna fuente.

A flor de tierra, amante. Casi sobre la tierra,
donde el sol me caliente los huesos, y mis ojos,
alargados en tallos, suban a ver de nuevo
la lámpara salvaje de los ocasos rojos.

A flor de tierra, amante. Que el tránsito así sea
más breve. Yo presiento
la lucha de mi carne por volver hacia arriba,
por sentir en sus átomos la frescura del viento.

Yo sé que acaso nunca allá abajo mis manos
podrán estarse quietas.
Que siempre como topos arañarán la tierra
en medio de las sombras estrujadas y prietas.

Arrójame semillas. Yo quiero que se enraícen
en la greda amarilla de mis huesos menguados.
¡Por la parda escalera de las raíces vivas
Yo subiré a mirarte en los lirios morados!
Don’t take me to the cemetery, if I die, my love,
on the surface open my grave, next to the laughing
divine bustle of some aviary
or to the enchanted talk of a source.

On the surface, my love. Almost above it
where the sun warms my bones, and my eyes,
with elongated stems, come out to see again
the wild flashes of the red sunsets.

On the surface, my love. So the transition
be shorter. I presage the fight
of my flesh to come back again to surface
to feel in its atoms the freshness of the wind.

I know that there down, my hands
can never stay still: like moles
they will go around scratching the earth
among depressed and narrow shades.

Throw seeds upon me. I want them to take root
in the yellow clay of my decaying bones.
So along the brown ladder of living roots
I will come up to watch you in the purple lilies.



The heavenly sun sank into the ocean’s nest (Iceland’s Folksong Heritage. From the Classic Collection by Bjarni Dorsteinsson)