I was looking for an empty cassette tape to record music from the radio when I found this cassette tape with a male voice speaking in a language unfamiliar to me. When listening, it came to me slowly, that the tape must have been my mother’s. When she was in her early twenties she worked as a maid, cleaning rooms, on a cruise ship, traveling from Denmark to the West-Indies. Much like Iceland the West-Indies were Denmark’s colonies. As colonies, both countries served very different roles and outcomes, with the West-Indies being sold to the United States in 1917 and are as of today what is termed by the UN a Non-Self-Governing Territory. Iceland on the other hand gained independence in 1944. I always remember that date because of a brand of ready-made microwave dinners named the same. 1944. The voice on the cassette tape was in a weird way very familiar, warm and comforting, it told a narration as if lying on a bed next to you, pillow talk. For a long time this tape was the closest I felt to my mother. When I asked her about it her face turned red and the conversation ended quickly but for me this cassette tape created an unspoken thread between us, a knowing that knows itself.
Right before I came here I was standing in a kiosk in Berlin on a very hot day, when someone turns to me and tells me that in his home country, in the Sahara desert, people bury their bodies up until their neck. I stood there and nodded. Maybe my fully clothed body brought up this topic. I have never been good in calibrating my body to different weather conditions. Usually I am layered. In this insulating state it is my body that becomes hot, it is my body that regulates its temperature in accordance to itself not the weather. He said it was good for the skin, to bury your body in the sand. I nodded again, the heat kept me from any other forms of communication that what would pass as understandable. Later that day I googled Sahara+bodies buried in the sand. It seems that nomadic tribes in the Sahara desert have found livelihood in so called wellness tourism, where they bury tourists up to their neck in the sand. Temporary nomads pay former nomads for the sense of being stuck deep in the earth in order for their bodies to break through the boundaries of their skin and release accumulated toxins in their sweat that then leaks into the sand. It’s called sand baths.
You can take detox holidays at the former NATO military base in Iceland, in what is called now the health village, their slogan is “cure and prevention of civilization related diseases.” For 60 years the United States military was based there but when they left in 2006 the site became a center of innovation with the health village being one of its entrepreneurial projects. The village is only meters away where recently tar came oozing out of the ground after an old dumpster site of the military was accidentally dug up. Apparently it is a common rule in the area to leave former dumpster sites to be. You never know what might come up. In this case the oozing tar revealed the affects of militarization of land as the toxic waste decided to unearth itself.
Germany’s military use of these sand dunes was a form of revenge. From 1870-1872, imprisoned French soldiers were kept in the dunes to simulate the Sahara and the conditions Germans had endured by the French in the Sahara desert as prisoners of war. I heard this from the spokesperson of the Curonian National Park, in a guided tour. She hesitated when she told us this, as if she was not sure where to place this narration in an empty, semi-cleared of barr trees, clean slate of a desert-y landscape, with virgin vegetation, untouched, with a full potential of being exoticized.
The PR-agency for Iceland’s self image, the public-private institute Promote Iceland, makes sure to keep Iceland under the gaze of neo-colonial tourism, keeping it real and exotic. The latest stunt of the PR-agency is to ask locals, especially artists, to reveal a secret to tourists, to give the tourist a real sense of the still untouched, things that can only be revealed in a whisper, to an ear. For example one could tell of a small purple plant, that grows in the mountains of Iceland, close to the ground, called Blóðberg or blood rock. It is considered particularly Icelandic, a natural spice with healing powers, also known as arctic thyme. A common plant seen in the vegetation of the grey dunes is blood rock. In Maxima, the only grocery store in Nida, you can’t buy thyme. You have to look outside of the spice racks, in the sand, where it grows.
The vegetation binds the sand, or as the text of one tourist guide described it, the sand has been tamed on the spit and grounded by mountain pines imported from Denmark. Boundaries have been drawn in the sand, different nation-state exists on different sides of plastic banners in red and orange saying: Stop State Border. On both sides states recognized as states. One of them recognized first by Iceland, the small state that is itself driven by a pathological need for validation as it whispers its secrets.
In the sands of the Sahara lies an unrecognized state, Azawad, consisting of an alliance of different people inhabiting the Sahara desert and who have fought against the French for their independence. Their way of reading into the land is portrayed in a black gown covering the whole body with angular forms on the head and arms, a black bird costume that can be seen in festive activities. The costume represents the bird and its intuitive powers of finding water. The big black birds of the Curonian Spit are the cormorants, sea raven, some say it is easy to see from the way they look their lineage from the dinosaurs, from the scaly looking wing feathers and startling emerald eyes. I read on the Neringa website, the area’s municipality, that they eat as much fish as fishermen catch and that the shit of the bird kills the pine trees, causing dissatisfaction among fishermen and foresters. On the website it even says, and I remember the wording very clearly, that some centuries ago, “in the light of local foresters’ recommendations and local fishermen’s complaints, the Prussian government allowed the eradication of black strangers.”
Before I arrived in Nida I was under the impression that the tension of sands and forests lay between the fishing, cutting down trees for boats, and the manual labor of planting trees by women. Since then I have learned that there are a few factors that have created the sands and wastelands, both human and climate related, but the ruling ones being wars and military activities. When Iceland was settled in the 9th century it is thought to have been carpeted with birch trees. Today Iceland is Europe’s and the arctic’s largest desert. The black sands of Iceland have been undergoing reforestation, mainly with birch trees, as if to bring the land into some imagined original state, before the time of 500 years of colonial rule, before the agricultural use of the land that brought about the sands. Iceland claims to be a neutral state, on paper it has no military. When the US military left, it left on the condition that Iceland would clean up the area of the base. On paper the recent bleeding tar from the earth is not on the military’s hands.
A CEO of a salt fish company in Iceland told me, as his employee, that there might be no military in Iceland but there is the duty to work in the fish factory. The country’s fish is exported to Portugal and Spain. When the salt fish is exported they use these black plastic sticks to strengthen the corner of boxes, so the box does not collapse on its way across the sea. These sticks are the only non-recyclable element of the production line in the fish factory. The stick has another time span, deep time, a non-degradable fossil made of natural resources, bacteria from the bottom of the sea, plants, coal, rotted dinosaur carcasses, natural gases or oil. It looks like charred wood. It looks like the birch bark after it has been in an open fire for two hours and oozes black tar, a tar that detoxifies and exfoliates your skin, just like the sand that is either displaced or replaced by trees.
The stick invites a reading into land, into causality, of coexistence, of non-innocence. A weird knowing, a knowing in a loop. I recently read that in Old Norse Weird means destiny, magical powers, and the wielders of that power, the Fates, Norns, the ones that entwine the web of fate. Before I came here I knew I was going to dance flamenco in the sand, covered in birch tar. I foresaw learning the flamenco from youtube, the oral heritage of today, just as I had learned about making my own tar from birch bark. But a few days after I arrived, the flamenco event Crazy Women took place in Nida Culture Center. There I met the Spanish flamenco dancer Marina de Flamenco. She gave me lessons in Palanga and choreographed a dancing loop with me. Through a dance form that has been called the import from the Indies, Marina has become a weird sister, that stomps in defiance on the ground, on wood, at a time where there is a sense of a lack of ground when one no longer meets nature but uncanny, dark ecology. The custom of knocking on wood has its origin in Germanic folklore, Wikipedia told me, and is a way of calling forth spirits, that reside in the wood, for good fate.
You can now read your card, on your way back to the colony.