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October 9, 2014

Beyond Place: Vinland & Walden

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Why is it that certain places along the ‘infinitely wild’, remote, rocky coastlines of Maritime Canada have come to resonate as Waldens-by-the-Sea, inspiring a wide array of deep sea ‘reveries’ among composers, writers, artists, photographers, and other seekers of ‘the farthest reaches of the land’?

It’s a long, well-kept, time-honoured secret. Just ask the Vikings.

Today, 9 October, is celebrated in North America as Leifr Eiríksson Day, or as Viking scholar Nancy Marie Brown persuasively argues, Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day.* In commemoration of the Viking exploration of and (temporary) residence in the now legendary Vinland, we might consider how the allure—then and now—of certain coastal locations throughout Atlantic Canada both reflect & transcend Place.

While the concept of Walden as an unspoiled, natural retreat obviously did not yet exist during the Viking era either as a literal place or metaphor, they simply coined their own term, Vinland. Most likely named for the wild grapes they found growing abundantly there, Vinland, like Walden, has transcended its denotative reference to a specific place (or places), evolving into a metaphor for a wild, naturally abundant ‘world elsewhere’, a now legendary Walden-by-the-Sea.

Recorded in the thirteenth-century, the Vinland Sagas (a combination of the independently written Greenlanders’ Saga & Eirík the Red’s Saga) relate the experiences of discovery, exploration and settlement along specific coastal regions in North America. Plunging ‘like fate into the lone Atlantic’, Leif Eiríksson and crew, later followed by Gudriður the Far-Traveler and her families, sailed, landed and explored various coastal places throughout Atlantic Canada (and maybe farther south), experiences forever memorialized in the sagas.

For Gudriður and her two sets of families who accompanied her, Vinland appeared to serve as a Viking-age Walden—a pristine natural place where they could live off the land and maintain a self-sustaining farm. In fact, as Nancy Marie Brown relates in The Far Traveler, a fascinating account of Gudrid’s life and travels to North America, this fearless, exemplary Viking woman actually conceived and gave birth to the first Nordic child (that history records) in this region. Gudrid’s agronomic example is a testimony to a fundamentally different approach to exploration—as well as exemplifies the Waldenesque spirit of living simply and lightly upon the land.

Recent research by Gísli Sigurðsson* suggests that the island province of Prince Edward Island might well have been one of the places experienced by Viking explorers in search of a sustainable environment in which to settle and farm. Of all the places in North America visited by the Vikings, this island (perhaps) became immortalized in the sagas as a bountiful natural paradise offering a dazzling array of food and natural resources. In fact, Prince Edward Island may indeed be Leif Eiríksson’s Vinland.

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Had Henry David Thoreau walked as far as the eastern coast of Prince Edward Island, he would have called this primeval place Walden-by-the-Sea.

I discovered my own Vinland a few short miles along the coast from one of the reputed sites of the Viking landing. There, like the Vikings a millennium before me, I went in search of a primeval setting along the sea, wild and untamable. What I found was a veritable Walden-by-the-Sea—a modern day Vinland, (which has inspired me to combine the two metaphors into a new novel I’m writing, co-incidentally enough called Vinland).

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While the actual place referred to as Vinland remains a source of debate among Saga scholars, the metaphor of Vinland continues after one thousand years to signify a Walden-by-the-Sea—an ‘infinitely wild’ place ‘rife with life’. Vinland appeals to our need ‘to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander’.

In the spirit of Gudriður’s approach to living sustainably and harmoniously with the natural world, let us hope that the various Waldens-by-the-Sea throughout Atlantic Canada remain pristine, natural places respected by their human inhabitants. Though some of us actively seek Thoreau’s and perhaps the Vikings’ ‘tonic of wildness’ by retreating to our own special places, let us never forget that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’.

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*For the larger story of Vinland exploration and settlement, see Nancy Marie Brown’s website, www.nancymariebrown.com (where her various books are listed and available for purchase), as well as her most recent blog post on Gudrid the Far-Traveler’s Day www.nancymariebrown.blogspot.com.
For rich analyses of the Vinland sagas and likely locations for Vinland, see Gísli Sigurðsson,Ed. The Vinland Sagas (London: Penguin, 2008); Sigurðsson, The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004) & Sigurðsson, “The Quest for Vinland in Saga Scholarship,” in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Washington: Smithsonian, 2000).

Various literary references, denoted with single quotation marks and italics are taken from Moby-Dick and Walden.