How hands become a language of the past

Lene Zachariassen is at home in her workshop in Eyjafjörður, Iceland. There she lives with the seasons and nature, time is a secondary matter. Time is much more a rhythm set by the raw material with which Lene spends her days: the Norwegian-born tanner is in fact the only full-time tanner.

About 35 years ago, she came as a young student to plant trees as part of a project in Svafarðardalur. As life goes, she met a man and stayed, for many years as a dairy farmer in Skíðadalur. Loneliness, lack of language skills and long winter evenings led her to explore the old craft traditions of the Icelanders. Spinning, weaving, the processing of horse hair into wickerwork – and using the skins after the autumn slaughter.

She grew up in Africa, the daughter of an aid worker. In harmony with nature, she loves the wild and all natural things on our wonderful planet inspire her and stimulate Lene’s imagination. She makes colourful lanterns from fish skin, spins dog hair, builds drums, twists leather straps from dyed cow skin.

The Cologne filmmaker Stefanie Gartmann tells the story of a tanner’s life in Iceland in poetic images. She succeeds in making a film that is more than a portrait, a film that makes us think about our own alienated, accelerated lives. – One of the five best German entries in the short documentary film competition. Broadcast on arte TV

To forward the 12 min film click on the photo

Interview with Lene Zachariassen

In Iceland people know each other, so we are grateful to Hulda Brynjólfsdóttir from Uppspuni / Icelandyarn – MiniMill, she herself produces sheep wool from her own sheep in Iceland, for befriending us with Lene. For us it is a great gift to meet the purity from experience and wisdom of Lene Zachariassen in our interview below.

The cover of this year’s course programme of the Feuervogel Cooperative for Nature Education shows the prayer of a shaman. In our interview with Lene Zachariassen we would like to ask what effect the prayer has on her.

Our breath connects us intimately with our environment – with the breath of the earth. Not only we humans, but also plants, animals and trees breathe. Breath connects life on this earth like an invisible web of life. We live in a world of shared breath. Where, in which place, do you perceive your breath most intensively in connection with the invisible web of life?

Lene Zachariassen: I feel like the air is like another dimension that we sometimes don’t want to see. Everything exists in the air and life is connected with every single breath to everyone and everything that lives on land on our planet. I feel the lightness and heaviness of the air I breathe in and out and it gives me different experiences depending on the weight and temperature. The colours also affect my mind and soul. It is the colour of the breath that gives my eyes a kind of focus, on what they see and transmits it to my mind and heart. Sometimes I also feel sadness and pain, as well as happiness and serenity. Being in the moment of what is right now and understanding that everything is a part of me, is letting go or gathering the feeling close to my heart to be who I am without running away.   

This in turn gives me the feeling of being in the moment of timelessness and being close to consciousness. Back in time, close to knowledge, encountering a knowledge that was there before me. To see a mountain that has been there for thousands of years, to encounter a plant that keeps coming back, to see a bird that comes from Africa to the same place every year. That is the moment when my mind starts to play. Because I grew up in West Africa and I can remember the song of this bird on the beach, and the bird is here and the child in me smiles and my heart and soul fill with good and positive energy.

On the beach, where the two worlds meet, I feel the strongest connection of the breath of the invisible web of life. The sea often has the same rhythm as my breath and it is only a thin layer that separates the two different worlds. The moment of lowest tide when I walk on the stones on the beach that are dry only twice a year. Listening to the tide coming back with small pointed waves, playing with my eyes, ears and mind, making me feel like I am experiencing the greatest gift of our earth. The greatest energy of all and the great breath of the earth, this is where my childhood comes into play again and my vision of life underwater with the fish and the beauty of the movements of the sea creatures.

Today I snorkel and try to dive, and I love this membrane between the two worlds where everything floats. It’s the weightlessness and the movements of the huge sea, the small and the big creatures, all the life that we don’t think about so much because it’s hidden from us. I was taking a walk on the beach when a seal emerged from the surface of the water. I had eye contact with the seal, the underwater world was completely focused on me, swimming and looking in the same rhythm. The conversation between the seal and me was a great energy for me and maybe also for the seal. These are moments that come and go and make me feel to be.

My connection to the air and the breath of our planet is strong even far up in the mountains where there are no sounds of people and rarely any tracks. If my eyes could travel as far as they can see. The breath of the wind, touching the land at the highest points makes music to my ears. I think it works like a kind of drug to enjoy our beautiful planet, but we must not forget to take care of it. Meeting the plant life that grows there at altitude makes me grateful. Some plants I have never seen in flower before. That is a gift for me. The stones that no one has turned over, the water flowing from the glacier, it is the champagne of Mother Earth, always a cycle of life. The wind is filled with air that comes from far away, all kinds of beings of nature touch me, that is the gift for me to breathe this air too.

They are beautiful moments that are there and when I open myself to them, they give me a journey to a higher me and it fills my heart and all my senses, and there is only one word…. THANK YOU

Thank you for allowing us to share in your flow of life. I would like to know from you what living thing do you honour and what sound do you hear when you connect with the breath of the web of life?

A very deep connection, I also feel with the sea, with all the mysterious life under the membrane that separates these two worlds with different landscapes and abilities to survive. Once I had made a drum journey to meet my roots and myself as a child. I felt a great fear because I had always been a stranger and had never found a connection to a particular place or people. I went up in the air mentally, I was not in any childhood place in Iceland or Norway, so I went on this journey all the way to Africa and saw myself „hunting lions and crocodiles“ in the bush. I was eight years old, walking with bare feet, and I could see myself as a child looking up at me as an adult while I dug my toes into the sand by the river. All of a sudden I understood where my roots were. The feeling of my toes in the sand in the flowing water that flows down to the great sea. With the sea, my roots flow all over our planet and my roots are where my toes are and that explained so much to me. I look at the membrane that separates life in the air from life in the water, in my mind the sea connects the whole planet as one big skin that is always moving. Always with a glow, somewhere there are always feelings that always have something to teach me and my eyes feel peace.

The purity of your answer moves me and gets under my skin. What was it like back then, in the film you tell us that when you came to Iceland you didn’t know a word of Icelandic? How would you describe learning the craft of tanning as an emotional act to understand the language and culture of the people in Iceland?

Yes, that’s right. I came to Iceland without any language, living very remotely on a farm surrounded by high mountains and a river flowing by. The animals and the landscape as well as the people drew me in with their beauty and wildness, but I felt a disharmony in time. For the new world was coming fast to Iceland and I wondered what was before this invasion of modern life. My hands became a kind of language of the past, and my mind followed me in search of something that could connect me to this land full of beauty and contrasts. Never being a person of many words, this encounter with forgotten craft made me curious. I asked myself, what if….

For 40 years I have been working with materials from nature with my hands and my mind. It is techniques from the past, with horse hair, animal fibres, skins, shapes and ideas that appear to me when I hear the sound of our earth, see the light and dark of day, feel the cold and warm, all opening the mind to contrast and curiosity. Today I speak the language and I live by the sea and my eyes play with the day as it comes. There are days without spoken words that don’t bother me because I sense another conversation that has no time and no words. The feeling of being on the same project at the same time with my mind, my eyes, my hands and my ears gives me the possibility to perceive the moment, to be there and to be open to what can happen on the way of my process.

To call your hands the language of the past, to work together with them and all your senses to understand the polarities and to fully engage with the moment to perceive it. You described this so sensitively and harmoniously. What rhythm lives in you? What rhythm do you live by?

Many years ago I stopped my big clock to remind myself that the time is now. I sometimes move it when a new time dawns, three times in the last 15 years. My rhythm is connected to the seasons of nature, to the light, the weather, the sound of the sea. I plan my days, my work, my curiosity, my projects and workshops and make room for the unexpected, at least once a day, to lose myself in the moment of being.

I think we have some things we need to take care of, our dreams at night that take us to places in our existence and often heal us, we have daydreams that take us far away but then there are those dreams when we are out in nature and our mind is completely stolen by the „elves“ (in Iceland), this can be for a moment or much longer and when you are back in your normal mind I think it is a miracle to lose yourself in the „moss“ and enjoy the feeling of the journey in our soul.

Dear Lene, thank you so much for taking the time to let us feel the rhythm of your aliveness. Your answers warm our souls when we read them and have a healing effect. The authenticity in your words carries our spirit to your images as you see and feel them and it is for us as if your roots glide over the water and reach us through the air. This is a very heart-warming feeling, so that we come full circle to understanding your wholeness to the prayer of the shaman.

Fotos Lene Zachariassen, arte TV

Lene Zachariassen on Facebook

The digital journal „Nature Flow“ offers concrete topics according to the basics of nature education and earth-friendly ideas for the future.

Whether you are a forest playgroup leader, forest kindergarten teacher, pedagogue and adult educator or outdoor family, you will all find nourishing knowledge with us.

Editorial management: Christoph Lang, Nadja Hillgruber

Picture credits: © Lene Zachariassen and arteTV

The digital journal „Nature Flow“ is in its 13th year of publication under the umbrella of the Feuervogel Cooperative for Nature Education in Switzerland.

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