Tuesday, October 09, 2018

This Is Probably True

Yesterday a small group of us spent the morning at the  Steinahlíð preschool in Reykjavik as part of our participation in the annual Play Iceland Conference taking place this week in and around the nation's capital. The city's original preschool, housed in what appears to be an old farmhouse and one other somewhat newer building, is, enviably, located amidst several acres of forest and field.

When we arrived, we were invited to join an expedition to check on a dead mouse that the children had discovered some weeks ago. They had decided to not bury it as they normally would, opting instead to simply put it under a rock in a distant corner of the property where they had been regularly visiting it ever since. I understood that this was both a scientific and spiritual endeavor.

When children lead, even the simplest of outings can be an epic saga, one with the destination always in mind, but only accomplished via detour, diversion, and daring. Our adventure began, the children spontaneously holding hands, at the small crop of hearty kale that continues to thrive despite the freezing temperatures. As I understand things, the land was originally donated to the trust that now owns it under the condition that it always be used for children and that it always be used, at least in part, to teach them how their food grows. We fortified ourselves on greens amidst a veritable orchard of now bare berry bushes, where I imagine these lucky children forage joyfully during warmer months.

From there we continued on trails between the trees, worn by generations of little feet. Our way was criss-crossed by similar paths, but the children knew exactly where they were going. First, however, we stopped to examine ice we found in a nearby tire swing hung from the branch of a tree. The teacher warned the children not to eat the ice, but they, in the spirit of adventure, nevertheless tasted it the moment her back was turned, giggling together as co-conspirators.

We wound our way to a small, steep, and grassy hill that seemed to rise from nowhere. Naturally, we stopped for a frolic.

Back in the woods we came upon a tent-like structure made from colorful fabric, damp now and dripping in the moist wintery air. All along the way, the children had been collecting small bits of garbage (plastic bags, food containers, beverage, etc.) that had inevitably found its way onto their land from the surrounding city. No one told them to do this; it simply appeared to be what one did. There was some confusion, however, about the things found in the tent, much of which turned out to be toys that other children had made from recycled materials. Together with their teacher they determined what would stay and what they would pack out.

The children tended to stick together, and even when one of them detoured she would stop before getting too far away to call out to the others who more often than not followed, ducking into natural evergreen hideouts or gathering around to examine motes. Proceeding in this manner we eventually came to our destination at the farthest corner of this epic place, dropping to their knees around the rock under which they had left the dead mouse, heads together. Carefully, they lifted the rock to find that the mouse was gone! They huddled together for some time discussing this great mystery. They rejected the notion that it had been eaten by some scavenger, agreeing among themselves that the mouse had somehow moved itself. They did find a small bit that they thought might be the tail or a leg, but one boy pointed out that he saw no blood, so how could that be part of the mouse? Clearly, it had moved itself, and he dropped the "tail" unceremoniously into the leaves and moss underfoot.

The adventure home, in the spirit of all the great sagas, was even longer than our outbound journey. We stopped at the "magic tree," we saw faces in both stone and wood. We discovered a shopping cart that some mischief maker must have tossed over the fence. We stopped at the "fairies' rock." The story is that when the new pedestrian/bicycle roadway was built along this side of the property, the fairies who called this rock home didn't want to be left outside the fence, so a crane had lifted it into its current place. In this land in which some 80 percent of the population claims to believe in the existence of the "hidden people," and where it is common to design buildings around certain rocks so as not to offend the trolls, it was no surprise when their teacher told us with a straight face that the fairy story was "probably true."

When we came to the fields we played chasing games. When we came to a thicket of trees, we made the sounds of police sirens (something learned not from the reality of Reykjavik where crime is rare, but rather from television) and the children took turns being arrested and placed in a jail of trees. And whenever we came to ice, they secretly tasted it.

We tend to misuse the word "myth," I think, using it most often as a synonym for "false," when in fact mythology is really all about truth, or at least the quest for truth. Those ancient sagas tell of humans exploring, discovering, and striving to make sense of the world. It is therefore "probably true" that there are fairies and trolls, just as it is "probably true" that the mouse moved itself. Of course, these truths may not be confirmed by our modern scientific understanding, but that doesn't mean that our myths do not likewise reveal a perspective on truth that eludes the scientific method. This is probably true.

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