Monthly Archives: July 2018

Sheep in the City

In Canada, the trail running across the foot of this face would have been made by deer, but in Iceland it’s made by sheep.

In Canada, this would be called wild land. In Iceland, it’s a farm. It is an intimate social and political space that turns wildness into civil life. In Canada, that is done as either an industrial or an aesthetic experience, capitalized and individual. Here it is just common space. In other words, this stretch of the Bessastaðaá is a city.

Getting into the Flow in East Iceland

Look at the Kelduá emerge from its valley. Here in the remote East, water turns to stone and back to water, and stone flows like water, then freezes, then breaks apart and flows like water again.

It is why a river in Iceland is an á: not a substance but a flow (aqua), not water but the energy that materializes as water and, as you can see, as stone. And jumbles them all up together. And breaks them apart. When you stand there and see beauty, it is that energy that you sense. The freezing energy, that is the business of frost. Keep your distance from that stuff! It’s lethal.

100 Years of Trolls

When you’re in Iceland, it’s good to get off the beaten track. No tour guide will lead you to this troll at Skriðuklaustur.

Or this one. If people laugh about your troll finds, does that really matter?

You might even find an entire troll narrative. What does it matter if there are no physical entities called trolls?

You can find pictures of those things in bookshops, for children, without an explanation of the politics behind them. What is that politics? Guess.

Contemporary ecology is based on stories of trolls from Norway in the 1920s. I think it’s possible that ecology in the 2120s will be based on stories of trolls found today.

 

The Secret Runes of the North

The old Norse runes are well known.

 

They were repeated many times and developed shared symbolic meaning, aside from their use as an alphabet suitable for carving in stone.

Nonetheless, there are other runes. At Ásbyrgi, for example, long strings of runes, alphabets essentially, written in a bodily script, are written in long lines across the faces of the cliffs.

The more you stare at them, the more they make sense, although each is written one time only, in constant modifications of basic patterns, no two the same.

The pleasure gained from spending a day reading them is no different from that in a gallery on the European continent, in the face of Rembrandt, Vermeer or Van Dyk, or in a vault in Mainz with Gutenberg’s Bible, or in front of Shakespeare’s First Folio in the British Library.

These are masterworks never repeated, but no less masterworks, and no less languages and texts, for being so.

You can’t read them in the pubs of Reykjavik. You are going to have to go north, so far off of Highway 1 that when you learn to read these runes you won’t tell anyone what they say.

How Much Do Icelanders Love the Land They Live From?

The cliff at Ásbyrgi, in the far northeast, is full of ravens, trolls and elves. They’ve been camping out there (if you have eyes to see them) from the beginning of the world. If you don’t have such eyes, they are lovely lava flows cut by a paraglacial flood, with a birch, willow and rowan forest worth a trip across Iceland or around the world.

Or, you can just go to Reykjavik.

Now, that’s love for the land! Well done!

The Fully-Illustrated Rules of the Road for Driving Safely in Iceland

Icelandic road.

Icelandic dragon car.

 

Icelandic driving training school.

Icelandic traffic.

 

Icelandic police.

Icelandic Campground.

Icelandic winter road.

Icelandic winter car.

Icelandic winter car, summer pelt phase.

Icelandic drivers.

 

Wrong kind of car! Wrong kind of car!


Icelandic driving manual: the fine print.

Icelander with good road smarts.

Tourist with good road smarts.

Icelandic accident clean up crew on stand-by duty.

Be safe out there.

The Two Icelands (Well, Really Three)

 

There’s the pretty one.


Borgarfjörður Eystri

And across the street, the rusty one. All the fish are gone. Beautiful, though.

 

With ruins in the foreground.


And weird driftwood art.

Neither is Iceland, though. That’s something the Icelanders keep to themselves. What they present to you in its place are charms and gestures.

You know, stuff you remember from the world.

Splitting the Earth Wide Open

In his novel Sworn Brothers, Gunnar writes engagingly of opening the green skin of the earth, forming it into an arch, and swearing an oath beneath it, before the sod is closed again, taking the oath into deep memory and deep time. So was the voyage that led to the founding of Iceland undertaken, with a few nudges from Oðin, that clever wanderer. One can see signs of this story throughout Iceland today. Have a look. The cairns will guide you to the opening.

Here we are at Geirstaðakirkja. Romantic, huh. Sturdy Viking stuff, machine-planed and the works. Note how the earth is split around the church, in traditional Icelandic turf house style. It’s a thing.

Note as well, that it’s not as romantic as it looks. Whew.

Even a Viking-Christian God needs some water for his sheep and a spare battery for his truck, and where to put that stuff, why, in behind the altar. Naturally. Power is power. But I jest. Look more closely at the surroundings. Here is Gunnar’s split Earth again. This time, a boulder broken by frost, and frost in Iceland is a force from beyond the world and deadly to humans.

Ironically, it also opens the Earth for them, and who steps forth but Lazarus drawn forth by the hand of Christ. You can go into their shared grave in the Earth…

… and you can step out again as a different person, into a different world, one cleansed by the journey…

… and then you can feast.

And then? Why, cross the sea.


With grass breaking across your prow and the wind for a sail.

The Secret of Álfaborg

You can go visit the elves in Borgarfjörður Estri, if you like.

Off to Álfaborg with you!

You can read all the magical traditions about this rock here: The Alfaborg Story.

Still, it would do your mind well to forget all that and go walking among the stone heads in the rain.

You will find magic enough as the fog rolls in.

As the contours of the land turn to air and water, you will  begin to feel like rain yourself.

Every stone takes on great significance as the sky vanishes.

And that’s the point. The fjords south of here have been abandoned. The weather is just too terrible. You are alone with rock. There is no sky, only earth that has become it, and maybe a homestead you can scratch together out of mud.

The stones, though, are a kind of sight. You see them because out of this dissolving world, they stand out. Birds use them to see. They are, in face, eyes, or islands of sight in the rain.

They are shelter. Whether they are rising from the earth or sinking into it, is not the point, because both are true at once.


On Álfaborg, one sees in at the same time one sees out. It is you who becomes the person of the stone, as you gain its vision, and see with more-than-human eyes.

Don’t even try to come home.