Category Archives: Architecture

Icelandic Erosion Stories of Hope and Despair

When I first went to Iceland nine years ago, the Icelanders told stories of how they lived on a new land, in the process of being made. You can see how that works, here in Njardvik, where with each storm the fjord grows smaller. It’s quite the problem, really, if you’re on one of the two farms in the fjord.

Now, Icelanders tell stories of how climate change caused Vikings (not Icelanders but Vikings yet [who were Icelanders!]) to cut down all the trees, and continues to victimize Iceland, making it pay for industrial decisions taken elsewhere. I miss the old story of hope, of rolling up the sleeves, doing something, and getting on with it. After all…

… either way, you still have to fix your fence. Might as well give your neighbour, the sea, a piece of your mind while you’re at it.

It is, after all, not a new story.

Iceland Speaks Through Her Black Sand Beaches

At the mouth of the Sellfljót, Iceland speaks.

Here, human activity, such as a lost fishing float, is a glaring addition to her conversation, but remains dwarfed by it.

These beaches are at the end of a 30-kilometre-road and a two hour walk, so they feature in few guide books. We can shift our point of view and eliminate human dominance in the image, but looking out to sea…

… or even climb the hill to … and look from there.

It is a different story at the mouth of the Jökullsá, just south of the famed glacial lagoon. They are in all the guide books, just footsteps away from the madness of the Ring Road.

Whether the beach is really black is questionable, but, still, it’s lovely. The river has built an estuary over the last couple years, and seals have moved in. Note how the human story now dominates: the image has directionality and an object, which is more dominant than Iceland and the Atlantic themselves. It’s not just a matter of a camera’s point of view. Even if we sweep up an even larger pile of fishing garbage on the Sellfljót…

… Iceland dominates, and the human story remains foreign and intrusive, despite its beauty (which is largely in the way it catches the light.) These effects are not created. by the light, either. Back on Diamond Beach, the light reveals a story of humans on the hunt, either for seals or icebergs…

… while on the Heraðssandur…

… the light and the land speak. Still, it might be that nature and humans can coexist…

… and it might be that putting nature to work, such as at the aluminum smelter on an old farm in Reyðarfjörður …

Sómastaðir

The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site.

… is a comfortable form of coexistence as well, but it might not. As an example, just consider that the hydroelectric dam in the Highlands that powers the Alcoa plant at Sómastaðagerði  above required the diversion of Jöklá into the Jökullsá, and the subsequent combination of both rivers on the Heraðssandur (below) to prevent flooding, all funded by the industrial project but no doubt predating it by many centuries.

The transformation of a continually-shifting pair of estuaries into a stable beach system is a great feat of civil engineering. If you want black sand in Iceland, here it is.

However, the sand, and the shifting estuary system has only moved further south. Here you can find exquisite black sand beaches framing lagoons north of Höfn, in the Fjörur sandspit in  Álftafjörður, or on the Hvalsnesfjara in Lónsvik in Lónfjörður, cutting historically-significant and productive farms off from the sea.

The people whose ancestors have been here for 1100 years might be furious, but the resulting black sand beaches are beautiful. The madness of the Ring Road is only metres away, but is strong enough to keep people off. Not so the Atlantic, though. It is devouring the beach even as it builds it up.


That’s just the thing, though. Back at the Glacial Lagoon, the destruction is also a dominant force. Have a look:

Even if you pull the humans and their attempts to view nature free of themselves away from the picture, what remains is destruction, because the lagoon, the river, these icebergs and the black sands of Diamond Beach are all a result of a dying glacier, melting under climate change. Nature, this is not, but what nature looks like as it corrects an industrial intervention. Of course, at that other great black sand beach, Dritvík, you can ignore the ogres, if you like, and even the ruins of Iceland’s great fishing camp, home to 500 men every summer…

 

… and if you forego that trail because no-one mentioned it, and the tourbus took you to the trailhead at Djupalón, you can forego the ogre there, too, if you like, and enjoy the force of the water on the black sand.

You wouldn’t be thinking like Iceland, though, nor would you in the Hvalfjörður, where the black sand beach is actually the fighter plane airbase that protected the Allied fleet during World War II…

The point is, these black sand beaches are exquisitely beautiful, but it’s best not to bring one’s preconceptions of nature to them. Most of us come from countries and cultures in which history is represented in buildings and human social activity. It’s no different on Iceland, just that here the buildings are made of sand and the human social activity is usually done in conversation with the sand. When you walk those beaches, you are talking with powerful creative and destructive forces. Gunnar wrote about this in his great novel “The Shore of Life,”

which he wrote as a cry of pain after the Battle of the Somme. It is as great a human story as Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,”

but one that gets far deeper into the soul of the land, right where it battles with the sea.

Diamond Beach

This is the land’s story.

 

Icelandic Clarity

One of the tricky things about Iceland is that everything in Iceland is Iceland, even global culture’s colonial intrusions into Icelandic space…

… and even so-delicious images of vulnerability and cold set against pan-Scandinavian design…

… but these distractions have a history, and you can find them in the once-busy harbour of Vopnafjörður. There, the old pier is one of the main tourist sights in town.

It’s worth the long trip, for the clarity it brings.

What Happens to a Farm Over Time is a Variable Thing

Some farms that no one lives on anymore are still being farmed for hay. Note the fine tractor road here in Reydisfjörður.

Others have gone wild, although they are still farms and can be claimed again. This one, in Neskaupstaðir, is accessible only by foot. A boat looks out of the question.

I bet there are eiðars, though!

The Dwarf Castle of Skardsvik

We went to Seyðisfjörður to visit the dwarf church, one of our favourite places in Iceland, but sadly it is no longer accessible except by boat. However, we had the good fortune to walk down to the beach at Skardsvik, on the complete other side of the country, and there was a whole dwarf fortress. Hurrah!

Here’s  the gate.

Note the red stone to the right of the opening.

And  some  of the  finer  details…

I  really  love  the  next  one.

Here it is close up.

Always leave a gift. I left a pink flower, as I had no coins in my pocket. (Always carry coins in your pocket. That’s a new rule.) And then, on the road again:

In this way, the land is never empty. In this way, the land is always a gift and never full.

Global English in Iceland

Here is an English posted by a non-native English speaker for other non-native English speakers.  It marginally makes sense.

Yes, Images Have a Life of Their Own

That night image, is that Iceland? With a spruce and poplar forest along a still waterway? Have you seen that anywhere in Iceland? Fortunately, the ability to communicate clearly and with ironic depth remains, as the woman in red on the lower right, demonstrates, manipulating darkness for her own ends.