If you explore old farm sites in remote areas in Iceland, you will find boulders, set at the boundary of a tun, a house field manured from a barn. This, in Icelandic culture, is a yard, or garden. A pretty special place. With a boulder.
These boulders are all chosen. Many have animal shapes. Many of those are ravens. Some are dwarf stones. Here on the old road up to Vatnjökull from the Fljótsdalur, it’s a raven, which is fitting, because when you walk up the trail, the ravens are watching the whole time, to see if you’re going to tumble down into the gorge and become lunch. it’s best to honour wise creatures like that.
Another example of how everything comes alive at Midsummer. Note as well, the Old Norse tradition of lifting up the Earth’s skin, making an oath, and setting the skin down to seal it, as told so well in Gunnar’s Sworn Brothers.
From the German Book Club Edition of 1933. Note the Arch.
When you’re there, you’re somewhere. Really. That’s the point. When this was an active farm, its location wasn’t referenced to Fáskrúðsfjörður or Reydarfjörður (as here) or anywhere else in the East. It was here.
Þjófafoss on the Þjorsá is a lovely spot, rich in wildflowers, lichen and wondrous lava blobs under Búrfell and Katla, and then there are the falls, which are stunning.
Historically, this was a green land until 1104, when the volcano Hekla filled it in. After that, it ran as a high rapid in a monumental flow. Now it is a fall. The water of the Þjorsá is diverted away from it to run two power plants. It stands as a warning against becoming too enamoured with “Nature” in Iceland. It is often an industrial product, either as a constructed landscape, the planted forests of the North East …
… or even the great fjord lake, the Lagarfljót, in the East…
Not to mention the Blue Lagoon, which is the outflow from a power plant, too.
There are many more examples. The great black sand beaches of Heraðsandur, for example, with its re-engineered rivers and outflow strewn across the entire East Coast by wind, currents and tides.
This industrialization of landscape raises many questions. If this were happening in Canada, it would be called encroachment on Indigenous space, which it would be. Because there is a myth that there were no people living in Iceland before the Icelanders came in the 9th century, Icelanders can escape that one. There were Irish, and walruses, but someone the Irish don’t count and the walruses are, well, not human, although I don’t see why that should make a difference. We are looking at walrus country without walruses.
Instead of carrying the weight of settler colonialism, which burdens countries like Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa, Icelanders claim a history of settlement, of claiming and developing wild land in the middle of the Atlantic. It sounds benign, but what it means is the very industrialization of landscape I have described above. Even sheep, all 3,500,000 of them in the country, are industrial, and have turned the country from a birch forest into a desert.
The wind takes over as soon as their hooves cut the sod.
Iceland markets itself as pristine nature now:
And that’s the other side of this story. Wonderful places like the Lagarfljót, Heraðsandur and the Jökulsárlón are embedded in a story of global climate change, melting glaciers and eroding dunes. So much of what there is to see in Iceland is of this process. It doesn’t make it less beautiful, but it does make it fraught. It’s not pristine nature that one views in Iceland, so much as nature’s reaction to human industrialization, often by visitors who are a vital part of that industrialization. Nature is, pure and simple, an industrial product in Iceland. It is still wonderfully beautiful, but it is more an image of technology for a technological people than it is a land in and of itself. Even this blog, after all, is a technological product.