An old turf-roofed sheep barn is, to them, still a turf-roofed sheep barn.
If that sounds like an extraordinary sense of memory, think of this: people keep it around, too.
Iceland has pioneered the control of Jökulhlaups, catastrophic glacial outflow rivers, in Skaftafell National Park, by being familiar with the land enough to copy its models.
In addition to the deflective butts of rock redirecting Bæjargil as it streams down from Svartifoss, the Black Falls, there’s a troll in the stream bed. There usually is. That’s the spirit of the rock, just as the water-deflecting dikes are in the distance. What? Did someone tell you that trolls are mythological? No, they are us.
While government construction is sturdy and maintained.
The Church at Borg
This is not new. Private, circa 1945:
Looking out from the Harpa Concert Hall over the New Harbour in Reykjavik
Well, OK, government-financed completion of failed rich man’s extravagance. That’s part of the picture, too.
Not much different than a knot of broken fishing nets and cast-off plastic knocking against the knees of kelp-eating sheep, really.
It’s beautiful on Snaefellsnes, isn’t it, when the gales blow in and the light pulls the mountains out of another world at year’s end.
And the glacier, Snaefellsjökull, is very fine when hurricane gusts lift off its fog and the sun shines from within the ice, lighting up the sea mist, and you have to brace yourself just to stand up.
You can pick up lumps of the lava bed and make a fence, and there are ponds for your sheep and horses and the family cow, plus a little bit of Siberian driftwood.
Also pieces of shipwreck you can use to build a shelter for your cow.
And if you shift enough stones, you can even have a field out of the wind!
And if you lived here, this would be your view. You don’t have a “front yard”, a street, a flower bed, nothing. You step out into the North Atlantic.
And this is the modern house, and it has been abandoned. You could only pull this off at a certain stage of technological development, when there was enough economy and technology to bring in supplies but not enough to kill off the need for people to live here and catch fish in small boats, plus not enough opportunity elsewhere to replace this fierce independence with a greater comfort. Notice how even this modern concrete house is built just like a turf house, with incredible amounts of hand labour, too: small rooms connected with odd passages, most of them through the outside air, as they were built one at a time according to time, energy and need.
And always the roar of the sea.
And then the children leave for the modern world that technology has made possible, and this particular modernity, brought to this fierce, remote land at the end of the Earth, is abandoned when the old people are gone.
But it is out of such stubborn independence that modernity was made in Iceland.
The thing to remember as a traveller is that in Icelandic culture you only need to know what you need to know. It is also a proud culture, and if that means selling you an image of vikings donated by Americans, who really like this kind of thing …
… and pride, which is real enough, instead of one of 1100 years of terrible struggle…
… really terrible struggle in more than a human world …
… or selling an image of bold adventure …
…instead of one in which there is nowhere to go to get in from the cold, well, they’ll do that. They are very genial hosts, the Icelanders. Just remember that even if comfort comes from each other …
… and the images the city presents are of funkiness and crazy happiness …
… and everyone around you knows this. With nothing else except each other you must begin.