Category Archives: Art

Sea of Milk: Renaming Iceland for Fun

Time to make a new map. Here, let’s start:

And the map?

Perfect. Wouldn’t it be fun to make maps rather than to follow them? To discover Iceland, like the settlers did, because it is, after all, a culture of settlement? For instance, Hafnarfjall …

… would be…

Mount of Atlantis (on the Sea of Milk)

It sounds like it’s on the Moon, doesn’t it, but, well…

… the place already looks like that, too!


The Icelandic Sagas are on CBC Radio’s “Ideas”

The Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s settlers 1100 years ago, and mostly the stories that Snorri Sturluson, who lived at a volcanic hill called, simply, Borg (the German “Burg” for castle and “Berg” for mountain have the same root). The Icelandic town Borgarnes, or Borg Point, is just up the bay, at the mouth of the Breiðafjörd, or Broad Fjord. The view from Borg at sundown at 3 pm in November is really worth a saga in itself.

The story of these sagas and their importance to literature, Iceland and memory, are being told this week on CBC Radio. You can listen in. Here’s Part One, which played on January 1…

… and part 2 which is playing tonight:

Well worth a couple hours of your time. The light disappears quickly here.

It’s always good to warm yourself by a good story.

And even the ice tells stories at Borg!

Property Ownership Rules in Iceland


It’s not about fences, see.

That was a fun idea, very modern, very worldly, but, you know, weird. Better to let sleeping fences lie and go out on the sheep trails.

Everything is a sheep trail. That’s because sheep own Iceland.

Right, as for fences. The same goes for gates. Best to leave weird foreign stuff like that open, so that what wants to go through can go through.

You never know.

Oh, wait, yes you do.

1,000 Icelandic Boys Having Boyish Fun

It could easily be more, but think of it: a glacial erratic perched at the top of one of the major canyons in the country, in the middle of productive farmland in the most fertile fjord in the East? 


Any boy within miles, for 1,000 years, was going to mess around by this thing. A boy takes his measure by giants. The worn stone around the monolith shows that people still do, and ravens. They are drawn to it as well and keep the rocks squeaky clean. I watched one clean up here for a half hour. And sheep. Perhaps you can see the sheep trails skittering past?  That’s how I got here, by following sheep. Those other boys the same way, perhaps. We all have our guides.

Iceland’s Stones of History

It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.

It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …

… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.

For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.

They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.

You pass through history to get to the falls.


To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.

Icelandic Austerity is Beautiful

Time and again, Gunnar wrote that poverty is the greatest wealth. Here’s an example from his childhood fjord. Here, every farm i needed a source of fresh water. The smaller the farm, the more precarious the source. Here’s the water source of a small croft near Bringubakki.

Look how the water flows with life within the remains of winter’s cold, just as the life flows through the family that brings it into their house. This small, austere pleasure of this correspondence is a great richness.

Magical Icelandic Light

In mid-November, there is no break between sunrise and sunset, just a switch in the spectrum. Here’s the pink morning light at Hafnarskógar, looking up to Hafnarfell.

As you can see, when you live in such light, you become inspired.

And the moon shines all day. Here it is around 2 pm, looking out Rauðanes way. Enough to inspire anyone.

At this time of day, the blue and pink start mixing it up.

An hour later, over on Rauðanes, it gives a last splash…

And then darkens …

… and both deepens and thins at the same time …

Tungokollur over Borgarnes

… until the next morning when it begins again, later yet.

It’s a wonder every Icelander isn’t a painter.