Category Archives: Land

Looking Inside Snæfellsjökull

At the edge of night in December, at mid-afternoon, Snæfellsjökull reveals one of the depths of the interaction between Earth and the Sun: light is not the illumination that humans “see” but a glow set up within objects, with differing intensities. Some of these intensities are what humans call “dark.” Well, by that standard, it’s all dark.

Snæfellsjökull from Ingjaldshóllkirkja

Everything in the image above is receiving the same radiation from the sun, but all are speaking it differently. Here you can see how they are sorted out by the human eye, and how the mountain glows with no more intensity and no less mystery than the dark foreground lava hills. Mountains have an inside. You can see that here, at the point at which the light and dark meet.

Marking the Path on Snaefellsnes

If you follow a troll, you will find more trolls. You will also be on no set path.

If you follow a cairn, you will find more cairns. This is called pathfinding.

If you follow a human figure looking at a pile of trolls, you may or may not find a path, but you won’t be alone.

If you follow a cairn among trolls …

…  or  a troll cairn among lava bits…

… you are still not on a known path. Mind you, paths might be overrated. There are also walls. If you follow walls, you will find other walls.

But here’s the trick. Once you’ve wandered off like this, you have made a path. It’s what you find along the way that will guide you into getting back. As the sun goes down, you will be glad of these troll sheep guiding you home.

It matters not if they are ‘real’ or not. They are the path.

Winter Solstice on the Buðahraun

When the wind hits 33 metres per second at the Buðahraun, the only shelter is down among the dunes, but even there you have to put your back to it to make an image, as the sand driven into the snow hits you like a blast from a shotgun. It’s better to take that in the back.

So it is on December 21, the shortest day of the year, but far, far from the least powerful. Here (above) it is around noon, looking North. And 6 months earlier, on the longest day, around 10 pm…

That’s Snæfellsjökull, the volcano and glacier that makes all this magic here out in the middle of the Atlantic. That was our year: two trips through these spiritual lavas. I expected the contrast to be between light and darkness, but it wasn’t that. There was no contrast. There was just power, stronger than the seasons.

 

 

Winter Dawn in Kolgrafarfjörður

On his reading tour through wartime Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1940, Gunnar Gunnarsson said that the darkness of Iceland was as much the soul of Icelanders as the long days of summer light. It was a statement meant for a Nazi audience and expressed what he saw as the one common point between Nazi culture (his main audience) and his own: a belief that people sprang from the land and represented its highest aspirations. In Iceland’s case, that also means (says Gunnar) from the darkness and the light, presumably in how they are caught by the land. It was a peculiarly pre-modern idea expressed at the height of the modernist period. Now that we all live in a post-modern era, in which everything is an image or a belief, Gunnar’s expression appears a little strange, if not repugnant, or it would, if the light and the darkness were not still there, however he expressed them in that troubled time. This is a troubled time, too, so it might be interesting to look at what he saw as an answer to these troubles: darkness and light, that are the same when viewed through a human eye.

Rather than being a Nazi view, that is, at heart, a profoundly Christian one, in a specifically Icelandic sense, for in Iceland Christianity made only a light break between Norse and Christian belief, uniting them through a common ethical ground. Ground like the image of Kolgrafarfjörður at first light on Christmas Eve Day above. Gunnar was buried in a Catholic cemetery on Viðey, to be with his wife, but the impulse within this ethical ground remains profoundly Lutheran. It represents a choice. It gives human nature as the ground in which this choice is made, ground that is formed by experience with scenes like the one above and so scarcely separable from them. Gunnar told the Germans that no-one but a child born to Iceland could act rightly in its landscape. It is the kind of statement most often made about language — that a native speaker of a language never makes a mistake in it, while a non-native speaker must always follow set rules, lest a mistake be made and nonsense result.  This then, is Gunnar’s language:

If you see mountains only, look again. Better yet, go there in the winter, when you are a body among other bodies (non-human ones) there, in a syntax in which you are but one word, one through which human language comes.

The Fun Winter Roads of Iceland

Fun for all! This is the kind of road that keeps the economy going by helping tourists to rip out the undercarriage of their rental car. This is not, really, a road. It is tourist made, because that’s fun.

Gerðaberg

Still, the one below, the old road to the church at Gerðaberg, although more traditionally Icelandic is, well, more traditionally Icelandic. It is not going to keep anyone’s economy going, but most fun for trudging.

And the harbour road at Hellissandur? Well, heck, the old icehouse, that you can see in the distance, is on the very bad road to the now-abandoned harbour, but does that stop Icelanders from getting there quickly on their own 4x4s on no road at all? No it does not. This is the kind of ghost road that shouldn’t be, but it is, because, well, that’s fun, too. The tracks are full of a sand-snow-ice-seaweed mixture. Very special!

A more useful road gently curves up to the abandoned farm Vaðstakkaheiði, and the waterfall behind it. Lovingly, the road is just called Foss, or “Waterfall”. It’s a great one for bringing the horses in and out, and for going up the hill to service the power lines running under the glacier, but all that is locked off in the winter, which means that you can get to the cliff, and then what? You can practice your confined-space three point turns to go back, or, to really ramp up the fun, reverse your way back to the farm, that’s what, which should keep you laughing all the long night through, when you think about it.

In comparison, the main roads go through tunnels, which is a very fine thing because the roads themselves are skating rinks. And the light is blue, which, yes, is also fun.

Siglufjörður

Thinking of an adventure on a private Icelandic road instead? Great idea! Here’s where you can put the 4×4 investment to good use, which is easier and more fun than plowing with the tractor. Only older farmers plow with the tractor, because they can’t afford a 4×4, but if you can afford one, very fun. (Don’t forget, though, that tractors are fun, too, so very fun that the old guys keep them to themselves. You’ll have to settle for a Nissan. Sorry.)

But  on Highway 829 at Littlaslétta, even at dusk (1:30 p.m.) on a winter day, it’s a good time to put the pedal to the metal and fly at her, taking the curves like a hawk after a sparrow. The mountains will do their best to distract you, as Icelandic mountains, the tricky dears, will, but that, too is good.

Now, get out there and have some good old Icelandic fun!