Only nine years ago, Icelandic tourism was a simple thing: you drove around the country viewing the things Icelanders found interesting, and they served you coffee, put you up for the night, and cooked a lamb for you. An old bridge, for instance…
… or a waterfall.
… a troll at Dimmuborgir…
… and some smooching among the birches, the trees that helped to gain them a country.
Now, pain.In the waste water from a power plant. You, dear visitor, are an industry now. Iceland shows your face in a mirror.
Yet in the small towns now, far from Reykjavik, people are tired of us all; they want us to go away. In Grindavik, an old woman even rammed me with her shopping cart in the grocery store. “Fair enough,” I thought. But I remember the generosity and gratitude that began this madness…
… and trust it will continue.
The manly trolls of Gulfoss…
… and the worms (um, gold collecting dragons, you know the type) of Gulfoss…
… the Golden Falls …
… look across to the female trolls across the gorge, which are riding a worm…
.. and if the worm has the head of a ram, well, this is Iceland, after all.
And the flag … this flag:
… flies between them.
So now you know, too.
The cliff at Ásbyrgi, in the far northeast, is full of ravens, trolls and elves. They’ve been camping out there (if you have eyes to see them) from the beginning of the world. If you don’t have such eyes, they are lovely lava flows cut by a paraglacial flood, with a birch, willow and rowan forest worth a trip across Iceland or around the world.
Or, you can just go to Reykjavik.
Now, that’s love for the land! Well done!
In West Iceland, the aluminum plant in Hvalfjörður, which draws power from the dammed highlands, is watched over by the abandoned World War II fighter base that guarded the British Fleet, and which is now gone to the birds.
In East Iceland, the aluminum plant in Reydarfjörður draws power from Skaftafell, in the cloud at the height of the Lagarfljót, watched over by an abandoned horse-drawn manure spreader on the farm Gunnar bought to avoid the Second World War.
These too are the faces of war. In Iceland, which won its independence during the Second World War while its colonial masters in Denmark were occupied by the Germans, that war is honoured by double-edged memorials such as these.
Humans, it is commonly said, live on Earth and ravens in the air. Not so in Iceland. Look below.
See that? The humans have a nice farm with lots of light and air, although they walk about on the land like old rocks. The ravens, though, who fly through the air with the greatest of flashiness, have a home deep in a dark, opened crack of the earth, where they hunker down. See it there? If not, I’ve highlighted it below.
Humans and ravens: the perfect pair. Just ask Oðin.
It was all forest once, in the whole country, at least by the water. Even here in Hvalfjörður, it was trees. But the trees were cleared to make pastures and to keep the Icelanders warm, and then there were no trees, and so it remains in most of the country. Because of this history…,
… horses are now trees. Stick a pale of hay in the middle of a forest clearcut 1000 years ago, and there you have it, a grove. As I’ve said. before, in this country everyone is an artist.
Like people in all countries deeply impacted by colonial experience, including my Canada, Icelanders love putting on the identities of others, in the way people in non-colonial cultures enjoy putting on a new T shirt.
Identities on Sale in Reykjavik
Just remember, people can take them off just as easily, and that the real person is hidden: first by a self worn as an ornament of status in an imagined elsewhere (which plays out locally) and, second, by a lack of words to describe that self. In Iceland, you can meet Icelanders, but it’s hard in downtown Reykjavik or online, where Icelandic is losing ground to English. In both cases, foreigners like myself are being given a genuine, although guarded, welcome. It is, nonetheless, business, and business is business. It is not to be confused with this: