We climbed Orrustuhóll, or Battle Hill, west of the convent and east of the Black Falls…
… and there in the lush green full of spirits ….
…in the midst of a harsh lava field …
… we found the elves’ horses.
This is another hiking site in Iceland that was popular in the Golden Age of the 1950s, one of the ones that made a trip on the new Ring Road a trip through national pride. Now there is room for one car to park off the road. A million tourists a year (well, maybe not this year or last) drive past, just as the elves would like it. I am honoured to have been invited and let in.
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.
Once there were fuel stations for travellers. They were built on farms and were the modern equivalent of a service economy that had sustained wealthy farms for many hundreds of years. Some even had garage and tire services and predated the Ring Road of Dutch Camper Company fame. Many of the country hotels in Iceland still follow this old model of serving travellers on farms. The fuel stations are gone now as working centres, though. The more remote of them have been replaced with a lone pump, an automatic card reader, a light, and the bright sign of a national chain in a corner of a field. Not at Starmyri, though!
This translation of a bustling service centre on a rich farm is a bitter story. Once on the gravel road north along the East Coast from Höfn, with valuable shore rights at the mouth of the Seal River…
… and a good, sheltered landing, it was isolated by the sea by black sand drifting south by rivers re-engineered in the North during the diversion to create the hydroelectric power for the aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður.
The result was a new East Coast built from lagoons and long, black sand beaches…
…beloved of tourists and useless for farms that live in 1100 years of time, not the continually re-occurring present and fictional pasts and futures of 21st century time.
Still, as you can see…
… the whale bones of an older past keep it company now, as if they were the busts of roman senators on their plinths. This is beautiful art-making. You can see 1100 years of life at once.
Whatever Siberian forest this tree grew in before washing west and south and landing on the Starymyri shore, I bet it never expected to achieve eternity like this! And, yes, at Starmyri, where the sheep pastures have eroded away in the wind…
… the shore is blocked by industrial sand, shore rights are extinguished and the road has been moved away from the farmyard, the farm still manages to draw sustenance from travellers.
Each cabin offers an ideal Iceland, framed as a work of art.
Like many important things in Iceland, you have to find the history yourself, on the principle that you only need to know what you need to know and if you find something else, then you know and don’t need to be told, in this country that dresses up as pristine nature, her newest artistic dress.
An old farmer built this artwork in his retirement. The family keeps it in his memory. What a clever man!
Think of Icelanders eking a living out of nearly bare soil in an inhospitable climate, and then think how much the world has profited by selling them useless things like fences. Think of how much land was eroded just to pay for this nonsense.
And then all those profits blown up in wars. Imagine what could have been.