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.
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.
Think again. This is a nature preserve in the Whale Fjord in West iceland. It is also one of the runways of the fighter base that protected the Allied Fleet during the Battle of the Atlantic during the early 1940s. Here’s another view. Back then, this fjord would have been filled with ships, protected by fighter cover and a submarine net across the mouth of the fjord. This is the naval base today.
Iceland has, wisely, left this history almost unacknowledged, and has given this land to the birds. We can honour that forever. We don’t have to stop honouring that wisdom any time soon.
The barren hills are caused by the sheep that make a nation possible here. The birches in the churchyard would have been all over them 1100 years ago. More trees would be desirable, but lamb is already $35 a kilo. That’s a hard practical choice. The church is a symbol of many things, including the parliament of 999-1000 that made Christianity the country’s public religion (without denying private paganism), the loss of nationalism to the Norwegian Crown a half millennium ago, the power of land-owners to collect church tithes, and the cementing of Christian values (and at times oppression) in communities of itinerant labourers, almost serfs, in continual movement around the country. The forest behind the church is part of the late 19th century and early 20th century movement to re-settle the land and reclaim nationalism from Denmark. The long distance transmission line is part of the support network for the American aluminum plant behind me when I made this image. The reservoir that supplies these lines with power drowned some of Iceland’s most beautiful wilderness, yet, arguably, provides the funds that allow Iceland to remain independent. The green field crop represents the heavy industrialization of agriculture which enables a people, in love with the power of American urban values and who have left to land, to eat off the labour of 4500 people. The ditches across the field, for drainage, allow for increased yields for this industrialized agriculture. Everything you see here is a technology for survival. Everything is a carefully calculated choice. Nothing is frivolous. So, yes, if you call that pastoral, this is. Gunnar Gunnarsson would have said it was. I do, too.