Tag Archives: The Shore of Life

Iceland Speaks Through Her Black Sand Beaches

At the mouth of the Sellfljót, Iceland speaks.

Here, human activity, such as a lost fishing float, is a glaring addition to her conversation, but remains dwarfed by it.

These beaches are at the end of a 30-kilometre-road and a two hour walk, so they feature in few guide books. We can shift our point of view and eliminate human dominance in the image, but looking out to sea…

… or even climb the hill to … and look from there.

It is a different story at the mouth of the Jökullsá, just south of the famed glacial lagoon. They are in all the guide books, just footsteps away from the madness of the Ring Road.

Whether the beach is really black is questionable, but, still, it’s lovely. The river has built an estuary over the last couple years, and seals have moved in. Note how the human story now dominates: the image has directionality and an object, which is more dominant than Iceland and the Atlantic themselves. It’s not just a matter of a camera’s point of view. Even if we sweep up an even larger pile of fishing garbage on the Sellfljót…

… Iceland dominates, and the human story remains foreign and intrusive, despite its beauty (which is largely in the way it catches the light.) These effects are not created. by the light, either. Back on Diamond Beach, the light reveals a story of humans on the hunt, either for seals or icebergs…

… while on the Heraðssandur…

… the light and the land speak. Still, it might be that nature and humans can coexist…

… and it might be that putting nature to work, such as at the aluminum smelter on an old farm in Reyðarfjörður …

Sómastaðir

The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site.

… is a comfortable form of coexistence as well, but it might not. As an example, just consider that the hydroelectric dam in the Highlands that powers the Alcoa plant at Sómastaðagerði  above required the diversion of Jöklá into the Jökullsá, and the subsequent combination of both rivers on the Heraðssandur (below) to prevent flooding, all funded by the industrial project but no doubt predating it by many centuries.

The transformation of a continually-shifting pair of estuaries into a stable beach system is a great feat of civil engineering. If you want black sand in Iceland, here it is.

However, the sand, and the shifting estuary system has only moved further south. Here you can find exquisite black sand beaches framing lagoons north of Höfn, in the Fjörur sandspit in  Álftafjörður, or on the Hvalsnesfjara in Lónsvik in Lónfjörður, cutting historically-significant and productive farms off from the sea.

The people whose ancestors have been here for 1100 years might be furious, but the resulting black sand beaches are beautiful. The madness of the Ring Road is only metres away, but is strong enough to keep people off. Not so the Atlantic, though. It is devouring the beach even as it builds it up.


That’s just the thing, though. Back at the Glacial Lagoon, the destruction is also a dominant force. Have a look:

Even if you pull the humans and their attempts to view nature free of themselves away from the picture, what remains is destruction, because the lagoon, the river, these icebergs and the black sands of Diamond Beach are all a result of a dying glacier, melting under climate change. Nature, this is not, but what nature looks like as it corrects an industrial intervention. Of course, at that other great black sand beach, Dritvík, you can ignore the ogres, if you like, and even the ruins of Iceland’s great fishing camp, home to 500 men every summer…

 

… and if you forego that trail because no-one mentioned it, and the tourbus took you to the trailhead at Djupalón, you can forego the ogre there, too, if you like, and enjoy the force of the water on the black sand.

You wouldn’t be thinking like Iceland, though, nor would you in the Hvalfjörður, where the black sand beach is actually the fighter plane airbase that protected the Allied fleet during World War II…

The point is, these black sand beaches are exquisitely beautiful, but it’s best not to bring one’s preconceptions of nature to them. Most of us come from countries and cultures in which history is represented in buildings and human social activity. It’s no different on Iceland, just that here the buildings are made of sand and the human social activity is usually done in conversation with the sand. When you walk those beaches, you are talking with powerful creative and destructive forces. Gunnar wrote about this in his great novel “The Shore of Life,”

which he wrote as a cry of pain after the Battle of the Somme. It is as great a human story as Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,”

but one that gets far deeper into the soul of the land, right where it battles with the sea.

Diamond Beach

This is the land’s story.

 

The Shore of Life

Gunnar Gunnarsson published “The Shore of Life” in 1916, as a protest against the First World war. He had in mind the ring of surf around the Island, through which all life had to pass. All goods coming in and all goods going out, he argued, passed through the hands of Danish traders, or through the vicious surf, which easily turned life into death. He offered an unusual role as writer, but fitting to the Battle of the Somme: sniper. One by one he made us love his characters, then killed them off. It is an amazing and enraging book, as he intended. The metaphor is by no means dead. Note the red surf here facing down the aluminum city of Reyðarfjörður.

Gunnar’s world is far from past.

Death and Life in Iceland

The sea and the land have teeth.

p1310144The Ölfusá Meets the Atlantic at Óseyartangi

For human beasts, life and death are a series of crossings. For earth, water and wind, three  living forces humans wade through, it is a great mixing together.

p1310194The Ölfusá Meets Tides and Waves in the Wind

In a country in which the social lives of humans, and all they have built together, appear less substantial than the forces they live among …

p1310065… they stand nonetheless.

p1310064Church in Laugarbakka

Barely. With a lot of improvisation.

p1310225þorlákshöfn

It is enough. In this land, lighthouses are not just about visible light.

strandStrandkirkja

In a country in which a beach is the sound of the keel of a ship being hauled by men on pebbles up out of the surf (strand) or of men walking through the dunes (sand), houses and lights are all shores.

p1310284What you wash up as is not always your choice. Every landing is also a strand-ing. You might live or you might die. For centuries, Icelandic men went to sea in wooden boats, and came in through the surf to land, not always well.

strand2Your fate is not whether you make it alive or dead, but how you face it. That’s grim, but then some things are. Gunnar Gunnarsson wrote about this fateful beach surrounding Iceland during the devastation of World War I. The book was Livets Strand. In German, it was translated as Strand des Lebens.

15580902594In English, the title would be The Shore of Life, but it has never been translated into English. It is an allegory of that war, set in a remote Icelandic fjord. It is the unique, life-affirming, and devastating story of a pastor wrestling with his faith in terrible circumstances, tried by the beauty and horror of life and the often-times inability to distinguish it from death. It is a writer wrestling with how to tell the difference. In an Icelandic context, it is a shore. In this time in which we need it, in many languages. We are at sea.

p1310163We need help help both going out and coming back.