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rogerspace 3.0 | Iceland
This is Version 2 of the original Iceland page. Some little things happened after we left...
The latest, so far, was the April 2010 blowing up of Eyjafjallajökull, or “The Volcano in Iceland” as most journalists pronounced it, which started all touristy and then got serious, with a radar image of it from above showing it looking like a face Hollywood has never dreamed up, something straight from Hell itself. (How pleasant would your face be if you had molten rock and ash blasting through it fast enough to reach some 30,000 feet in the air?)
There was enough ash sent out and high enough to prompt European air traffic control to completely shut down all air traffic in northern Europe from Scotland to Bulgaria for most of a week. And, of course, this serious phase started the day after Iceland had agreed on specific terms for paying Europe back for the massive loans it had loaned Iceland... There is no “c” in old-Nordic Icelandic, so there were plenty of jokes about “We wanted cash, not ash”.
A year after we left, the global financial system had a partial seizure partly sparked by the complete collapse of first, Iceland's banking system, and second, Iceland's national economy, after it tried bailing out that banking system. So the original Web page had to be modified to reflect that the Iceland I saw was perhaps best described, in Thomas L. Friedman's words, “a hedge fund with glaciers”. The hedge funds have since largely collapsed (which most of the glaciers' edges are gradually doing as well).
There was a folk museum with, well, someone who seemed at the time to be a living fossil who is also likely an Icelandic national cultural treasure. After Icelandair did a great job convincing my mom that the family really, really should visit Iceland (they, and she, were right), and a visit to downtown Reykjavik showed European culture and multiple gleaming national bank mega-structures, there's this guy banging fish skin shoes against a cow bladder water vessel as he hangs them back up on a nail. He takes us to church, with us all singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. It was the most memorable part of the entire trip, challenged only by a wonderful airshow held right behind our hotel. (When you're an aircraft nut like me, attending a real, and European air show right behind the hotel simply cannot, pretty much possibly be beat. And, a security guard actually encouraged me to get up close and personal with the aircraft as others were being warmed up in preparation for flying off. I was beaming so much when I came back to the hotel my mom decided she needed to take a picture of me. And yes, there were plenty of fascinating machines the FAA might never allow to fly here, even as Experimental. It was bliss!)
(Skógarfoss, meaning waterfall at Skógar)
Getting back to the Skógar Folks Museum guide...
Beaming, I tell him he made the entire trip for me. Completely straight-faced, he responded telling me something along the lines of how I made his whole month. That guy reflected the very down-to-earth character of earlier Iceland. He was adored by the tour guides. I've read on another visitor's travel stories about Iceland how he personally scolded some young German adults for not knowing some very simple, basic German folk tunes he was trying to get them to sing along to. The high-culture, international banking version of early 2008's Proud to be Modern Iceland was but an ephemeral breeze wafting through compared to what this guy represented.
The reset button has been hit there, complete with people paying others to unload their foreign-financed car from them. They've gone rather quiet and contemplative for the time being at least, except for the occasional almost-riot by a people who think of themselves as “really sofa people”.
(And they love using their very many geothermal-powered hot saunas/pools when it's snowing, which I can certainly understand. The breezes might be a wee bracing, but it's not as if they'd get cold. Relaxing in their high silica content hot pools like the Blue Lagoon is, well, aahhhhhhh. You don't actually swim because it's just so calm and relaxing.)
Also, a week after we left, there was an earthquake centered not far from the waterfall I took a movie behind/inside.
Okay, enough of that, now let's rewind to mid-2008, when the only things that we understood to have gone all crazy were fuel prices...
Iceland might as well be Planet Iceland. It is not what you are used to.
(Gulfoss, immediately upstream and from farther away)
Unlike the rest of Earth, it doesn't have a normal tectonic plate to rest on. No, it not only helps spawn the Eurasian Plate on one side and the North American Plate on the other, but also has this “pure Iceland” non-plate strip five kilometers (almost nine miles) wide along its entire length in between the two plates. The Earth sort of has a crust there, but not one with any real depth.
Icelanders, the lucky buggers, don't have this “oh no, we need to start cutting back on combustion processes” thing that's started hitting the rest of the world. They instead can relatively simply detour seawater down a few hundred feet and have it return with more than enough energy to fully heat this Arctic nation and provide all its electricity needs from the plentiful surplus steam heat.
(The home of Geysir, where you watch your feet to make sure you stay on the Earth's crust instead of falling in. There are warnings about that.)
Its sunlight is far from normal. In June it gets perpetual sun, albeit at various often aggressive degrees towards the horizon. In December, there's only four hours of direct sunlight. When I visited in late May, I found that at 3am while it was dark enough for cars to need their headlights on, it was basically the equivalent of dawn. The sky was this intense, very deep blue-violet, but bright enough in that color that you could easily walk around and even probably go biking (off-road) without lighting assist. There didn't seem to be much difference in light from 9pm to 1am. You really get a kind of extended evening, and then it's day again. In winter I gather it's the opposite, with folks getting to work 9 to 10am in pitch black conditions. This page's background color is about the color of the sky at its darkest during our trip.
Brief History of Iceland
Monks arrived in the 8th century AD to spread the Gospel, only to have to deal with the Vikings within a hundred years. Finding the Vikings profoundly, utterly, and totally resistant to any and all attempts at conversion, they bugged out fairly soon after the Vikings' arrival. Those Vikings brought Irish slaves with them, the likely origin of female Icelanders' generally Celtic origins vs. the male Icelanders' generally Nordic origins. There is a very well done wax figure -based museum housed in an emptied hot water storage tank at the fabulous Perlan restaurant (as I said, Iceland is not normal); near its entrance is a wax figure example of a young Viking. His possessed, rapturous gaze says “All day I look forward to I kill you!” But they did settle down...
The Vikings that came to Iceland, it was repeatedly pointed out, tended to generally settle down and raise fishing and sheep raising -sustained families.
(Traditional fishing boat at the Skógar Folk Museum)
Only a very few went on to ravage neighboring areas before themselves finally settling down.
(Hallgrímskyrja “hall-GRIM-skeerya” The nation's main Roman Catholic church in Reykjavik, one of if the single single most permanent-looking buildings in Iceland)
Monks eventually returned, and Iceland by 1200AD or so was a Roman Catholic land. In 1551, however, the bishop was beheaded upon Icelanders' deciding they would really rather be Lutheran.
Iceland is officially Lutheran to this day, although the beheadings of Catholics appears to have abated sufficiently for a very nice Roman Catholic church to have within the past decade been built in downtown Reykjavik (the capital, in and around which essentially everyone lives).
Iceland was considered sort of an amusing little child among the Great Nations of Europe the Magnificent until nearly the present day. Various countries took their turns declaring ownership of it, whatever use that was considered at the time, until Denmark (the last self-appointed parent nation) had a spot of trouble with folks from Germany in 1944. Iceland, made of individuals that are quite the hardy sort, decided that would be a good time to declare that Icelanders finally again owned and operated Iceland. And so it remains.
Iceland vs. New England
(Alþing “ALL-thing” The original Iceland Parliament at left)
Iceland was the first modern democracy, and its history as the “Icelandic Free Zone” has given it a cultural tendency to experiment with things while banding together to help each other deal with the land's energetic geology and Artic winters. What they do not have is a history of a bunch of hyper-stubborn “Live Free or Die” colonialists eager to be Cincinnatus-style farmer-soldiers forming a rag-tag militia that with a lot of dedication and sacrifice plus some external French help kicked out occupiers from what at that time was both the world's greatest superpower with the world's greatest navy, the British Empire. In Iceland's case, no great superpower has ever tried jealously possessing a land where a typical local joke about their landscape is “What do Icelanders do when they're lost in a forest? They stand up.” (The climate's too hard and the soil's not good enough to support much more than very isolated stands of small trees.)
(Þingvellir “THING-fvayllar” The area around the Alþing where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are separating)
They have [until very recently...] been developing blindingly quickly, and they therefore are finding themselves with no choice but to start defending individual opinions on just how to proceed with that without destroying the “all natural” aspect of Iceland that makes it so refreshing a place to visit and discuss.
So far, as far as I could tell, they're doing very well with that progress, but that hydroelectric smelter project could easily be only the beginning of a series of truly wrenching decisions Icelanders are starting to have to make. [Both smelter projects have been canceled.]
(Church at Vik at left)
(Seljalandsfoss “SEL-ya-lahndsfoss” shown at right;I took a movie from behind it)
There are the beginnings of high-rise construction on the edge of Reykjavik Bay, which will itself I am sure lead to another serious national debate on what future Icelanders really want, and what can be sustained. They want to accommodate tourists as well as possible, but at what cost to the “pure Iceland” those tourists fully expect and Icelanders have so traditionally lived so healthily with?
Human Relations with Nature in Iceland
(Crater of the Kerið “KARE-ith” volcano)
In any case, to get to the point... Why visit Iceland, of all places? That's what I wondered when my Mom announced that she was impressed enough by her limited contact with Iceland in a trip to France and from research after that to decide that the family needed to go to Iceland. An associate of hers mentioned that sometimes if a family could use a vacation, they just visit Disney World... You visit Iceland because it so different. Is that not what a vacation is for?
Recreation is, after all, re-creating one's self is a way, and what better environment to do it in than one where you can go behind an enormous waterfall (they have about 10,000 waterfalls, too many for anyone to try to count).
Then later take a panorama series of a primeval landscape of tens of thousands of acres of somewhat moss-covered lava fields and mountain ranges. And to just stand there, simply absorbing how incredible that view is, with a geysir field in the foreground.
(View from hills above Geysir)
(Mýrdalsjökull “meer-dahls-YO-kut” glacier)
Then go visit the tongue of a glacier, pausing to peer deep into an ice cave at the edge of that glacial tongue.
(Jökull means glacier in Iceland by the way; whenever you see an Icelandic place name ending in “jökull” it means it either is, or is associated with, a glacier. )
(That's the same gentleman in the lower-left of the Skógarfoss image... If you want to get to a destination on foot well ahead of the camera-toting hordes, i.e. me, be like him and get a seat on the bus very near the front door. At Mýrdalsjökull he reached the glacier easily 100 yards / meters ahead of me.)
Nature is very powerful in Iceland. One of the few still-growing glaciers is in Iceland is growing because a well-pressurized magma chamber deep under it keeps pushing it further and further up towards and into the snow-laden clouds.
Because this is Iceland (and also very related to that magma pressure) there is also a sometimes-active volcano sited under that glacier (Eyjafjallajökull, pronounced locally as “EY-ya-fyat-lah-YO-kut” and elsewhere usually as “the volcano in Iceland”), which can cause serious flooding when it vents magma onto and into the glacier as it occasionally does... Like in April 2010. Its buddy Katka, nearby, likes to point out to Eyjafjallajokull how puny it is compared to the mighty Katka whenever Eyjafjallajokull throws a fit by often throwing a very serious fit within a few years of little Eyjafjallajokull's fit. Since Eyjafjallajokull's April 2010 temper tantrum managed to shut down northern European air traffic for most of a week, we might not want to know what the reaction to Katka blowing would be... Run for the caves?!?
(The Reykjavik harbor from the Perlan observatory)
As Eric Weiner pointed out in The Geography of Bliss, the buildings even in their most established city, Reykjavik, look a bit transitory.
Not bad or crappy, just as he put it like someone might not have thrown out the packing boxes the houses all originally came in before their assembly with screwdriver and pliers... It's all wonderfully colorful and looks just fine IMHO, but it's as if they know what they do is so ephemeral against the living mountainous backdrop that most any attempt at architectural solidity would be a relative joke.
The most visually serious attempt at architectural solidity in Reykjavik is the Hallgrimskirja, the national Lutheran cathedral made of concrete to resemble natural basalt columns.
(Downtown Reykjavik, with a huge montage of children's faces covering a construction project)
(Traditional farmstead at the Skógar Folk Museum)
In the country, homesteads have traditionally been stone and turf -walled with a lumber ceiling covered by grass/moss -covered turf and thickly surrounded by some combination of built-up turf walls and simple hillside. They are literally, from afar, tent-shaped bumps in the land. They don't use massively lumber-based construction as other European nations generally do because they don't really have any wood. They have to import it all and always have.
Nature is an intensely powerful force in Iceland, one could say very clearly the top organism so to speak. Humanity there learns quickly to bend and adjust together to coexist with the forces of nature as nature sees fit, and absolutely does not, traditionally at least, try to overwhelm and control nature there. It would be like ants trying to stop a magma flow.
(Halsanef's Hellir, meaning the Cave of Halsanef, made of basalt pillars)
What better way to reset things in a vacation, to get away from our scientific, sanitized world, than to contemplate the nature of that ice cave at Mýrdalsjökull... If one would go deep into it, and the roof were to cave in, what would happen? I suspect the best one could fully expect is that Nature might somehow be grateful for the opportunity to recycle or perhaps simply preserve that organic matter accumulated within that cave, and nothing more. Both the cave and whatever life that wandered into it are / were both ethereal, fleeting things. Any harm Nature brings to humans causes those humans to instinctively band together to help each other survive such impediments in the fleeting blink of an eye those humans have (and perhaps accordingly do the serious partying on weekend nights/dawns/somethings that Icelanders are famous for, but strictly on weekends only).
But as for the non-fleeting powerful things that truly dominate and literally shape Iceland, only Time and Nature really, they simply Are. That, in a nutshell, is Iceland.
Addendum: Iceland is climbing out of its economic cave-in, albeit gradually...
Basalt pillars to right of Halsanefs Hellir, where a great many puffins live, plus Arctic terns who, you are warned, are aggressively protective of their territory.)
I remember reading before the May 2008 trip there that there were some concerns about the soundness of Iceland's banking system, and the tour guide went on at such length to carefully dismiss such concerns, as most all slept, that a Danish woman sitting in front of me ended up telling him “LET ME HAVE SOME PEACE!”, certainly startling everyone... (She appeared to me in a much better mood later on.)
(Traditional farmstead dining room at the Skógar Folk Museum)
Instead of wanting the stigma of an International Monetary Fund loan to bail them out, or a loan from the seemingly already heading-towards-bankruptcy United States, they requested a loan from their proven-trustworthy and newly oil-enriched good (best?) friend of the past half century, Russia. Russia and later the IMF both approved massive loans for Iceland, the IMF's being over twice the size of Russia's offer. Iceland is now heading towards recovery, including paying off the debt. They're getting there, but it hasn't been a party.
The national treasure of a docent at the Skógar Folk Museum mentioned contemplatively at one point “Iceland provides us with all that we need, sometimes more than enough.” This, spoken of a land where moss-covered pumice is a major landscape type.
I think there's great resourceful wisdom in that comment... What is enough?
(All photographs except those indicated were of my creation, except those indicated otherwise, all related to Eyjafjallajökull blowing up.
If you notice ghosts in the images, you can either believe that they are indeed ghosts, or you can be reminded that all the pictures of mine shown here are stitched multi-shot panoramas, and triple bracketed +/1 1EV as well; That means someone walking in one exposure has reached other points in the other exposures that all go into a single very multi-exposure image, leading to there appearing to be ghosts. The first choice is, again, believing that ghosts really are shown in the image, and if you prefer that explanation, I have no problem with that whatsoever. These images are, after all, taken in a land where a road's construction came to a standstill at a boulder the locals kept saying was inhabited by trolls and other spirits, and that their equipment was simply not going to work right again unless they detoured well around the boulder. The equipment kept having freak issues... until they detoured completely around the boulder, at which point everything was fine again. So I won't dismiss a possibility of ghosts being honestly shown in my images here.)
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