We ascend into the sky and I look back over the volcanus island we called home for the last few days. The sea is deep blue and the contrast to the black rocks with white dusting is stunning. A massive glacier comes into view hanging in the crevasses of a group of volcanoes. The depth and breadth of the glacier is striking. Still ascending, we fly past what is obviously Surtsey, the November 1963 surprise that pierced the sea with fire and bubbling water and continued to erupt and grow for 4 years achieving a 1 square mile landmass before silencing.
What is it about this place? Earth's youngest landmass, everything you learned in textbooks about the earth's constitution- you can see it front and center in Iceland. A geological twilight zone- volcanoes control the vertical, the mid-Atlantic ridge controls the horizontal. The ridge is a mountain range that runs from the Arctic to the southern tip of Africa and is deeply submerged in the sea the entire run except for in Iceland and the Azores. It is a tectonic plate border and available to straddle or descend at Thingvellir National Park. It looks like the soft playdough from inner earth pushed up on the dried up crusty playdough on top and it cracked- a crack that runs for as long as you can see. The soft playdough in the crack then dries and so the cycle goes creating new land and pushing Iceland wider 1 " a year. Europe and North America grow farther apart, the Atlantic Ocean grows larger, the Pacific Ocean smaller. Anyone remember Pangea from his or her school days? Iceland reminds you the continental journey continues.
The volcanoes periodically heap on land mass as well. The lava fields from different eruptions are in proximity to each other so a half hour drive affords comparison. We surveyed 800 and 1200 year-old fields. 800 years is uninterrupted black chunks. Moss the only present living thing. It looks fraught with danger to hike through summoning a comparison to coral- if you fall you are going to get sliced up bad as it has such a raw abrasive texture. The 1200 years shows some rounding and the beginnings of soil evidenced by random patches of grass. Snow on a lava field brings flourless chocolate cake with a dusting of powder sugar. Without a doubt not too deep below there is a warm liquid center.
Magma isn't the only thing Iceland periodically projectiles. There's an assortment of mud, water and gas that catches the sun as its tossed up and sprinkles rainbows on the mystical isle. Our youngest kept calling the geysers geezers and the more I learned about them the more I realized they can be quite synonymous. Each geyser has its own eccentric personality mostly influenced by the shape of the conduit that connects it to middle earth. Some have just the occasional boil over, some stew and simmer, the more magnificent have conditions right to create cyclical chain reactions. Strokkur, the geyser we encountered closest, is a small pool of water with a 100' deep cylindrical cavern leading into a hot earth. The water at the top of the column in the cylinder creates great pressure that impacts the boiling point of the water below the surface. Boiling point is in fact achieved in spite of the pressure and the expanded molecules have no where to go other than to blast and blow through the only weakness in the chamber- the ceiling of water (aka the pool we are all staring at with our cameras poised). Hit the record button when the geezery geyser puffs out an arc of water then sucks it back in and BAM thar she blows. For a minute after there is a gaping hole before the water refills the conduit. You feel like you are looking through a peephole into the nether regions of the planet. Icelanders bake bread in the dirt and eggs in the springs of geothermal areas. They also harness it for power generation and use it for swimming and relaxing. The Blue Lagoon was a favorite soak for us. Shower, walk into the spring nestled in a lava field, spread silica on your face, grab a drink at the swim up bar. Om. You will find black lava sand under your toenails upon exit.
Humans aren't the only top-of-the-food-chain species found these days in the waters of Iceland. In the last 4 years a record number of polar bears have arrived- more so than the 15 years prior to that period combined. Inside our hotel a stuffed polar bear offered a dose of reality about the size of these creatures. Apparently, the Greenland born bears are a sad sight when found as are skinny and ravenous and dangerous so they are destroyed. They float in on melting ice from Greenland. Iceland is a small island and polar bears can smell prey a mile away…talk about an inconvenient truth.
Cold air is divine to breathe (oxygen molecules are closer together so the air more oxygen rich) and melting glaciers do make the best drinking water- wish we could have taken some home. Melting glaciers also make some grandiose displays- the Gulfoss waterfall is striking with its multileveled staircases. The water is brownish as is filled with sediment carved from the earth so it appears gold in the sun hence nicknamed golden falls. There is a memorial at Gulfoss remembering the local man and his daughter who bucked the system and saved the falls from being commercialized into power generation. His words, "I will not sell my friend."
Friend and in constant relationship with the natural world is a good descriptor of Icelanders. Another is- Viking. These are the descendants of the people that traversed the sea, landed on the shores and fought in the snow and ice pretty much naked draped in strategically placed fur, then assembled indulging in food and drink sparring with witty sometimes sarcastic comments, someone inevitably touches a nerve by taking a comment too far, fighting words begin, within moments everyone in the room takes sides and blood is shed. A look into Viking society uncovers some of the beginnings of these blond, strong, down-to-earth, hip, literary, quirky and principled people. They were the most democratic of all European societies including women and handicapped in their Thing system common meetings- their way of self-regulating. Social behavior was based on an unwritten system of honor. Frequent in fighting within Viking society lied not in a lack of respect for the law but rather the natural tension that came from a society, which placed a premium upon maintaining personal honor. There is a series of literary works called the sagas that portray human dramas from Viking days and offer historical facts about their life and society.
I experienced my own personal saga while in Iceland. It was a story that revealed itself over the course of a couple of days. As we drove around observing the scene, aside from a few sheep there were no living things other than people, moss, and Icelandic horses. Even trees were at a premium- the houses all made from poured concrete. The inordinate number of horses did not compute with any possible pool of riders. Their gait and lack of confirmation does not leave them in demand as an equitation export. There is not enough grass to need their grazing expertise. There were barely any barns to shelter them so they were in the elements with little grass in freezing windy weather- treated much like cows. Disturbed by their treatment and numbers I asked a local about it that we friended at dinner the second night. He paused, knowing his response would reveal a difference in our cultures but bound by duty to authenticity, he replied.. we eat them. He did not take delight in my horrific reaction, nor did he include the following comment to exacerbate my horror- it felt more like a duty to be accurate, he added.. it tastes really good. More queries over the next 3 days from a reliable sampling, the responses were consistent. They love it. It is dark and sweet and really good on the BBQ. The horrific flashbacks: the dark, sweet strange tasting meatballs on the buffet, the white boxes of some obvious key export being unloaded in droves from the Iceland air flight before we could board, the Icelandic sweater ad with the model sitting on her dinner. The morning of our flight out we attended a Viking museum. The long communal tables had benches lined with skins. The skins had manes.
Iceland began to reveal itself before we ever set foot upon it. The first harbingers of quirky-cool were experienced when boarding the airplane. Each Iceland Air jet has a name plate- they are all named after one of their many volcanoes. The headrest covers are adorned with strange yet intriguing Icelandic expressions:
Good night is goda nott in Icelandic.
It has a soft and cuddly sound.
The napkins tell about early Icelandic explorers, then add, they had no napkins.
In addition to the usual lineup there are about 10 Icelandic movies with English subtitles on the entertainment menu. The entertainment can be enjoyed immediately; it is not withheld and rationed like a reward. The beer of choice is Gull. The in-flight magazine highlights Gryla.
Gryla is an ogress with hooves and horns who lives in the mountains of Iceland with her third husband, a fiendish cat and a gang of thirteen mischievous sons, known as the Yule Lads. She is fastidiously addicted to boiling and eating children she kidnaps. She uses her excellent sense of hearing to detect misbehaving children anywhere on Iceland and then once detected leaves her cave and collects her favorite snack. The Yule Lads are mischievous, possibly criminal at time, pranksters that steal from and harass the population. Their names are descriptive of their modus operandi. They start arriving in town 13 nights before Christmas and each stays for 2 weeks. Here is a list of the lads and their noteworthy behavior:
Stekkjastaur (Sheep-cote-clod) arrives 12th, departs 25th. He harasses sheep, is impaired by his stiff peg legs.
Giljagaur (Gully gawk) arrives 13th, departs 26th. Hides in gullies waiting for opportunities to sneak into cowsheds and steal milk.
Stufur (Stubby) arrives 14th, departs 27th. Abnormally short, steals pans to eat the crust left on them.
Pvorisleikir (Spoon licker) arrives 15th, departs 28th. Steals long handled wooden spoons to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.
Pottaskefill (Pot scraper) arrives 16th, departs 29th. Steals leftovers from pots.
Askasleikir (Bowl licker) arrives 17th, departs 30th. Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their bowls, which he steals.
Hurdaskellir (Door slammer) arrives 18th, departs 31st. Likes to slam doors, especially during the night.
Skyrgamur (Skyr gobbler) arrives 19th, departs 1st. Has an affinity for skyr, which to me tastes like rice pudding.
Bjugnakraekir (sausage swiper) arrives 20th, departs 2nd. Hides in rafters and snatches sausages being smoked.
Gluggagaegir (Window peeper) arrives 21st, departs 3rd. Voyeur.
Gattapefur (Doorway sniffer) arrives 22nd, departs 4th. Large nose and acute sense of smells used to locate laufabraud (Christmas bread).
Ketkrokur (Meat hook) arrives 23rd, departs 5th. Uses a hook to steal meat.
Kertasnikir (Candle stealer) arrives 24th, departs 6th. Steals candles.
To threaten coal now seems like such pansy move.
Gryla included, Icelandic women since Viking times have been powerful forces enjoying more freedom than their European counterparts. Divorcing, going to battle, attending the Thing were all rights freely accepted by society for these women. There's a subtle difference in a society without historical suffrage. A woman pilot and co-pilot guided our flight to Iceland. The pilot's sphere did not include the air of triumph at breaking through a glass ceiling. It was just.. normal, natural, free. The crews' march from the plane was not 2 white men with a herd of 4 women and a gay man 15 steps behind. These power hierarchies while not supported by law have remnants in the behaviors of societies. The normalcy of equality, lack of remnants and congruence of behaviors with rights and laws were refreshingly abnormal to me.
Move over Gryla, the most awesome womanly force encountered in Iceland was by far that of the goddess of dawn- aurora. You can look up your own science; here is all I want to say. There are so many cool things in this world that humble us and connect us to the earth. The aurora connects us to the universe.
It was on my bucket list since the age of 13 so was a real gift.