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Still, Step Outside of the City and Find the Heart of the Land Again

Looking over to Grábrókafell from its crater-kin, Grábrók (Grey-Pants). They last erupted ca. 1600BC

I made a little bit of a commotion with the last few posts, baring frustration at how systems (human systems) can get so complicated so easily, and how hard it can be for a society to find its way into the future with integrity and heritage intact.

On that note, I thought about how much of dire challenge it's always been to live here on this island. It's not just the cold, but the incessant volcanic activity as well. According to data gathered by Jón Frímann Jónsson on his website, Iceland geology, there've been at least 200 eruptions
in the past 1100 years (I counted each item on this list he's published).  Most of those were in remote regions, affecting few if any, but some wiped out huge swathes of the population, human and beast alike, most due to starvation after toxic ashfall blanketed whole sections of the island. Add to that the decimation of the population after two separate plagues in the 15th century plus a millennia of subjugation under foreign rule and internal clan warfare, honor/revenge killings and blood feuds, and you could say it's a miracle that anyone's left.

Maybe we've earned every ounce of pride we feel in being Icelanders, having made it this long on this hyper-active chunk of lava, and maybe our opportunism is hardwired into our survivors-brains. Maybe, even though it seems imperative to take a long-term approach to how we're going to step into all the tomorrows in front of us, something whispers to us that we might not have an endless supply of them to experience.

Hekla or Katla could blow, or an earthquake could cause devastation at any time. Nothing unique about that, though: my family, for example, experienced first-hand two huge quakes out in California (the LA quake of 1971,  and the Loma Prieta quake in northern California in 1989 that luckily did no damage to our property or persons.) And across the globe natural disasters strike in all sorts of different forms. We're all at the mercy of Nature, always.

But I think that given the intense geological activity here, the desolated landscape, the remoteness, the potential bitter cold and unpredictable weather, the lack of a wide range of flora and fauna for sustenance, it's understandable that we are who we are. The Icelandic psyche has a hardcoreness, a stubbornness, a pragmatism, an innovativeness that helped us survive this long, and that can hopefully be applied in more humane, compassionate and respectful ways in the generations to come.

For more on our volcanos, go visit Come to Iceland, the excellent tour booking portal, where you can read some bits I was commissioned to write (all the stuff under the main Nature tab : )

Also, here's an excerpt from my book, 88, a love letter to an island. I wrote it while a harsh storm was battering our island in November 2012, right around the Iceland Airwaves festival where poor festival guests were nearly blown out to sea...

cling is the word, and it’s always been so on our island. cling, and survive. clutch a bunch of shallow rooted grass in your hand and bury yourself under a low jagged-edged overhang of cooled magma. if you’re lucky you’ll survive. pretend you are a low footed fox, or burrow in like a sheep and try to keep a sheep’s eerie calm while everything loose blows away and out to our familiar briny deep. 

here, under your porous and newly-formed shelter, it’s not bravery that will save you but an idiot’s luck and maybe the foolishness of the true believer...that’s all that’s going to save anyone on this blasted island. forget everything you’ve ever learned about ingenuity, courage, smarts, can-do spirit and the frontier mentality. all it takes to survive here is a coward’s ability to hunker down, and shut the fuck up, and wait out the worst. a survivor on this chuck of newly-birthed land is the one who digs a hole, and not the one who raises his house to the gods. here you burrow into the crumbly earth and cover your lowly and fearful head with any sod you can find. 

this close to the very gaping maw of the polar hole we should forsake ridiculous fantasies of kissing the sky with towers dreamt of by boys, and built by men. a mamma says, come here and cower with me, and we’ll be safe. we listen to her, we crawl into her warm arms, returning to where we were as babes but now it’s her and the dank soil that comforts us. we hide with our mothers under the cover of sharp lava, filling our cowls with thousand-year old moss. we shun the men who try to call us out to their structures, and we stay in our shelter holes. we relax, and we begin to see the lovely trickle of a very small and constant stream of tears that leak from the geometric forms of the shelter wall. in stillness we see the very small: we see how lichen sprouts in cracks not longer than the wrinkle on our smallest finger, and how it wants to bloom, if only it could. and we wonder if it really is only time that makes everything possible - if time gives such a tenuous and tenacious entity as this growth the potential to one day overtake the entire overhang. and you imagine the place where you are laying, hiding from the plasma storm with your mamma, carpeted in some remote millennium with the progeny of this very same lichen, which may never ever give up. it is day 38.

Walking a crater rim. Can you spot the two humans? And is this a visual metaphor for life in general? 


gary said...

Just a slight correction to your great article: the Loma Prieta earthquake was 1989, not 1987.

Iceland Eyes said...

You're so right. Thank you Gary!