The concepts of “nature” in Iceland and the U.S.
Hesturfjall: The concepts of “nature” in Iceland and the U.S.
February 13, 2008
I don’t remember how we traveled from the airport to the village. I remember sitting on a bus from Reykjavik to the surrounding countryside, but the timeline from the States to that small Nordic country fails to make sense. This is fitting. It’s a habit of mine to arrive at airports early. The airport implies states of both “coming” and “going”, yet in truth, you arrive at neither until the moments of physically boarding a plane. Everything in between is pure luxury- seconds, minutes, and sometimes hours of detachment from linear time. I require the freedom to daydream. I wander around. I consider where people might be going. I give some thought to buying an expensive sandwich, the mediocrity of which will never justify the purchase.
My dad likes to drop me off at airports. He also likes to pick me up at them. He asks a lot of questions about what type of plane was flown or what I ate. You never eat anything interesting on planes. On that particular day, I remember my father ushering me to a forgotten corner of JFK. It struck me as the section of the airport where you would expect people to be flying to Oslo, or Trondheim, or Helsinki. I remember glancing down at my boots– black suede lined with cheap faux fur– and feared for the worst. Everyone had such sturdy footwear.
Three summers ago, I traveled to Iceland. I had just finished my sophomore year at a college in upstate New York and felt adverse to yet another summer in the suburbs where I would work 40 hours a week stockpiling funds for the next installment of liberal arts education. I decided I should take a trip somewhere I may never have another chance to go. Drawn to all-things exotic since childhood, I yearned for the stories that were acquired from adventures in far-off places. My roommate told me about a volunteer program where, for a mere $250, you could receive room and board in one of hundreds of countries. In return, you would work a few hours a day on a farm or with the local community. Her volunteer book compiled in ¾ of an inch small villages and towns where, evidently, groups of people would welcome me with open arms. I had had my sights set on Scandinavia for several years, and, with the extremely high standard of living in those countries, I imagined a volunteer program would provide me with as good of a reason as any to go. Admittedly, I was drawn to Iceland largely due to Reykjavik’s newly- exposed party scene, but also by my passion for languages. Because of its retention of Latinate declensions and aspirated pronunciation, Icelandic holds a unique place in linguistic history. Of course, there was always the landscape. Once there, I quickly came to realize how unique Iceland is, not only in its rich geographical history, but in its relationship with this history. There is something to be said for this freedom: “I am not a European, nor am I truly a North American,” and perhaps, because of that freedom, to be alone in upholding some of the greatest beauties of the world.
As popularized by Bjork’s biography, Iceland is a nearly tree-less country. Upon arrival in Sólheimar, a village of 100 people 80km outside of the capital, our volunteer group was broken into two groups for two separate jobs. I was assigned to Group A. Group A worked in a greenhouse transferring small saplings into larger pots for better growth. A native Icelander named Jón and his family instructed us. We had ample time to come to know he and his family during the lengthy coffee breaks which punctuate an Icelandic work day. Jón was a kind man and a good father. Although he seemed to think we worked well, we often felt as if Jón saw us all as a great band of pussies who needed far too much guidance to see a job through. One weekend, he brought us to his country house on the southern coast. The volunteers were all slightly shocked at this gesture. In retrospect, we were just intimidated by him. Beyond intimidation, our feelings were almost those of shame. It often seemed that Jón ascertained profound differences between himself, his family and us- the visitors from the more-traditionally western world. It seemed to me then, that for anyone to visit another country, let alone his own, Jon figured his or her primary motivation must be the desire for some brand of feel-good vacation from life, a life which most of us carried on in the big cities of Europe and the Americas. I felt as if I momentarily redeemed myself one afternoon when I caught the most fish out of anyone in our group in the frigid stream and wasn’t even afraid to bait hooks or gut the fish. We grilled and ate our catch for dinner as we sat below a precipice guarded by puffins and surveyed the black sea. Jón’s mother and father were at the house for the weekend as well, spoiling us every few hours with platters of cheese, smoked fish and bread. We drank strong liquor. Once back in the tiny village, people invited us into their homes. We sang Guns ‘N Roses songs with them at dinner tables in warm little houses and woke up in the morning to cut sod slabs used for building the community church. In the evenings, we relaxed in a pool fed by warm springs. On the weekends, genuine hot springs awaited us, protected by blankets of frigid, dry air from the coast of black sand beaches. At the end of the trip, there were goodbyes and a good night of drinking at a Reykjavik bar, whose tables and chairs were uprooted from city buses. Everyone wore sunglasses at night and knew the musicians. A proud Polish girl invited us to crash in her peaceful apartment. The following day, we slathered our hung-over limbs in soft silica mud at the Blue Lagoon. Then, we caught our flights to the rest of the world.
Our return route from JFK required a detour in Manhattan before we could cut straight across to Pennsylvania. I imagine generations of city planners really had no other choice but to put an airport at the very end of Brooklyn, where, today, little suburban houses dot the path that leads there via train. As we drove from the airport, I remember my father glancing at printed directions. The route involved hopping on the BQE, a tricky New York City freeway with panoply of exit options. When stumped, Dad rolled down the window of the van and motioned to the driver who pulled up next to him at the light. An accommodating Latino driver gave us directions to the Queens Midtown Expressway. My father likes to think people in New York take him seriously because, with one look, they can tell he is a working man. They must recognize him as one of their own from the dirt under his nails, the stubble on his chin, and his crass yet harmless speech. So here I was, back in New York, where even a borough crossing can become a spatial adventure worthy of self-analysis. How comfortable this seemed for me at first, as I considered how much of my recent adventure was entirely composed of a self-exploration inspired by landscape. Crossing the bridge into Manhattan, I realized what an indescribable challenge New York will always be to the rest of the world. For the first time in my life, I saw Times Square as sheer effrontery, spectacle at its most extreme, a sudden assault upon the possibility for critical consideration of its landscape. How could I ever reconcile this island with the one from which I had come? Even today, I unnerve myself when walking through the Lower East Side with sympathetic thoughts for the tiny expanse of land beneath my feet. I consider just how much of a tragic geographical necessity it might be for all of this to one day fall into the ocean. I attempt to find an effective method to communicate with this space, to foolishly and fruitlessly prove that my hands are clean- that I had no part in this. Our exchange is intimidating and uncertain until, selfish and anxious, I simply remove myself from it.
I have crossed from 41st to 42nd street on the left hand side of 8th Avenue more times than I can count or care to. More often than not, this happens during a dusky hour when everything becomes seamless. Darkness seeps into the bus terminal, and there is no longer any separation of space to mark the next leg of that day’s journey. When one loses the sense of separation of space, time becomes disorienting as well. In New York City, this has always struck me as grotesque and unappealing. Yet, each time I make the crossing, the loss occurs all the same. I imagine the millions upon millions of people in this city who, while non-exempt from any fact of physics, still live lives which never allow this phenomenon to reveal itself. Sometimes, before taking a trip to the city to visit an old friend, I find myself packing an overnight bag with more books and notebooks than clothes. If the Saturday afternoon proves to be sunny, I will be prepared to stake out a plot on the park lawn- a simple necessity now to benchmark my day.
In Iceland, conservation is second nature. What is unnatural is to consider time, rather than the physical formations of space around us, as something to be conserved. The efforts there to resist dam construction around glaciers will attest to this, as will the noble fights of Icelanders against global climate change- a warming which I witnessed as glaciers trickled away water during the very moments in which I stood upon them. One simple hike summarizes for me, why the anxieties I experience in the great cities of the American east coast could never occur in this otherworldly place. On a mild day, a few fellow volunteers from the volunteer camp and I decided to hike to a local mountain we had admired during our daily work. According to the locals, this landmark was known as Hesturfjall*, “the mountain of the horses”. We packed our bags full of sandwiches in the morning, layered our clothing, and set out on our way. We walked across brooks that ran through the properties of people who came to their doors to see us pass. Yet, even the term “property” may be a misnomer here. There are hardly any fences in Iceland, or at least none where they don’t need to be. White and amber wild horses greeted us along our route, which after a few hours, seemed to indicate that the journey to the mountain would take much longer than expected. We arrived at the base shortly before sunset. A sheepdog tagged along for the majority of our ascent. He was with us at the summit, where I wonder if his view for him was as breathtaking as ours. A friendly Spaniard took many photographs. Although we had planned this hike to encompass the majority of the afternoon, the village did not now appear to be nearly as distant as a five- hour hike. Nature had managed to surprise us with an optical illusion which dictated the course of our afternoon.
It is not for me or anyone to say there are events in New York– geographically-based or otherwise– that do not amaze each and every day. Yet each day I spend here in the crowded corridor of the American East, I find these pleasures take more and more personal agency to unearth. In Iceland, nature revealed these splendors to us time and time again, and it did so without us ever asking.
*Although I know for certain the English translation of this landmark was “Horse Mountain”, the precise Icelandic word escapes me. “Hesturfjall” is a simple compound of the Icelandic nouns for “horse” and “mountain”.
Jennifer Holup recently graduated from Bard College, where she studied French, focusing on theories of the le quotidien in Georges Perec, Guy Debord, and other twentieth century French literature and theory. Currently, she lives in Philadelphia with plans of long-term travel in the Fall.