Stories of Falling Water and Dry Earth

Travel Blog 19: This One’s For All the Marbles

It was our second to last day in Iceland when my brother asked me, “what do you think an environment like this does to the perspectives of the people who live there?”

There is a starkness to everything in Iceland, though maybe except the people. Along those thin two-lane roads lies ancient lava fields of ashen stone covered over in dull moss stretch up to the foot of huge dark mountains whose tops are shrouded in mist. The fault line that divides the island between the American and European tectonic plates plates creates deep rifts like the walls of some crumbling bastion in what’s called Thingvellir National Park, where waters leak over the tops of these cracks in the earth to form rivers that course out onto the flat, grassy plains to the north. The famous geysers froth and steam with a certain salt-like smell that’s so particular to the location, it’s pools forming a deep turquoise color just beneath the surface of the scalding liquid. 

On a tour of these sites on a route that’s called the Golden Circle, the most popular tourist route in Iceland, perhaps the most amazing and indicative of this environment is the enormous Gullfoss Waterfall. It’s the second largest waterfall in Iceland, and if there’s anything to make one comprehend the absolute power of earth’s natural forces, it’s something like that. 

Water does that, especially if you understand its properties. We easily think of water as something soft or pliable. We can sift it and move it with ease. Engulfed in it, we rarely sink to a level that the weight of the water becomes understood. To instead watch it tumble and crash with just the force of gravity, to hear it’s deafening rumble and feel the spray of the wash hit you more than 100 feet above the lowest point (one can’t even see the bottom of the falls) is to at once understand one’s own fragility as well as one’s place in such an environment.

Such massive sights are dwarfed by the spirit of the people who live there, because the Icelanders love stories. It’s a holdover from the days of the Sagas, those mouth-to-ear tales of the viking age that were only consecrated in letters in the 13th century. Tour guides love to relate the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who they say was the daughter of the local landowner who saved the waterfall from exploitation by foreign investors by threatening to throw herself down the waterfall, taking people to tours of the location and even trekking over 100 miles to the capital of Reykjavik to find legal help. You may look online and question the legitimacy of the story, but that’s not the point. They will tell you small stories of tiny cabins sitting underneath a boulder-rich mountain in a country known for earthquakes, and the lone mother-in-law who still lives there and enjoys her solitude, much to the chagrin of the son-in-law who originally purchased the house for the woman. They’ll tell you differing versions of how the country originally came to Christianity, of an old man hiding under furs for three days until he eventually came out and said “let’s just pretend to be Christian.”

We took two tours in Iceland during our four days there. The other two days were mostly spent in the area around Reykjavik. The capital is small, surprisingly so. They have museums and theaters, but not nearly as many as one may think. The buildings are mostly modern, blocky affairs sitting along a large bay where most trawling boats sit in harbor to one side and the great leviathan cruise ships on the other. 

What most don’t consider is how Iceland came to be a country. For so many years, it was the prize of varying Nordic countries, where the vast majority of the population lived as subsistence farmers. With towns growing so slowly in the early parts of the 20th century, a city like Reykjavik only became anything close to a capital center once the British and later American armies took over the space during WWII. They built up the roads and airports and created barrack buildings all across the landscape that would later be sold to the small farmers. Once the island gained its independence from Denmark in 1944, it’s title as a tourist hotspot would only become established in our current century, peaking in 2019 before the pandemic put a stop to the rapid growth.

And even in the cities, the place still feels like a small town. Each location has its own pool area, where most residents go to relax in the hot tubs fed by the heated water of the island’s natural hot springs. Pools and springs are such an integral part to the Icelandic culture, and it also shows how interconnected that relatively small population is. The host of our Airbnb, Disa, could really spin a yarn about just how much of a small town-feel such a city has. She could talk for hours about her grandmother and uncle, who had such a deep connection to the growth of the country’s independent government and art scene. In the car, she listens to the Icelandic-language radio, commenting about local politics, of which she’s deeply miffed about the country’s practice of letting sheep free graze all around the country.

My brother’s question is a real one, but it’s so hard to elaborate, like trying to parse fragments of seashells from grains of sand. The people we talked to spoke about their love of the environment, of taking hiking trips up to the top of local mountains as a morning excursion, of seeing the geysers back when one shot its water 40 meters in the air, when now the tallest one only reaches about 14. However, there is still a need to get away from it all, especially during the winter months when there is darkness for nearly 24 hours, and while it doesn’t grow as cold as one might expect for a country so north of the equator, the lack of sun and freezing winds could harden the heart of those with no means of escaping to greener pastures for at least a few weeks. That’s of course so much easier in a country with weeks of government mandated vacation time. 

Four days is not nearly enough to experience the country. We did not get to see an active volcano or the northern lights, but I feel we did see an insight into the people who live there. The tour guides of the trips we went on, despite the fact they are only doing about 30 or 40% of what they had been doing before the pandemic, honestly love what they do, especially as every day they can witness the vast enormity of their country and see the awe represented as the reflections in the fresh eyes of visitors.

But climate change is a real and present danger to such locations. Our second tour was of the southern part of Iceland, where on an open sunny day we visited the black sand beaches, watched puffins soar overhead and stood underneath and behind great waterfalls. We also went to the glacier.

There, a wash of cold creeps over the exposed flesh on one’s face. There’s the sun above your head, and you were feeling warm for the walk up the black, rocky soil up until you reached the top of a short hill. Then comes the sight of the glacier, and the cold breaks onto you, as if the whole environment had been sucked of its warmth. The Sólheimajökull Glacier in southern Iceland has been retreating for years, but during this unnaturally hot summer that the country (like so many worldwide) has been experiencing, the great sheet of ice is melting at a disturbing clip. Standing beside it, the water dribbling down into a brown lake, there’s a certain terrifying feeling. The melting glacier has made it more hazardous for the dozens of groups of ice hikers who walk the face of the sheet. It has also caused infrastructure problems, and just down the road the Icelandic government has been forced to create a new, higher bridge to avoid the massive floods of water coming off the mountains and ice sheet during the summer.

If people are molded by their environment, one should be concerned when the loss of so much of that, so much of that history and the stories that go with it, is falling closer and closer and closer…

I’m back in the states now, and I’m planning for a final Bilbo Big Adventure recap post in a few days. Stay tuned.

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