This series begins with Part 1.
The touch of humanity in Iceland is always modernist, boxy, out-of-context. In place so cold, flat and windy that few plants are more than a few inches tall, the humblest hut can only be a tower of arrogance. You do what you can with steep roofs to manage wind and snow, but you will stick out patriarchally just by standing up. And viewed from above (plane or distant mountaintop) your house will resemble a child’s toy blocks, carelessly discarded on a vast, smooth floor.
Which may be why half of Icelanders supposedly believe in elves, or more generally in diminutive “hidden people.” Full-sized vertical humans look so wrong in this landscape that it’s easy to image there must be a more right-sized genius loci for whom all this is really intended. If a day on the tundra makes you long for a forest, one solution is to imagine that the cool people here are the very tiny ones, they who stride purposefully through the shade of towering mosses, hunt down antelope-sized beetles, chop house-sized huckleberries down from their inch-high forest canopy, and return in splendor to lichenate cities more ornate than any fantasist could illustrate. Here too is an echo of Mars. The hard-headed scientists of Robinson’s novels never quite deny the earlier stories of “little red men” -- maybe so small that those randomly tossed rocks on the Martian plains might serve them as shelter and habitat.
Iceland is cold but motion is heat, and in Iceland everything seems to be moving under the surface. Volcanoes are everywhere – the whole island is volcanoes really, all made of massive lava eruptions interspersed with explosions of ash – all still haunting the surface in the form of geysers, steam vents, and bubbling pools. Our favorite silly tourist spot, in Reykjarnes, was a “bridge between continents,” which is to say between the North American and Eurasian plates. A little rift valley, full of black sand, with signs welcoming you at each end. It marks the main faultline where Iceland is being slowly ripped into being, created and destroyed at the same time.
We made two major expeditions out of Reykjavík, apart from touring volcanic Reskjanes on our wander in from the airport. First, southeast, to the recently erupted Eyjafjallajökull volcano, then northeast, into the highlands above Thingvellir.
Eyjafjallajökull: The ö and j are as in German, the “ll” is “tl” or just “t” at the end, and Icelandic stress is always hard on the first syllable, the rest of each word sliding away as though as though down a long slope of scree. It erupted in 2010, but with ash rather than lava, and ash is good for plants. So its skirts are all grassy now, treeless of course, and its most striking feature is a cliff around the base that offers a casual abundance of waterfalls.
We climbed one of these, Skógarfoss ...
... and encountered, above it, endless grasslands rushing up to the glacier along the fast stream, including a boatload of birch scrub, coming around a corner, that obviously wouldn't have survived contact with the sheep.
The view down the falls, to the farm below, was also intriguing.
The birches were a rare thing. Heading back into the sunset, we found a row of eight more, the only ones on the entire coastal plain.
Continued at Part 3.