The Iceland Diaries, Part Seven

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Iceland, when I was there, had no trees. None. A naked land. I was told that the reason there were no trees was because of the sheep, which ranged free all over the country at that time, and because of the wind, which I knew stunted the growth of trees on places such as Cape Cod and the islands and the wind there was no match for what I encountered in Iceland. And, of course, the short growing season had an effect as well. So the landscape was very barren, very open. You could see forever. At that time in my life, I had never been to the American West but I realize now how similar the landscapes are. And yet Iceland was still very beautiful because it was green, the endless stretches of green pastures as well as the steep cliffs, all green from the rains and from the fertilizer left by the grazing sheep. And so, it was a great surprise to me to see, almost as soon as we arrived, that there are trees now. Not forests, but trees here and there and in some places groves. I recall that at Frodastadir and on other farms small groves of trees were planted and nurtured inside small fenced areas like prized animals. I recall that they were mostly birch or aspen trees, which are mostly native to Iceland. Apparently Iceland was heavily forested when the Norwegians first came, back in the year 874 A.D. The island is the size of Kentucky or Virginia, small but manageable. However, soon enough the woods that the settlers found there were gone, surrendered for heat and for building materials. There were never any trees after that. And so, as we drove I found it remarkable to see groves of trees and occasionally tall evergreens.

In addition, on this recent visit, we found that there were flowers. Growing in pots on the small brick apron that stretched out from Imba’s front door were marigolds and pansies. I never saw a flower the whole time I was in Iceland in 1969. Who can grow flowers when the predominant weather is forty degrees and rain? The only things that grew in Unnur’s garden were rhubarb and potatoes. But on my return, I discovered that Reykjavik, which I don’t remember having any ornamentation of that kind, was a virtual botanical garden by comparison. Lilacs and mimosa trees were in full bloom and there were many displays of petunias and impatience in window boxes, small and large. Hardwoods shaded the sidewalks. The small efforts farmers had made back in the 1960s to nurture groves of trees on their land had matured and more had been planted. On our drive that circled the perimeter of the entire nation, I never saw a true forest (though there is one, the greatly revered Hallormsstadarskogur, on the east side of the country) but I saw tall evergreens and some hardwoods. Just as the barren landscape bereft of trees was so completely otherworldly to me on my earlier visit there, seeing it again, in some cases forested and in others simply fringed with trees, albeit small trees, completely transformed the land for me, softened it and made it more familiar, easier to relate to.

It bears remarking here that only the rim of Iceland is fertile and green. The interior of the country, you may know, is completely barren, vast stretches of lava and ash, a black desert, a moonscape as it is often called. One of my most vivid memories was a journey from Vik, the “beach town” in the southern sector, to Reykjavik. This memory was reinforced recently by the rereading of my journal as well as my return to Vik, to walk the black sand beach. But back then, on board a bus, something like a school bus, we headed northwest. That straight line took us into the black sand desert. It was a gray day, spitting rain. The bus was about half full and the driver was playing a recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. It was surreal, driving along through that barren landscape with that beautiful music playing, the rain falling like tears on the windshield, wipers keeping time. No one on the bus spoke a word, the entire journey. There were always so many questions: did they always play music on the bus? Is it customary for passengers to ride in silence? One thing I now know is that Icelanders adore classical music. I was not sure. In the barn, Daniel had a small radio on the windowsill, tuned to a station that played a mix of everything, one selection would be The Beatles, another would be Mozart, and then would come Frank Sinatra, and in between a dour-voiced announcer who droned the news in Icelandic.

What else now grows in Iceland is lupine, the result of another government program which perhaps has gotten out of hand, at least according to some. Lupine, the tall beautiful purple plant with blooms that grow up the stem like peas on a pod, was planted back in the 1940s to control soil erosion in the land bereft of root structure to hold the soil in place. The shifting land presented myriad problems to the farmers and to the country itself. It didn’t happen right away and I don’t remember ever seeing lupine when I was there before but now it completely covers some hills, giving the hills a beautiful blue-ish hue. Farmers tend not to like the lupine as sheep do not like it and so it grows unrestrained and thus diminishes grazing land. Understood. But in places, the aggregation of the plant, stretching as far as the eye can see is breathtaking.

The addition of the trees and the lupine was not as startling as the change in the climate. I wrote in my journal each day, the entire time I was there in 1969 and at the end of each entry, I recorded the temperature (I had a small thermometer that was attached to my backpack) and the weather. Most days were repetitious: forty degrees and rain. Sometimes, it went up to 50 and once, when we were haying, it was in the 60s and sunny. I have a snapshot of myself in bare feet, raking the hay into windrows. But, for the most part, it was cold and rainy and very windy. We only spent eight days there this time but it was quite the contrary, many days were 60 degrees and sunny. One day, we almost got a sunburn. I asked if the weather was unusual and was met with some shrugs, no, not really. What about the wind, I asked Imba, I remember such fierce winds! She stopped to think. “No,” she said, “they are gone. We don’t really have those anymore.” Others I asked concurred. Another bellwether from my memories was the glacier, Langjokull, the second largest glacier in Iceland. Back when I lived on Frodastadir, I could see the glacier in the distance, in the same way some of us here can see Mount Monadnock, a soft sloping profile. I have several snapshots that show the white mound of the glacier at the end of the long valley.

“I don’t see the glacier!” I said to Imba after I had arrived this year. “Where is the glacier?”

She looked perplexed. “You cannot see the glacier from here,” she said. Imba was 15 when I lived there. Is it possible she cannot remember a time when it was visible? When I got home, I looked it up and saw the satellite photos. Langjokull is something like a third the size it was when I was there.

If anyone doubts that there has been climate change, that it is longterm and ongoing, I can attest to it, from my own experience, witnessing what Iceland was then and what it is now. A much more agreeable climate now, to be sure, and the flowers are a joyful addition.

  • My husband and I are heading to Iceland for the first time and I am so appreciative of your stories about what apparently is a fascinating country and people. We are hiring a guide to take us around the island with a special focus on photography (pardon the pun), and I am emailing her your story. Thank you.


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