Archives for: September 2011
Up the Creek
Traveling along Iceland's Eastern fjords is a mystifying experience. All that warm moisture in the air brought straight from the Caribbean by the Gulf stream condenses when it hits the stark and cold peaks and enshrouds them in a robe of opulent clouds. As you drive along the coastal road, you can never really see what's going on in the high mountains towering above you. All you see is a white cotton candy canopy stretching as far ahead as the eye can see. No wonder that significant fraction of Icelanders believe in elves and fairies. Cover always stimulates imagination.
When we reached Faskrudsfjordur and the cloud cover didn't let up, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see for myself. We left the car at a small rest area by the fjord and I climbed straight up into those smooth treeless Icelandic mountains. There wasn't any trail there so I just followed a tiny creek that was cutting its way across hardy tundra vegetation. I was quickly gaining elevation and soon disappeared in the low lying fog like a strayed sheep, treading as lightly as possible on the sturdy carpet of arctic moorlands cushioned with mossy upholstery and embroidered with vast networks of dwarfish berries. I was pretty sure no human being ever set foot there before. Probably no other mammal either. The nearest farm was too far. It felt as if every stalk of grass, every green leaf looked up at me wondering what strange creature was plodding across this desolate terrain.
But it was a worthy experience. Surreal, too.
I entered the Kingdom of Crackling Silence. Or maybe it was just my own blood rushing through the inner ear. A seductive whisper of instant solitude whose caustic concentration dissolved the lingering concept of humanity into an abstract notion that hung around me like Aurora Borealis. Here, high above the cold waters of the fjord one could easily abandon whatever form of existence one had in the civilized world. Just leave it in the locker, like a towel in the spa for subconsciousness.
Each step was a step on the moon. Bestirred only with echos of quietude.
This must have been the kind of place which Beethoven's spirit roamed when he was composing his late String Quartets. An abstract plane of the mind void of any connection to the space and time that we normally occupy. The lucid mountain air that forever greets those brave souls that have withstood the onslaught of the first 122 measures of Grosse Fuge. A fairy dance of sixteen strings.
An airplane is like a magical tube.
You enter its cabin, you take your preassigned seat, you eat you meal, see a good movie, maybe listen to some music - and in a few hours - voila! - you are somewhere else. Different time zone, different culture, different weather, different brand of cereal, different currency. As if while you fidgeted in your seat a mighty wizard tapped the hull of the airplane with his wand.
A car does not quite provide the same level of shock and awe. When you drive around you see the world change continuously. East slowly morphs into West, mountains slowly dwindle into plains, warm climates slowly cool. Like when you drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff in Arizona. You start at the bottom of a desert valley populated with little more than forests of Saguaro cactuses. Then you take interstate 17 and in a few hours you climb onto a high mountain plateau covered with grass and even sparse groups of coniferous trees. But you never really notice any change. It's just that there is fewer and fewer cactuses and the patches of turf seem larger, greener and more frequent. And before you know it, you are in the middle of a prairie.
With airplanes it's different. The change is abrupt. One moment you enter this hollow metallic cylinder at the Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC and the next one you can't believe your eyes. You are in Reykjavik.
Frontier of Life
There are many things fascinating about Iceland. One which catches your eye no matter where on the island you are is certain stubbornness of life, its bullheaded determination to squeeze some juice out of virtually barren environment. While in the southern climes life wallows comfortably in the recliner of verdant valleys, in Iceland it is precariously poised on the razor thin ledge of uneasy existence.
Glacial outwash is a bleak stretch of land that looks like an industrial wasteland taken straight from apocalyptic movies. But give it a year or so and you will see an army of mosses marching across its inhospitable plain. No place is safe from the subversive invasion of green - lava flows, thermal fields, sheer rock faces, black sand beaches - wherever nutrient can be found, there they are. And where they can't, life subsists seemingly on pure hope. Like glacial mice - the small pebbles that the glacier rolls along as it descends into a valley. Slowly, year after year, they get turned from side to side eventually becoming sort of green eggs completely covered with moss and living purely off of the moving ice mass. No soil necessary.
But the ultimate outposts in the ancient battle between life and the elements are the Icelandic farms.
Trying to harness the forces of reproduction around the 66th parallel requires a healthy dose of determination, a good stable of horses and at least a thin layer of soil. Big or small, the farms put up a good fight for every acre of fertile land. Every mud patch that contains some organic matter, every couple of inches of dirt that drifted into the lava fields, every piece of tundra that the sheep won't turn down will count. They may not sustain more than a family or two, but in Iceland that is enough. As you drive around the island, you will see their small settlements ensconced in deep and wind torn valleys, perching on steep cliffs above the angry Arctic ocean or just underneath the mighty glaciers hanging onto a piece of land periodically flogged by devastating floods. Sometimes you drive around desolate mountain plateaus or charred volcanic ridges and you are thinking - no one could possibly build a farm here - and then you spot it. There it is. A silent monument to the endurance of man. A clenched fist thrust defiantly deep into the solar plexus of a frowning mountain.