To Iceland, with Respect


Glacier icelandAnd I have something to expiate;

A pettiness.
(D.H. Lawrence: Snake)

Often what we regret is being small-minded – trying to show the other person that we are right, better or best. That simply doesn’t work in Iceland provided you look up from your own path at what is all around you.

Iceland is one of only eight places on earth where the Mid-Atlantic Rift rises above the ocean – by far the biggest and most dramatic of these emergences. It also hosts visibly the collision of the American and European tectonic plates.

Stand at the ancient Althing (Law Rock, site of Iceland’s Parliament from 930 to 1799): at your back is America, towering in a sky-high rock wall marching to each horizon. In front of you is the bridge to Europe across a bottomless rift filled with the clearest water there is. This is the meeting of the Old and New Worlds: Chaucer meets Steinbeck, Bach meets Aaron Copeland, Marc Chagall meets Walt Disney. No room for small-mindedness.

As Iceland is volcanic, eruptions happen regularly and spectacularly. In April 2010, the massive ash cloud above Eyjafjatlajökull captured the world’s attention and caused thousands of flights to be cancelled. Travel further along the coast road and you will cross a three mile bridge over a lava spill which advanced like Sherman’s army, flattening all in its path. The twisted remains of a strong iron girder testify to its strength, as if a troll toddler had screwed up a grey crumpled paper napkin. An active lava flow just keeps on coming, even if you spray it with tons of seawater from a high-pressure hose borrowed from the US Marines, as they did in 1973 on Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the south coast, in an attempt to stop the advancing lava from closing the entrance to the island’s only harbour. In this case, the lava did stop in time and the island habitation was saved.

Vatnajökull (Glacier of Rivers) can be seen from afar. 8100 square kilometres in area and 3100 cubic kilometres, it is the largest icecap in Europe by volume. Smaller glaciers ooze off the top like icing dripping down the sides of a cake. But they are not sweet and delicious. Their menace lies in their unpredictable surfaces, their hidden crevasses, their jagged edges – and their deceptive size, dwarfing those who attempt a glacial walk. A sign erected by families and friends commemorates Mathias Hinz and Thomas Grundt from Germany, “Missing since 01.08.2007, Svinafellsjökull”.

The isolated road makes it way round to Jökullsarion, a glacial lagoon filled with floating icebergs: blue, white and black castles seem to jostle each other in the icy water. Some rear up in monstrous, frozen ecstasy, while others slumber dreamily, their quiet threat hidden below the flat surface. Carpe diem: these are miniatures of the Titanic’s nemesis, so marvel at this grandeur before you yourself hit an iceberg.

Wise use of time can mean relaxing in the moment, connecting with creation in its immensity and its variety. There is no need consciously to put yourself aside: Iceland will do that for you automatically. The influence of this scenic majesty lasts long after you have left the packed Keflavik airport departure hall with its blaring announcements and stuffy, person-tainted air. It outlives the journey, the homecoming, the welcome: “How was your holiday?” and the uncomprehending stares when you try to describe the earth’s forge in overworked phrases such as “amazing”, “awesome” and “seriously stunning”.

A visit to Iceland is an incomparable way to spend time wisely. The demons of everyday living and the nice people that surround you are simply irrelevant when you step into that other dimension governed by the greatest forces on this planet. You have provided for yourself, forever, a private powerhouse of energy, available to you at any time, a universe-sized antidote to the petty, the banal, the boringly mundane, and hurtful gossip. Just as a lava flow proceeds slowly but unstoppably, wiping out unwanted clashes and demands, so spending time in Iceland flattens everyday tensions and conflicts, rolling out majestic evidence of how our planet was formed in the beginning, and how it is sustained even through the ages of ages.

About the Author: After enjoying a career as a high school English teacher, I entered the world of publishing. I regularly write chapters of school textbooks, and I co-edited and wrote chapters of St George’s Cathedral: Heritage and Witness, published in November 2012. An inveterate traveller in nearly thirty countries, I remember especially vividly Malawi, Russia, Australia, Scotland and Iceland. Find me on facebook at Judith Gordon.

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9 responses to “To Iceland, with Respect

  1. I love the mixture of history, geography, geology and description in this beautiful and personal article.

  2. Judith’s experiences in Iceland are brought to life so vividly in the above article. Having been to Iceland myself, she has re-awakened for me the sights, sounds and simply awe inspiring beauty of an ancient island where nature is still firmly in control.

  3. What an interesting and descriptive article and what clever use of metaphors. The one I liked the best was: “the twisted remains of a strong iron girder … grey crumbled paper napkin”.

  4. How lovely to read about Iceland again and to re-live our holiday of last year. Iceland is a Geographer’s dream and I loved every minute of our time there. To see for myself the magnificent scenery, the volcanoes, the glaciers and especially the wide, desolate lava fields was amazing. Thank you Judith for re-awakening my memories.

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