Entry 8: The BIG Picture
One of the hardest facts of life in Iceland is that only 1% of the land is arable. That number would be even lower if not for the last ice age, when glaciers scraped out a few valleys that are now fertile. We stay right in the middle of one, which can be seen well from this picture taken from atop of our Guardian Mountain (Vordufell). The mountains on the far side are solid basalt from the volcanic formation of the island and are millions or years away from becoming soil. The beautiful light blue White River (Hvita) runs from the glacier just beyond the far mountains right past our home at Skalholt School. Skalholt itself is barely visible bottom left, as, across the rest of the foreground, are four neighboring towns and several dozen cattle and horse farms. But don't be deceived: 75% of the island looks like the second picture. Ouch.
Entry 7: June 20: A Very Remarkable Place
Today we spent the day at Solheimar, where since 1930 dedicated Icelanders have run a special home for orphans, the disabled, and now the aged. It was founded by Sesselja Sigmundsdottir, who was deeply influenced by Rudolf Steiner's ideas that the disabled should be seen as people with unique possibilities to contribute, and that all people must live in very close harmony with nature. The result today is a self-sufficient eco-village where people grow their own food, make soaps, lotions and many other things from local plants, and produce a variety of art, woodwork, candles, musical instruments and other wonders from driftwood and recycled materials. The pictures show us picking herbs with Paolo Bessa, a Portuguese botanist and alchemist who works there. It's nicely appropriate that the plant we are picking by the sack is Angelicus. For more information see http://solheimar.is/index.php?msl=english.
We spent a few hours on Solheimar Glacier, which is melting away about 50 meters each YEAR. It is also covered with ash from the recent eruption on Grimsvotn, and so lacks the pristine beauty of what we usually imagine when we think of glaciers. Between the ash and the crushed black basalt Solheimar leaves in its wake, the whole glacial valley looked very grim to us.
We took a thirty minute ferry ride across to Heimaey, one of a small group of volcanic islands just off the south coast of Iceland. In 1973, the volcano on this island – also a major fishing port – erupted without warning, spewing about four feet of toxic ash of ash on the homes and sending a massive wall of lava toward the town itself and toward the narrow exit from its port. The fisherman evacuated all the people, then found that pumping vast amounts of ice cold sea water onto the leading edge of the lava made it harden faster than the rest of the flow. They managed to stop the wall of lava after it had destroyed “only” about 50 homes and before it closed the harbor. In the pictures you can see us climbing the volcano above the lava field and also the actual forty foot wall of lava right where they finally stopped it. They all moved back home, spent a year cleaning up, and started over. For a good description see McFee, “Cooling the Lava.”
Today we were able to have a personal tour of Iceland's Parliament (Althingi), which was established over 1000 years ago (about 930) and has met almost continuously even since. Along the way, we encountered the Cabinet Ministers of Fisheries and Foreign Affairs, who were more than willing to entertain questions from our students. We watched part of a session, where the debate about NATO actions in Libya became quite heated, and then met personally with Lilja Gretarsdottir, floor director (in effect party whip) for the Left Green party. She talked with us for about 45 minutes in a party conference room and offered a variety of insights into current affairs in Iceland. Among her more notable quotes: "Being an elected official does not make you a better person. It does make you fight to avoid becoming a worse person." Amen.
Today we climbed an old volcanic lava field up to some very famous caves. The short version is that the poverty and scarcity of resources in Iceland were so extreme that a family inhabited this cave and had three children there between about 1917 and 1920. They built a wood front onto it and simply set up house. One of the children born there is still alive, we think, but we haven't been able to find him.
The skies cleared and gave us a chance to view the partial solar eclipse here in Iceland. It is fortunate that the sun is not setting until after midnight, as 10pm was the maximum point of the eclipse. We used an old boy scout trick to avoid going blind: we poked a pinhole in some cardboard and projected the image of the sun through it onto some white paper. Once we got the focal length right it was a very clear image, as you can see in the photo. The marvels of nature at the arctic circle, where almost every night still brings frost.
Entry 1: June 1, 2011
We had a rocky start to our trip, as lightning fried the electrical system on the plane we were supposed to take out of RDU and we didn't get out until Saturday (with the last 10 seats on the Iceland Air plane). But our young Vikings were great about the whole thing and made it an easy obstacle to overcome. Now we are here and excitedly awaiting the partial solar eclipse that can be seen only from northerly latitudes. It will take place about 10:00 p.m., when the sun up here will still be well above the horizon, not setting until after midnight.
The herd of Icelandic horses that whose range we adjoin are fully into late spring. About 10 of the mares are VERY pregnant and have already delivered two foals. The sheep are having twins everywhere and the snipes are making their bizarre mating call by climbing very high into the sky and then diving so that their feathers vibrate like reeds on an instrument. We have already visited a beautiful waterfall, seen the mandatory geysirs, and tomorrow will visit a living history site based on a 10th century sod house and farmstead. Our students are eagerly trying out their Icelandic phrases with amazing results. And we have only been here four days!