IV. Beauty, Meaning and Terror

We talk about our Viking heritage, but we always skip the fact that fifty percent of the settlers were slaves. We talk about our businessmen and their Viking mentality, but we also have a slave mentality.”

-Andri Snær Magnason

The car is ours for another day, so we drive east again to the Golden Circle, which consists of three remarkably convenient tourist attractions- Þingvellir (Thing-vet-lir) National Park, the immense Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir, the eponymous geyser from which all others take their name.  After the exhaustion of the previous day, it was no issue to get the car packed and moving at a good time.  Now the biggest challenge I faced was a dead iPod, forcing me to listen to some truly dreadful Icelandic rap CDs that Ken picked up.  They were in the sale bin for a reason.

(An aside on the Icelandic rap game: recently, two Icelandic rappers were invited on to a radio show to discuss their ongoing beef.   One came packing a knife and stun gun, and tried to stab the other prior to the interview.  The intended victim fought off his assailant with a mop, upon which the attacker fled the studio, later turning himself into police.  I hope he did so out of pure shame, having been thwarted by a mop-wielding man on the defensive.  Goodbye street cred.)

We retrace our route east on the Ring Road out of the city, heading south toward Þingvellir first.  It was a beautiful morning, the sun breaking through in shafts of light on the horizon, the wind consistent but not unbearable.  We stop at Lake Þingvallavatn, the largest lake on the island, to take in the scenery.  The road is the single indicator of human presence in the entire landscape, nothing else, save the cars that used it.  Nothing but wind, water and ground.  I was seized by an intense desire to pack up one of these stout Icelandic horses with some dried food and disappear within these icy hills.  Whatever would be waiting for me there, I was ready to find out.

Instead, we pile back in the car, and made our way to Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a unique geological feature settled on top of the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate.  Iceland is literally being split in half right before our eyes.  If not for the continuous volcanic activity, Iceland might be cleaved within a few million years.  Atop a ridge, you can clearly see the demarcation between the plates, and the little spits of land that straddle them.  Huge walls of imposing gray stone funnel us down into the rifts of the plates, into the lower part of the park.  Within these splits rests Þingvellir, and the cradle of Icelandic nationhood.

Þingvellir was the site of the Alþingi (‘Althing,’ literally the all-thing), the original Icelandic democratic body, and the oldest such body in the world, first gathered in circa 930 AD.  Every midsummer, on the brightest days of the year, the various Viking chieftains and leaders assembled on this plain beneath the immense gray reefs of stone to conduct the business of a nation.  The small canyon that we walked through would be filled to the walls with tents and structures full of merchants, tradesmen, leaders, performers of every stripe.  A combination of legislature, supreme court, sentencing body, feast and carnival, the Alþingi represented the ambitions of a society to rule itself without rulers.  Governance without government.  While the poorer farmers and laborers did pledge allegiance to the various chieftains of the territory (who also farmed or fished; no massively wealthy landowners), they were free to change that devotion at will.  Behind this backdrop, force remained the law of the land.  Half the population was enslaved.  Violence was commonplace.  The land itself had little or no mercy.  Considering these challenges and maintaining a society in a brutal, harsh land, the Icelanders should be renowned for initiating a democracy upon the earth in such an atmosphere.

Looking at it from afar, I was particularly struck by the relative success of this mode of governance.  For three centuries, the Icelanders were able to govern themselves largely free of formal hierarchy and a command class.  Perhaps it had something to do with the isolation, size, landscape, or outlook of the Viking settlers- likely all combined.  Throughout history, only very few societies have reached this level of development- some Native American nations, the Spanish anarchist states, the short-lived Makhnovist experiment in Ukraine- and like the rest, Iceland fell to outside invaders.

Whether it was misplaced or not, I felt an affinity to the site, like I could feel the history there beating just below the surface.  My mother’s side comes from Viking stock, and although it was not these Vikings that populated Þingvellir so many centuries ago, they were joined by language, culture, and social structures.  This is the closest I have ever been to my heritage in its rawest, oldest form.  The fact that this place also represented the oldest formal democratic body, one that sought to involve the common man and strove for transparency and participation, makes it all the more poignant.  The potential of human kind, and our societies, is held in these arrangements that allow the truth to be known, and the freedoms of the people to be exercised.  Beneath these gray skies, pierced with occasional rays of illuminating sunshine, this valley represented all these things at once.  I felt as close as I have ever come to some spiritual home.

As the river Öxára flows from the higher plateau down a waterfall, it runs parallel to the cliff before flowing toward Þingvallavatn, leaving a delta of tidal pools and spits of land throughout the small valley.  Large fish splash through shallow pools which connect to the larger lake.  The continental rift splits high ridges into the landscape, filled with still crystal-clear water, inviting enough to drink.  I was content with drinking in this totality of natural landscape with all my senses.  There is something profound and deep about this place, and I really wanted to contemplate it further.  But I find it is good to sometimes leave myself wanting more, and leave it at that, lest that significance and appreciation be dulled by overexposure.

Eventually, we file back to the car, and continue on our way to Gullfoss, which we agreed would be our next and final destination.  Leaving the lower regions of Þingvellir, we begin ascending higher into the mountains.   It took an inordinate amount of time on back roads, jouncing over potholes and ridges, to reach the Gullfoss turnoff.  The clouds grew darker, more menacing.  Nearest to Gullfoss, one mountain at the head of a ridge acted as a jetty upon a racing cloudbank, splitting it in half as the cloud broke upon it.  All I could hear was the raging wind, which tore at my body harder than anything I have experienced.  I am not a small man.  I am lanky and also weighed down by a deceptively heavy frame, yet I was almost knocked ass-end-over the wooden railing into the scrubby ground.   And here I am walking to a cliffside and waterfall?

Descending the stairway to the lower ledge, my jaw drops as each step reveals more of Gullfoss.  The roar of whitewater flowing down two major steps, into the chasm below, is deafening.  Gray and forbidding, the Hvíta river thunders through the channel, disappearing below the dark walls.  The mist rising from the breakers below accumulates on both canyon walls, freezing into a dusting of white frost clinging to the sheer rock walls.  The power is so stirring, so intimidating!

The dirt path takes us down lower into the chasm, and upward back on spray-slick rocks to the very start of the waterfall.  I’m not more than a few feet from the raging flow of ice-cold water, thousands of gallons racing under my feet every second.  I’m filled with an almost religious sense of awe and dread.  I find it curious that I’ve only felt certain about (and close to) God when I am deep among His creations, far from any human-built church contraption filled with His last flawed projects.  Maybe He used up all his best ideas first, and we were the leftovers.  Spare parts and detritus.

Standing atop the slippery ledge, watching the waters fall away below me, the idea of power is irresistible.  The tricky part is figuring out what kind of ‘power’ people take away from this experience.  Where I see nature exhibiting what it is capable of, others see terawatts and euros and generators.  Gullfoss, despite its grandeur, international renown, and historical role, should not be considered safe from encroaching power development.  Indeed, perhaps it is that, if the suited men in Reykjavík get their way.  For several decades now, the chess pieces have been lined up to turn the immense energy capabilities of Iceland into raw materials production- a Faustian bargain of increased jobs in exchange for everything that makes Iceland unique, beautiful, and travel-worthy.

The mode of thought that makes this possible, according to Magnason, harkens back to the earliest days of Icelandic history.  It is often strange that those who land in a country first create the folkways, memes, and standards that percolate through later-coming groups, and filter down into society as assumptions, and later, truths.  Perhaps the American discomfort with the body and sex, yet acceptance of violence, has something to do with our Puritan history, and the large numbers of repressive sects that made their homes here while embracing redemptive violence.  For the Icelanders, living in such a forbidding land with survival always a tenuous proposition, there may have been a tendency in the national conscience to latch on to one means of survival as that which ‘saves’ the society.   In the days of the settlers, this may have been a literal truth- the Icelanders became excellent fishermen because they had to be.   Fishing kept the Icelandic society alive, literally and figuratively.   Then lets also consider the effect that colonial submission has on a people- fealty to a distant foreign power, domination by outside laws and regulations, and little agency in political life.

For many centuries, these traits, coupled with the Icelandic capacity for hard work and toughness that rivals our own American conceptions of pioneers and cowboys, colored the national character.  Strong but vulnerable.  After generations of turf houses (which has become an oft-stated trope in Icelandic discourse), returning to those bad old days has become the primal national fear.   As such, there became a tendency to latch on to whatever means there were to keep society strong and profitable, writ large over the entire society.  Government policy became incredibly sensitive to this fear of backsliding, and for a country of 300,000 with a low birth rate and some of the highest educated-people in the world, unemployment and job creation became the paramount concern.

In their sense of leadership, the government began a scheme to construct the largest dam in Europe, flooding three reservoirs in eastern Iceland on top of irreplaceable wetlands in order to power an aluminum smelter near the town of Reyðarfjörður.  Until the dams were built, the site held the second-largest unspoiled wilderness in all of Europe.  Now, all this hydropower is used to fuel the operations of the aluminum smelter, which not coincidentally is one of the most heavily-polluting industrial undertakings.   This is the kind of project that is commonly sited in countries where business is indistinguishable from government, unions often meet after dark with death squads, protests are broken with truncheons, and the voice of the people is often silenced.  Third world countries get smelters because they are dirty, dangerous, and have a short life-span.  How did a modern, well-educated and democratic country get saddled with one?  How did a town of 1200 have such a crippling unemployment problem that the best solution was an aluminum smelter?  Should I mention that the population of the town doubled during construction- with workers from Poland contracted to build the facility?  Besides, saddled as they are with all the green energy they could ever need, they are using it to power the most dirty, polluting industries they can?  It blows my mind. In one fell swoop, a nation pisses away all the benefit of having that clean energy source.

It is a fear manifested in many forms.  Fear to explore a new way of life, and relying on the same old development model that is simple and straightforward- new factory = new jobs.  But it’s a new world with new levels of automation, and one that is captive to a global market.  If aluminum prices drop and shipping the raw material to Iceland is no longer feasible, Reyðarfjörður could be permanently crippled if it becomes reliant on the smelter for work.  Now Iceland is a participant in the great globalist race-to-the-bottom, where environmental, labor, and safety laws aren’t protections, they are hindrances to greater profit, and the incentive worldwide is to strip them out to get the cheapest workforce possible.  It has been written the world over, and it’s truly a sad day that one of the most intelligent and driven peoples on Earth are now beholden to this process, instead of using their natural talents and abilities to build their economy organically, without governmental agendas pushing limited options.  All along, it was “if you’re against the smelter, you are against jobs, development, progress.”  That is bullshit, through and through.  If you are for the smelter, and selling off the land in order to fund these kinds of projects, you are voting against the capacities of your people to build their own future.  It’s a vote to put on the yoke once again.

Is Gullfoss next in the great sell-off?  Time will tell.  According to Magnason, the complete utilization of every drop of hydroelectric power in Iceland, the damming of every river possible, would provide Iceland with 30 terawatt/hours of power for use.  Including Gullfoss.  Compared to the potential elsewhere in the world, this is best considered an ass-wipe amount of potential.   If the government of Iceland, encouraged by the acquiescence and silence of the larger body politic, proceeds along this path, it would be a remarkable tragedy.  Iceland possesses a landscape like none other.  To sell it off to foreign companies bent on polluting their way to a higher share price just seems criminal. Land has value when it is untouched.  People come to Iceland to literally look at the land. They take pictures, walk its paths, climb its mountains.  They need places to stay, the means to get around, food, drink, gear. Why this isn’t being pursued further I will never know.

Thinking about this landscape under the auction block is very upsetting.  The immense force of the water stirs something very primal and basic in me.  This is our world flexing its muscles.  That’s what this entire island is about.  Every one of its elements is turned up to the maximum volume and sharpest contrast, much unlike the land I call home, of gentle hills, summer rainstorms and mild winters.  Here, the wind is fierce, the waters raging, the earth violent.   Iceland is all the rough edges of our planet captured in one small island.  It is adrenaline tempered with the surreal.  I’ll be sad to leave this place- it has awoken a whole new perspective on me, and a way of looking through the world without all the trappings and distractions that dominate daily life.  When a thousand years of people have lived on a barren, windswept Arctic island and turned it into a thriving, cutting-edge society, you are definitely inspired to do more with your cushy, weak-ass life.  I know I am capable of more, and I hope Iceland knows that same, too.   So don’t destroy what is beautiful in order to achieve what is tolerable.  Go for broke.  Make it happen.  Right on.

FAREWELLS

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

-Edward Abbey

One last beer at the airport, trying to get tired (again), and we boarded the plane, leaving Iceland and the sun to our rear.  There was one final treat for me as we departed the land of fire and ice; cruising over the north Atlantic, we were re-routed by turbulence a few degrees to the north.  Where on the way out we barely passed within sight of Greenland, this time we flew directly over a razor’s-edge mountain range in the interior.   Like needles poking up under white fabric, these intimidating mountains expressed no mercy.  Draped from peak to base in snow, Greenland bade us farewell, and I knew beyond all else, someday I will set foot there and breath that bitter Arctic air, get it in my lungs, let that cold burn my skin.

I grow a little sadder; I fell in love with this land, and it is hard to depart.   Is there any way I could over-stay my visa, find a job, and make a living here?   A tempting option, but leaving behind fiance, family, friends and dog is just not worth it, at all.   At that moment, my iPod growls at me:

Ya can’t go home but ya can’t stay here…

No, I can’t go home, not after seeing this- nothing will ever look the same.  I’ll never be able to live without this kind of clarity again.  But I know, I can’t stay here, and not just for practical reasons.  I have way too much for me in America.  I will be back, though; there is so much left to see and do, so much land to tread upon, and drink in with all my senses.  Yes, I will return.

It is land like this, like Greenland, like Utah, like Namibia and a thousand other places, the most unforgiving and intimidating, that lets you get to the marrow of life.  The earth tests us, and when we are able to walk among it, experience and respect it, that focus and openness rewards us so fully that it can change your entire perspective.  Nothing looks the same again.  You tune in with the natural harmonies of the planet, the universe, all of reality.  You understand that the purpose and meaning of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade to the tiny titmouse, like Cactus Ed says.   Wild land is an end to itself, and it is there that we find out who and what we really are.   I can only pray that we learn from the land what it is trying to teach us, and take away everything that it gives us, with imaginations newly full and hands empty.

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