This bare, godforsaken island in the middle of the north Atlantic catches four hours of daylight in January, snow in the winter, and a cover of volcano ash every few years. For some inexplicable reason of insanity or wanderlust, a bunch of vikings considered Iceland a better place to live than their native Scandinavia. There must have been intrigue and pursuit, and an escape to an unknown, unsympathetic land far away from family and trade. 1200 years ago Iceland may have boasted with a few forests, but it forced the settlers down to their knees, to build houses of turf, survive through volcanic eruptions, and learn to catch and eat fish.
And learn they did. The adaptability of humans is astounding. Today Reykjavik (Smoky Bay) is less smoky and the steam and heat is harnessed into a geothermic heating system for the city. And when Kaupthingi bank fell in the credit crunch storm of 2008, Iceland (in contrast to other countries in distress) went against most IMF recommendations on how to push through the crisis – and survived. Again.
Fire and ice, and towers of steam. How easy it is to forget that we are all floating on a thin crust underneath so much heat! Yet this is the true nature of our Earth – both today and millions of years ago. This is where first life was created, in a primeval soup with a temperature close to 100 degrees centigrade.
We humans have a wonderful ability to restrict our reality to something immediate we can cope with. Curiously we consider ourselves safe and sound on a smoldering ball of fire and iron, spinning away in the solar system on the fine line between freezing cold and boiling hot. And so when a volcanic eruption blasts out a gentle reminder of a more objective reality, we are unable to accept that the world we consider green and beautiful and full of life is just a thin exception of the norm.
The sun rose just as we set out, at 11 am. How exhilarating to be on a joyride on steaming furry power machines trotting in a long line over the tundra. Icelandic horses are small and sturdy, and I thanked heavens for choosing duck boots as they got a good dip while crossing icy rivers.
Iceland is ice and fire, and so are its native horses. We tölted across the tundra while frost tipped the golden wisps of the rugged creature carrying me.
I buried my wind-chilled fingers into the heat glowing underneath the fur and reflected on the smoldering core of volcanoes and Icelandic horses.
The weak January sun was melting into a golden glow as we landed on Keflavik airport. As the gold turned into a deep blue we were whisked away to a lava moon landscape, ushered inside, handed robes and towels, and herded back outside under the new night sky wearing nothing but swimsuits. The cold crept under our skins in the split-second it took us to dive into the eerily white, hot, sulphur-scented water.
How difficult it is to recognize colleagues when all one sees is a head bobbing above the dimly lit water. How hopeless to recognize an office neighbor’s face covered in mud. What an odd cocktail party, with three hundred wet-haired heads bobbing next to blue drinks floating on the surface of a blue lagoon.
(Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland; January 2014)
His name is long vanished, but his bones still defy time. He was a chief and buried by his villagers high atop a hill. He was mourned, remembered, and worshipped. Temples were built and rebuilt over his body while his identity and story faded. Maybe he was a great man; or maybe he was a feared man? Perchance he was a wise man, or simply a human with kind, compassionate eyes?
Today his burial site is still worshipped, in an unbroken lineage going back two thousand years. Today he lies underneath the Cathedral of Geneva, right under the altar area.