Sunday, August 31, 2014

Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

Coming home from a tour of Iceland comes closest to the feeling of having been to another world and back.  Indeed American astronauts trained for their first landing on the moon near the center of Iceland, so my analogy is not far fetched.

In geological terms, Iceland is a truly young landmass, very much a nature’s work in progress. New land is still being created by lava flows and new islands emerge from under water volcanic eruptions, the newest being Surtsey, about 50 years old, off the southern coast of Iceland. (Surtsey is off limits to casual tourists to keep it pristine for earth scientists to study new land creation.)

Iceland is frequently called the land of fire and ice. Fire comes from the constant volcanic and geothermal activities beneath the surface and ice from the weight of massive glaciers above. The consequent landscape reflect those qualities, fields of jagged lava rocks, glacier waterfalls that cut through mountains, jagged if formed after the ice age and flat table silhouetted if the mountains were sheared by the retreating ice. The landscape was light green from the moss that grew on the lava and darker green from the grass farmers planted for the livestock. Iceland has no indigenous tall trees or large land animals.  In order to protect their domesticated livestock, local inhabitants were quick to kill rare sighting of polar bears that landed from drifting icebergs. Before the advent of man, any unfortunate bear that landed on the relatively barren Iceland most likely starved to death.

That's sand eels hanging in its mouth
Before humans discovered Iceland, it was already migratory birds’ favorite honeymoon spot. Millions and millions came to Iceland in the summer months to mate and breed. Approximately 80% of world’s puffins have their nests on Iceland. That comes to more than 20 visiting puffins for every Icelander.  Sadly because of climate change and resulting shift in the food chain, increasingly fewer puffin chicks survive the breeding season and grow strong enough to join their parents for the migration to the open ocean where they spend the rest of their time. Puffin’s average life expectancy is about 40 years, so there is still time for the species to adapt and reverse the path to extinction.  (Our tour of Iceland began in late August, which was a tad late for viewing puffins in their natural habitat, but I was fortunate to photographed one on the water.)

The official settlement of Iceland was attributed to a couple of Vikings around 870 AD. Some Irish priests may have been in Iceland a hundred years earlier but weren’t around by the time the Vikings arrived. Life on the rugged island was far from easy and most did not come willingly but usually under duress, such as having worn out their welcome in their homeland in Norway by committing some egregious indiscretion such as killing somebody important. 

The original settlers came without a written language and had to pass down their traditions and rules of conduct through oral recitations and the integrity of the oral history greatly depended on the memory of those passing them on.

By the 12th century AD, the alphabet was introduced from the British Isles but adapted to represent the Icelandic version of the Norwegian language. The invention of paper had already arrived in the West from China but had not yet found its way to Iceland and writing was restricted to inscribing on the skin of farm animals, understandably a much more costly medium. Snorri Sturluson was one such wealthy landowner/farmer/major chieftain who transcribed much of the oral history into written sagas. He was not only a major contributor to Icelandic history and culture but also that of Norway since much of the roots of the sagas originated from Norway.

According to Icelandic sagas, Leif Erickson was the first to sail to America and even settled there for a part of his life in late 10th and early 11th century AD. His sister-in-law, Gudridur, who was in his party, even gave birth to a boy in 1004 on an island thought to be today’s Manhattan. Her first husband who was Leif’s brother had died and Gudridur was married to someone else when Snoori, not related to Sturluson, became the first white baby boy to arrive in the “new” world. Unlike Iceland, the new world was already inhabited and the Vikings apparently did not find a way to coexist with the American natives and eventually abandoned their settlement and went back to Iceland.

Gudridur was a remarkable woman and well travelled having gone back to Iceland from Greenland then America, and then to Europe and even to Rome to meet the Pope before returning to Iceland and to retire in a convent. Gudridur most likely talked about her days in the new land to the west because according to Icelanders, an Italian was known to have visited Iceland in 1470 and stayed for a couple years to learn all he can about the new lands. This was why 20 years later, the same Italian, Columbus was able to set forth brimming with confidence that he would find land. No doubt, the Vikings would have found his wide margin of navigational error appalling.

In preparing to settle in Iceland, Vikings had to bring everything they needed to survive such as horses, sheep and cattle and even lumber for the construction of their dwellings. After the trickle of migrating Vikings halted, the populations remaining on the island were left to develop in relative isolation. As the main beast of burden, the horses evolved into a hardy breed that can survive the winters in the open. The Icelandic sheep’s wool is particularly soft and the lamb meat particularly tasty. Retrospective study through genetic testing showed (according to the National Museum) that about 80% of the men are descended from the Vikings but 62% of the women trace their origin from mothers from the British Isles, especially from Ireland. No doubt the Vikings supplemented their breeding stock of women en route from Norway to Iceland.

The living conditions on Iceland were harsh, barely allowing the settlers to scrape by, relying on farming and fishing, and did not leave much time for cultural pursuits. The population never exploded nor developed the wealth needed to grow into a great civilization. They also had the good fortune of living on a barren land unmarked by gold ore that would have been the magnet for avaricious European adventurers. Even today, the total population of Iceland is around 320,000, more than 2/3 living in the greater Reykjavik engaged in usual urban occupations and not with farming and fishing. With a landmass of 42,000 square miles, it is slightly larger than the state of Tennessee but at a population density of 3 per square km, Iceland with roughly one thousandth of the U.S. population is only denser than Montana, Wyoming and Alaska among the U.S. states.

While inhabitation of Iceland occurred in relatively recent human history and from a rather humble beginning, the country in recent years has flourished and has become a modern nation with enviable metrics of success. Not least is its relatively low unemployment and possession of world leading technology in the utilization of geothermal energy for electricity generation and hot water for heating. About 95% of the population are regular users of the Internet, a significantly higher acceptance than the rest of Europe. Free access to the Internet was everywhere, including not just the hotels but nearly every café and restaurant provide access for the asking without any complicated log in process. Visitors to the Blue Lagoon would be impressed with the use of the smart chip to monitor entry and exit, personal use of lockers as well as keeping track of purchases of food and beverage while bathing in the lagoon.

Since 2010, tourism in Iceland has been increasing at double-digit rate. For the current year, Iceland expects to welcome more than one million visitors for the first time.  Our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel specializes in small group travel limited to not more than 16 per group. OAT 11-day group tours arrived nearly one per day during the summer months and they contracted 25 professional trip leaders in order to take care of them all. On our OAT tour, we saw waterfalls of varying sizes, glaciers in the distant and up close, a landscape of strange lava rock formations dotted by occasional little churches and farm houses, birds and whales offshore and Icelandic horses and sheep on land.
Three representative photos to show the diversity of Icelandic landscape
The Icelanders we met were uniformly warm and friendly, educated and easy to talk to in English. Our affable trip director, Oddur, kept teaching us about all aspects of Iceland with grace and ease. Vignir, our driver, is writing a book based on the oral history of selected Icelanders. Instead of eating in their restaurant in Heimaey, the owners hosted dinner at their home and entertained us with the story of the 1973 eruption that buried part of Heimaey on Westmen Islands but increased the landmass by 20%. They also sang for us and Oddur was invited to join in for a number Kingston Trio made famous. The husband of the couple that home hosted our dinner in Akureyri was a trained journalist, now chief editor of a weekly paper, and an author of several books. His wife is resuming her education pursuing a PhD in museology. Oddur at various stops on the tour would play the church organ or piano for us. I am left with the impression that many Icelanders face years of long dark winter days by developing other skills and interests making them interesting people to interact with.

Statue of Leif Erickson, a gift of the US government
(so the story about him must be true)