Lost in the Forest of Iceland
I went to Iceland to gather material about the land, specifically the forest. If I have a working title for my project, it is simply ‘The Forest and Climate Change’. I drove out into the landscape in search of trees. They are hard to find. The land seems to spread itself out in all directions because there are few trees to block the view. A paper, ‘Forestry in a treeless land’ by Throstur Eysteinsson, caught my eye before going away. There is a saying there, ‘the people survived but the forest died’. Iceland exists on the periphery of our consciousness as an icon of wild nature, yet “more than 95% of the country’s forests and over half of its contiguous soil cover have been lost since the time the island was settled”(1). This loss mirrors my concerns for the indigenous forests of the world and particularly for the ancient coastal rainforest of my home in British Columbia and the boreal forests of northern Canada, vulnerable ecosystems that tentatively hold the ‘wild’ card. I am interested in the global significance of places where perception beguiles the environmental reality and the subsequent lack of responsibility to climate change in terms of the forests – land use change, afforestation, reforestation, wetland reclamation, carbon sequestration. Within these parameters, I am looking for correspondences in respect to an understanding of the role of forests and notions of wild, reclaiming the significance of the local in the context of the global and vice versa.
Materials gathered in Iceland included photographs and video footage of the forest flora and recorded interviews with foresters, a geographer and tree planters as well as talking to workers in Heidmork, the nature reserve outside Reykjavik. I leant of the struggle of afforestation and the meaning of trees in Iceland. The visual aspect of these taped conversations focuses on the hand gestures while speaking across a boardroom table or gloved hands gently touching the bark of a tree; the image of hand gesture as the human impetus to protect or flatten the forest, hands capable of signing binding agreements or washing their hands of responsibility.
Today, we are more aware of the connections between forests on a world scale. We can buy carbon credits to offset a flight, planting trees through an organization in another hemisphere or, while in Iceland, I signed a petition on-line to support an initiative to save an ancient forest in British Columbia within an hour drive of my home. We are a global community with the idea of the ‘global forest’ – an awareness of the forests covering the earth as a diverse and necessary blanket – yet we are not one forest, but many unique indigenous and modified treed landscapes that we inhabit.
1. Iceland’s Climate Change Strategy, Ministry of the Environment 2007, p. 16
Wandering in and around Reykjavik
This past month Reykjavik has come to feel like home. I take the local bus to points around and just out of the city, swim regularly in the outdoor thermal pool nearby, walk the short distance into town and back, and work in my studio with the sounds of the wind and rain muffled against the sky lights. Yesterday it snowed and somehow this is how I imagined Iceland, the whiteness of mountains across the water from our main windows reflecting the light of low clouds.
At the beginning of the month, Airwaves Music Festival sprung up in Reykjavik with music filtering out from bars and cafes throughout the town. In the middle of it all we had a hurricane. I saw a few bands cramped into crowded spaces, their music as varied as their names: ‘Just another Snake cult’, ‘Half Moon Run’, ‘Saytan’…
The smallest off-venue location was inside a tiny red house on the downtown plaza, the artists performing displayed on the nearby digital screen.
The festival ended with a concert by Sigur Ros playing in the blackened interior of the sports stadium. Pounding harmonic sounds and visuals. Great!
So, back to the streets in pictures.
City Hall on the pond in the centre of the city.
Inside the National Art Gallery looking out over the pond.
The Flea Market is open on weekends where you can find almost anything…
A 3-day tour of the south coast
Renting a small manual Toyota Yaris, I headed out of Reykjavik. The phrase ‘as far as the eye can see’ takes on new meaning in Iceland.
Around Reykjavik farms cover most of the landscape. There is incentive for the farmers to be part of afforestation in Iceland, planting trees in part as a way of diversifying their income from the land. Not too much evidence of this here.
Taking a detour off the main #1 highway, I headed north to visit the geothermal sulphur fields around Geysir.
Nearby is the Gullfoss waterfalls carved into the strata over the past 10,000years by the glacial river Hvita.
The adjacent wall of the gorge is patterned with ice as are the nearby plants.
When the first settlers arrived in Iceland around 1140 years ago, the landscape was estimated to be approximately 30% forested, mostly with birch. Now, planted forests of mixed conifers and broadleaf trees are being established in more sheltered areas even within the limited soils of the lava fields.
The free ranging sheep make it hard for small seedlings to get a start, so the forests are fenced in for their own protection.
The joke goes: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.
But things are changing here. A recent article by Throstur Eysteinsson called, ‘Forestry in a treeless land’, points towards the future, though currently the country is only about 1.5% forested.
Off the main highway, which is a narrow two-lane road running along the top of a dike with no shoulders whatsoever, farm buildings hug the mountains. Gravel roads lead off towards isolated villages and the sea. It is hard to imagine living out here in the dark of winter.
My destination for the night was a hostel in Vik, a small windswept coastal village of 267 Icelanders. Eating out of gas stations was one of the few options for food (arriving after hours anyway). The beach of black lava sands, carved rock, caves and surf is its beauty.
The largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull, extends down in fingers towards the coast. At first site, it appears almost like a low lying cloud forming around the shapes of the mountains. At one place, called Jokulsarlon or the iceberg lagoon, it meets with the sea.
I would have liked to have continued on, to drive the entire circle of roads around the country, but I will save that for another time.
I turned around and headed back to my ‘home’ in Reykjavik, leaving my shadow in the landscape of last light.
…….Tired of all who come with words, words but no language I went to the snow-covered island. The wild does not have words. The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions! I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow. Language, but no words. Tomas Transtromer ..
The first two weeks of my residency in Reykjavik have been quiet and a time of settling in, both to the space and the city. I am here for two months. As dusk approaches distant church bells ring across the low clouds. The days are getting noticeably shorter. For right now this feels to be a contemplative space, of listening to silences and letting the art form through small avenues of research. I have started another bark drawing to both focus myself somewhat and to mark my time here.
The first week was sunny almost every day, then thick cloud cover and scattered rain and winds came. I did not think about the wind here but of course there would be winds coming off the open Atlantic, fierce body stopping wind. On days when it is blowing, it’s constant sound wakes me and follows me through the day. I assume I will get used to this as I am getting used to the smell of rotten eggs from the hot water tap. Ah but the hot pools, swimming lengths in a thermally heated outdoor pool and then popping into the 45 degree hot tub.
My room at Seljavegur 32 is the top floor of the last building on the right – the blue penthouse. I have a small balcony through probably will not utilize it a great deal except perhaps to sneak out at night to see if the Northern Lights are showing. I have not seen them yet.
The kitchen/common room window looks out on the Atlantic and distant mountains.
A strange ‘sea circle’ bringing fish to the surface, as gulls lingered for several hours.
A few nights ago several of us decided to go to the dedication of the Imagine Peace Tower by Yoko Ono on Videy Island. Dressing warmly (only later did I realize I had eight layers on) we took a cab to the ferry dock. This was a night to bring out the Reykjavik crowd and the 10 minute ride over to the island was free for the occasion. The island is mainly rolling grasses with a few remaining historical buildings. Darkness was settling in when we arrived as we aggregated around a large slate platform with a tall ‘wishing well’ structure. The rain started just before Yoko Ono appeared, a small woman dressed in a shiny black down jacket and black top hat and sun glasses! A kind soul approached with a big umbrella but Icelanders really do not use umbrellas (the wind?). Oh yes, then they played John Lennon’s song, ‘Imagine’ over a great sound system and 15 individual beams of bluish light were projected into the sky, meeting at a single point. In the rain the light appeared in waves almost like water flowing upward. Then this massive crowd had to get off the island as we waited patiently for the rotation of boats. The number of survival suits hanging at the entrance reminded you that we are in the north Atlantic – a life preserver would not suffice here.
A few photos taken by Kristen Hoell, a photographer from Berlin, capture the mood of the night.
Walking the city streets, usually with my hood pulled up….
The view from the tower. Coming back down to an area behind the clock faces, a group of little boys were excitedly talking and pointing to the clocks. I was invisible to them until I pushed the down button to the elevator, when one looked curiously towards me. I said “down” and suddenly they were all whispering to each other and looking at me, then gesturing with hands, fingers raised in fives or sixes. Their ages. These basics of communication understood.
And home again through the narrow residential streets, a ten minute walk from town.