Iceland’s appeal starts with its geology — it’s the only spot where, with dry feet, you can see the meeting of the North Atlantic Plate and the Eurasian Plate — or rather, see their parting. This rift in the earth’s crust offers active volcanoes, and geothermal heat for communal bathing or radical environmentalism; plus a beautifully stark and frequently changing landscape.
It’s a landscape that’s closely linked to a twelve-hundred-year human history, recorded from the very beginning with gossip-column granularity in the Old Norse sagas and other works. They describe the early days of a crowd-sourced DIY justice system and what is now the world’s longest-running parliament. For a lapsed medievalist and sometime student of jurisprudence, this stuff is catnip.
There’s even more to recommend the country though. It’s one of those places where people go to watch for the Northern Lights, for example. Icelandair promotes the island as the ideal stopover on any transatlantic journey. The growth of tourism means that good food and accommodations are easy to find — though they may be pricey. After all, most things that don’t contain wool, fish, or lava need to be brought in from far away.
Thus, traditional fare is somewhat idiosyncratic. We were offered whale. And foal! And — puffin! We declined all of these, on the basis of either sympathy or scarcity. It’s worth noting that the small, stalwart Iceland horses, their bloodlines traced as carefully as those of the Vikings, are thought by some to be about twice as numerous as really necessary, perhaps because others join us in refusing to dine at their expense.
One surprising example of local plenty is the tomatoes grown at Friðheimar. The big indoor farm there uses geothermal heat for energy, cold well water for irrigation, and, at any one time, hundreds of workers brought in from the Netherlands.
In white cardboard boxes. Because they’re bumblebees! The bees, the yards-tall columnar plants, and soup-slurping tourists cheerfully share a one-and-a-quarter-acre greenhouse. Cucumbers are grown there as well and, I suspect, basil. And those sturdy little horses, right next door.
We can’t claim to have toured the island thoroughly. We had some of our bike stuff with us though, on our way to a different trip, and we rode around the capital with Reykjavik Bike Tours. On another day, they took us with some mountain bikes out to the Westman Isles, site of one of the earliest human occupations (and the first visit by a foreign scholar).
What a thrill, on that excursion also, to hear the story of Njals Saga retold by our guide, though in somewhat abbreviated form, virtually within sight of Njall’s home at Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar’s at Hlíðarendi. All but perhaps the oldest Icelanders speak perfect English, by the way, thanks in part to American Forces Television, which arrived in 1951.
On that same outing we visited the town of Eyrarbakki, once a bustling port but now, after the consolidation of the fishing industry elsewhere, mostly a monument to an earlier lifestyle. It’s the location of the country’s largest prison too, currently home to some of the bankers who helped to precipitate the 2008 financial collapse. I was moved to observe that Americans, who value deceit more highly, gave their bankers bonuses instead of sentences.
Icelanders are proud of their past, and are good-natured about their tourist-intensive present. The future is uncertain but they’re in a better position than people in a lot of other places, with a seemingly limitless source of clean energy.
The effects of a warming climate can be seen within their borders, but the causes lie mostly without. Glaciers currently cover about 11 percent of Iceland; in 2014, the first one of them was downgraded to a snowfield: it’s no longer thick enough to flow as ice. In August, while we were there, the former glacier was commemorated with a bronze plaque. The text is “A letter to the future:”
. . . In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
Of course one of the things that may need to be done, is a lot less air travel. With Greta Thunberg sailing, instead of flying, to the U.S. at about the same time, we were beginning to notice some flygskam. We’re hoping to do more rail travel in the future. I feel lucky that Iceland is one of the places that we got to visit.
Back to the subject of bumblebees, here’s one we found at work near Reykjavik’s city hall. I thought at first that it might be one of the guest-workers who had been out-placed, but the gray abdomen suggests that it is Bombus hypnorum, the New Garden Bumblebee, arrived this century from mainland Europe. The bumblebee of agriculture is B. terrestris, the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, which sports a second ginger stripe and a fascinating sociology. I think we saw some of them on a later part of our trip, in Sweden.