Iceland: Scarred Beauty
Every manner of nature's violence has created Iceland's beauty. Gashed, slashed, ripped, burned, scorched – Iceland's incredible beauty stands before the visitor's eyes and continues to change as we watch. Icebergs melt and new icebergs are calved, rivers change course and sometimes wreak havoc along the way, volcanoes erupt in violent spasms. Subdued and dominated by man in most of the world, nature reigns supreme in Iceland, and people must deal with it.
Sitting at almost the top of the world, Iceland is overlooked by many tourists. Yet, 300,000 will stop by this year, just about equaling the number of residents. Most will visit in the summer when the 24-hour light, green grasses and comfortable temperatures (50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit) are the norm.
Hearty European hikers come like turtles, carrying their camping equipment on their backs. Wealthier tourists have a choice of many fine accommodations and restaurants, while the poorer ones make do in a number of well-run hostelries that have cooking facilities. Some destinations are accessible by rental car, bus service, tours and domestic flights.
Even with what are bound to be many cloudy and rainy days, the often staggering beauty of Iceland is intense. Waterfalls cascade, rivers, streams and brooks gush or meander, green crawls up the hills and mountains luxuriating in 24 hours a day of summer light. Fog lends atmosphere during walks along Vik's beach and the Iceberg Lagoon at Jokulsarlon.
For those fortunate enough to understand, Iceland is an open textbook on volcanoes, glaciers, tectonic plates, wildflowers and eighty varieties of nesting birds. Tortured landscapes, black sand, and vast lava fields show the power of nature; much more is hidden underground.
Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge. The spreading of the Atlantic is actually visible where the land is being literally ripped apart. Thingvellir is a remarkable example of the North American plate and the European plate pulling away from one another. In essence, you are standing on no-man's land in between those two plates. And, in another part of Iceland near Lake Myvatn, I trod where the astronauts come to practice walking on the moon.
Water conservation is necessary in a large part of our world, making a stark contrast to Iceland where water runs abundantly above ground, and underground. Not only is the air pure, but cool drinking water comes pristine-pure directly from the earth. Geothermally heated water is another of nature's gift to Iceland, providing hot water for showers and home heating.
Rich in water, both salt and fresh, Iceland is also rich in the bounties that water brings. From abundant fishing, which is the financial mainstay of Iceland, to the uplifting beauty of its waterways, to the freshness and cleanliness water brings with it, to the simple entertainment of an evening listening to the waterfalls making their way to the sea, Iceland is indeed fortunate.
This seemingly endless supply of water has opened up a controversy in today's Iceland. Electricity is a valuable commodity. Being able to produce electricity cheaply, Iceland has taken the huge step of agreeing for the first time to sell electricity to a foreign country to fuel an aluminum smelter plant. This aluminum smelter plant will bring with it not only jobs, but also something Iceland is not used to – pollution. Is it opening Pandora's box to make money in ways harmful to the natural environment?
Iceland is a colorful place. Especially in the summer, the various blues of the water, the fragile and courageous wildflowers, and the luscious greens of the vegetation stand out even though trees don't. All the trees, mostly low birch trees, were felled long ago by early settlers. There are attempts to re-forest, but it's a slow process. A very impressive exception is a true outdoor botanical garden in Akureyri. From a humble opening in 1912 by a local women's group, this amazing garden with mature trees and plants from around the world has flourished only miles from the Arctic Circle. Determination and careful tending still make it grow and bloom.
Among the vibrant summer wildflowers, Icelandic horses, sheep, and multi-colored cows graze peacefully up and down the hillsides. During all seasons, vividly colored houses and farmhouses are a welcome sight. In the darker fall and winter, the aurora borealis thrills the eye as it splashes color across the sky.
Iceland has the feel of the countryside in its old-time friendliness, unspoiled air and water, lack of crime, and low population. However, Iceland is completely modern and high tech. Cell phones, computers, modern medicine, and imported goods from all over the world are the norm. Coming from a storytelling culture, Icelanders are rightfully proud of close to 100% literacy. Education is highly valued and available. Icelandic is the language of Iceland and most Icelanders are bilingual, learning English early in their school years. Many are multilingual in Scandinavian and European languages.
Icelanders work hard and pay high taxes, but receive a lot for their tax money. Poverty in recent times has not been a problem for the vast majority. However, it is being seen and felt very recently along with the new phenomenon of unemployment. Also new are the larger numbers of immigrants and refugees than Iceland has seen before. There are now Bosnians, Thais, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, etc. in their communities. Icelanders all know and are proud of their genealogy, which has, until recently, been rather pure and limited. Future Icelanders will not fit the blond, white-skinned image and will speak Icelandic in a variety of accents.
Long after I left, visions of beautifully blond children, shaggy and sturdy Icelandic horses, sheep dotting unbelievable landscapes, basalt rock columns and lava-tossed fields, pink and delicious salmon, yummy breads and creamed soups, the colorful puffins, the 360 degree panoramas that no photo can capture still dance in my head. I miss the alive, breathing nature, the places where torture and beauty are one.