I went to Iceland last year. With 70 kids. I keep thinking about it. Here’s a thing I wrote.
From the distance of a few days, we thought we’d look back at what was, where we were; where we called from in those days of ice and fire. Bear with us, for the nature of these things, thanks to the ragged nature of our collective memory, means a certain amount of crevasse and elision. But, for the record, it went a bit like this…
It starts, naturally, with a shower. We gather in groups under grey skies and board the coaches. The laughing and singing starts at the motorway junction; it doesn’t stop for five days.
The airport is, weirdly, a breeze. We’re through, drifting through the shops and salons like wraiths, for what feels like hours. We board the plane and, after the briefest collective dreaming, we’re over the umbral plains of the south, craning for snow, for sustenance…
Our first trip is out onto a peninsula; our first experience the impossible geometry of lava, the enormity of the blue evening under spreading skies. Everything is everything else, rock upon rock, all coated with a green veneer of moss and lichen. Besides this, nothing grows. We’re used to the teeming land: rabbits, birdsong, woodscape, flurries in the leaf litter; here the silence of rock dominates everything.
We learn that the island is still young in geological terms – just 20 million short years, a foundling, a babe in arms – and this peninsula the youngest part of all. At Gunnuhver, you can feel this coming into being; you come to realise the silence above masks the enormity of what lies beneath: the roil of the land, the gouts of steam piercing the fractured surface, outpourings of the disturbances below. It makes a mockery of that which is supposed to be solid. We huddle in the steamscape, the stench of sulphur everywhere.
Later, after a swim under cold black skies, we head back to the hotel. A rumour starts that the northern lights are dancing above us. We sneer, but, slowly, we all tune in and there, there: a curtain of faintly falling dust, a hushed shadow of some other, greater celestial drama. We hold our breath, wanting time to stand still.
Today, at Kerið, the collapsed crater of an ancient volcano, we learn that the sun rises late, but rises just enough to light up the earth: the iron red of basalt, the deep blue of trapped water, the sharp refraction of light across the crater’s outer lip. At Gullfoss, we learn that there is more water on the face of the earth than we had previously imagined and that most of it crashes over these falls, into this deep canyon. At Geysir, we learn that all geysers are named after this one – the daddy, the progenitor, the uber-geyser – and that geysir is Icelandic for ‘a good bloke that always gets his round in’ and that a cup of tea in Iceland costs roughly a month’s wages, and hell, it’s Earl sodding Grey.
We also learn that Mrs Brown knows everything there is to know about Icelandic horses (let’s be honest, she knows everything), that they’re smaller than other breeds of horse, but are definitively not ponies and that they can open 5 different types of gate. Something like that. We also find out, watching dense, muscle-bound fish hanging in the river’s breeze at Thingvellir, that Will H knows everything there is to know about Arctic Trout – their breeding habits, the fungus they wear on their broad backs, their habitats. They turn out to be Arctic Char, but we won’t hold that against him.
And, also at Thingvellir, we learn what it’s like to stand between two continents, on land that is no land, made of ice and fire and the blood of the ancients, on land that is belched into being beneath our very feet and which grows at the same rate as our fingernails, on land where the first parliament was created and where democracy was enacted in its purest state since Ancient Greece and where we are humbled at the enormity of what we see, what we are, and what we might become. We give a huge Icelandic roar to the heavens, the fibrous wall of our voices carrying into the murk of lowered sky, to the hills, to the ancient ones, watching from the spaces in-between. On the way home, we sing louder than ever, singing ourselves into being.
It all starts to blur into one. We’re behind a waterfall, blinking through rainbows and spray at the spreading land. We’re at the foot of a mighty glacier, a glacier reaching for the sea, but never quite arriving. A glacier shrinking by the year, retreating to its mountain hideaway and the secret pact with the volcano over which it presides. We scale its massive, creaking back, the sun out now, creating tiny rivers in the impossible plurality of ice. We dodge crevasses, stopping to lap at the melting ice, and head for the summit, pausing to hack lumps out of the ice, each imagining our own antagonist. It’s not until we’re on our way back down, decked out in warpaint (OK, volcanic dust) that we notice the baroque nature of what we’re climbing: here, at the ablation area nearest the lagoon, the glacier is at its most operatic: cornice over dome, crenellation over cupola, over frenulum, over canyon, over coulee. And it’s not until we stop that we notice that glaciers talk to themselves – listen to all that chatter, that creaking and moaning, the chuckle of water, the whisper of ice on ice. No wonder the Icelanders believe so strongly in the hidden people.
Finally, we go to the black beach and stand agog again at the power of water. It’s no wonder that Iceland produces its electricity entirely from green sources: they are surrounded by the sublimity of nature, the awesome forces of the Great Other. Fire and ice, water and wind. But, being Icelanders, they have learned to listen, and have learned to harness this power, forging a fragile pact with the forces of nature. At the beach, we see the dark side of this and learn about sneaker waves. These aren’t waves that want to gatecrash your party or nick your stereo, no, these are waves that want to nick you. We think we’re far enough back, but the sneak is true to its word, and a few get wet. It’s when we see a couple nearly get swept from the basalt cliffs that we realise it’s time to go.
Today is about sky and water, water and sky. We scream at mighty Skógafoss waterfall, hiding in rock clefts, hiding in rainbows. We climb to the top and gaze at the tipping point, wondering, wondering at what it would be like to sail over, reborn in water.
The folk museum is an odd highlight. We get a true sense of the kinds of lives Icelanders have lived, how modernisation came so late, and how many lived harsh, rural lives for so long – bypassing the revolutions that gripped continental Europe. This isn’t a glimpse of the age of Kings, the age of industry, so much as a glimpse of the Neolithic alongside something like the Victorian – a style of living that lasted into the late 19th century.
We drive the coast road, the sun fierce through the afternoon haze. Here, under a wall of cliffs, it’s more apparent than ever that we’re driving on what is essentially the bottom of the ocean, the land borrowed from the sea, and that Iceland is a drama of this play between opposites: land and sea, fire and ice, ghost and living, family and ancestors, rock and air. We exist between this play of elements, rumours ourselves, grasping at eternity while trying to make sense of the present, the ground shifting beneath us.
Then, post-lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches, always ham and cheese sandwiches) we walk into the hills. The day blazes about us. We can see from the monumental drama of Eyjafjallajökull in the interior, right out across the flat coastal plains to the sea – knowing that there is no landfall between here and the Antarctic. In terms of the autumnal ochres and pale green of the hills, this might be Scotland, but in Scotland the very land doesn’t seethe and broil, jets of steam rising out of the ground to form layers of cloud about your feet. We climb toward the sun, and there, buried in the hills, we find a stream warm enough to swim in. From a distance, the sound of singing and joyful shrieking is like the music of the spheres.
We finish in the Blue Lagoon, pasting ourselves in silica. In our own private dramas, we’re hoping for younger, clearer skin, for a dewrinkling miracle, for a new head of hair; instead, we get ourselves the warmest of baths, held as if in the chambers of the earth’s beating heart. And this will do.
Later, we take off into the shimmering blue. We leave the dense, lavaic planes, the long, barren solitude of the interior, the creaking glaciers, the hidden currents of fire at the island’s dark heart. And, in the long lines of our leaving, we notice the rhythms of our own blood and fire and realise we too have new ground on which to stand, from which to regard ourselves, and, best of all, at the centre of our own soft workings, maybe, just maybe, we know our hearts that little bit better.