A Land Of Light And Dark
By Lara Evans
Iceland. The very name conjures a host of preconceived notions: cold, antiquated and far away, for starters. But not only do these stereotypes miss the mark, they miss the point. Iceland, as it emerges onto the global scene, has a unique story to tell. One of pure, uncontaminated resources; clean, renewable energy; and sustainable agriculture. A story of a people still closely tied to their land and their origins. Yet also a story of fun and adventure. Iceland, it turns out, is an environmentalist’s icon and a tourist’s revelation rolled into one.
I find all this and more when I visit this largely self-subsisting island, which is about the size of Kentucky or Ohio. Driving from the airport into the capital city of Reykjavík (pronounced Ray’-kyä-veek), the two-lane highway is the only distinguishing feature in the expanse of rolling black lava fields carpeted in green moss. Hills rise above the landscape in the distance, flecked with hints of grass blowing in the wind. Trees are scarce. Yet it is beautiful, like the barren magnificence of the New Mexico desert, or the flat splendor of the Serengeti grasslands.
Occasionally, I notice the steam from geothermal springs drifting up from vents in the earth and understand how Viking adventurer Ingólfur Arnarson was fooled. When he settled Iceland in 874, he saw “smoke” rising in the distance and so named his destination Reykjavík, meaning “Smoky City.” In fact, he had spotted the same type of geothermal steam I was seeing, which is now used to heat the entire city, smoke-free.
In less than an hour I arrive in Reykjavík, home to 170,000 residents, almost 70 percent of Iceland’s population. Just a five-hour flight from New York or two hours from London, Reykjavík sits on the southwestern edge of the island and is framed on the north by Mt. Esja, a mountain of great sentimental significance to the natives, and a harbor to the south. Walking the small, winding, distinctly European streets, I find a sophisticated yet quaint city full of art galleries, museums, theaters, world-class restaurants and great shopping. Laekjartorg Square, the city’s primary “piazza,” serves as the charming town center. It is surrounded by 19th century buildings, the duck-filled city pond called Tjörnin, and Reykjavík City Hall, built on stilts that ascend from the pond’s edge. I feel safe walking around by myself, and for good reason—Iceland’s crime rate is practically nil.
I have no problem ordering coffee or asking directions. English is generally the second or third language of Icelanders, following Icelandic, or Old Norse—a language alive and well and known only to the 280,000 natives—and Danish, since the island used to be under the jurisdiction of the Danish crown. In fact, after losing its independence to Norway in 1262 and then later becoming subject to Denmark, Iceland has been independent only since 1944.
As I stroll around the city on this warmish late-August day, I’m perfectly comfortable in my jeans, long-sleeved shirt and jacket. I’ve read, although only now am really considering, that winters in Boston and New York are colder than those in Iceland and that snow is not common in Reykjavík. This is due, I learn, to the warm Gulf Stream, which maintains a fairly mild climate in Iceland and makes the very name of the place a misnomer. Some believe Viking Leif Erickson named the country Iceland in order to keep people away from this resource-rich location (and conversely dubbed Greenland such to encourage people to go to that glacier-filled island). Others say the country was named after the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was known to have beautiful land in the north; “Isis Land” eventually became Islandia in the native tongue and lost its origins. Either way, Iceland has borne its chilly label as both a curse—it doesn’t attract tourists—and a blessing—it doesn’t attract tourists.
In recent years, however, that’s been changing. In fact, I am staying in a private apartment during my visit because there are no hotel rooms available. Iceland boasts excellent fishing, hiking, golfing (in June, 24 hours per day), glacier four-wheeling, whale watching, culture and art. And the isolated hot springs tucked into the folds of the hills are gaining popularity. For better or worse, tourists like me are discovering Iceland.
A few days later, I take a drive up north into the countryside. While the hills and mountains appear coated with short, blowing grasses and shrubs, many herbs grow among them. I will see this the following day when I hike an hour up a peak and into a valley to soak in a creek comprised of glacial waters and boiling hot springs. The result is a beautiful mountain stream naturally heated to a balmy 101°F. It is on the way down that I note the variety of plants growing close to the ground.
These botanicals may prove to be more powerful than their continental counterparts. While Iceland’s growing season lasts only about four months, it is blessed by many hours of sunlight. Many Icelandic herbalists believe this short but intense growing period makes for particularly potent herbs. University studies are currently testing this theory on Icelandic angelica (Angelica sinensis), specifically looking at its use in cancer treatment.
I’m thinking about this theory when I stop in a small town to meet with Helga, a woman whose mother has created a line of Icelandic herbal skin-care products. Helga explains how the company came about, how her mother and grandmother used primarily Icelandic yarrow (Achillea millefolium) along with other herbs to treat a variety of skin conditions. The remedies were so effective that, after sharing them with friends and neighbors, the family began receiving special requests for the salves, lotions and ointments. These orders eventually evolved into the family business, Urtasmidjan, headquartered in Helga’s mother’s kitchen.
Helga laughs, remembering the first attempt at a commercial batch of lotion, so ugly and runny that no one would want to rub it on their skin. Today, the company supports the family of four, with Helga in charge of marketing. Helga’s mother, Gigja, insists on making all the products herself, wanting to be sure she gets each batch just right. What happens when demand exceeds supply, when the kitchen is too small and there isn’t enough time for one woman to fill the orders? Helga tells me, without regret, that the company will stop growing. Her mother would never allow anyone else to create the remedies for fear of compromising the integrity of the products. (However, the company is not too quaint to have an email address.)
I say goodbye to Helga and continue north. I am smitten with the drive. The volcanic and glacial activity have formed a landscape of mountains, glaciers, hot springs, geysers, rivers and waterfalls. The scenery is dotted with shaggy sheep and sometimes horses—wild-looking with compact bodies and long manes. A farmhouse here, another there, some with signs advertising a bed and breakfast. These are the farms that provide abundant food for Icelanders. My destination, still two hours away, is a gathering of sheep farmers who are meeting to share information and discuss the state of the industry. Icelanders can only wear so much wool and consume so much lamb; the farmers must focus on exporting their product.
The gathering takes place in a large, unheated barn. When I am introduced to a couple of the farmers, I tell them I’m there to learn about Iceland’s natural and sustainable ways of living. They nod their heads, but I can see they don’t really get it. I ask if they are interested in the “certified organic” program some of their government officials are trying to implement in an effort to give their products leverage on the world market. But they are having a difficult time understanding the concept. After all, the organic industry was born out of pesticide abuse and other unsustainable agricultural practices. In Iceland, sustainable farming has been the driving force because it had to be. Hormones and preventive antibiotics are outlawed and always have been. Pesticides are unnecessary, thanks to the long winter. Conditions are humane and industrial factory farms are unheard-of. And Iceland has never allowed the import of any livestock for fear of corrupting their native species.
The fishing industry also has laws in place to ensure sustainability. Fishing is controlled by a national regulatory committee that sets quotas and tracks fish stocks so that no species is overfished. In fact, Iceland did not join the European Union, in part because they would have been required to open up their fishing grounds, which include all waters within 250 miles of Iceland’s shores.
Back in Reykjavík that night, although not normally a big fan of red meat, I enjoy an amazing dinner of Icelandic lamb at the insistence of my hosts. I can’t help but absolutely love it—so much so that I have the same dish at a different restaurant the following night.
While dining, I ask my hosts if Icelanders are worried about mad cow disease, genetically engineered crops or any other food safety concerns. They aren’t. In fact, these issues are not even on the public radar screen except to limit imports of potentially contaminated goods.
My final adventure begins as a mystery to me. We are going on a hike, yet there is no trailhead, nothing to signal a beginning, as we step off the road and into the expanse of rolling lava. My guides are Kristbjorg, a yoga teacher, herbalist, and one of Iceland’s first fully organic farmers, and Inga, a graduate student working with the Icelandic Agricultural Information Service.
On this late-August day, a sharp wind has pushed out the clouds that often give Iceland an overcast sky. The result: brilliant blue. The black lava is blanketed by a curious cushy green moss that seems out of place. Kris, as she instructed me to call her after I struggled with Icelandic pronunciation, smiles into the chilly breeze and walks confidently on, as if she knows exactly where she’s going, although there is no path or landmarks to show the way. She is taking us on a journey to, and then into, a lava tube. But how she is going to find it is not clear to me.
Suddenly we come upon an opening that drops about four feet underground. The tube, I am to discover, runs horizontally about 300 yards before coming to a shallow close. The hole in the ground looms dark, wet and still, in direct contrast to the bright sky. I pause only a second behind Kris and Inga before dropping into the earth.
In the lava tube, the wind ceases completely. The only sound is a constant drip, drip of water, and all is darkness except for what is revealed in the single beam of Kris’ flashlight. Small stalactites and stalagmites grow out of the ceiling and floor like little villages through which we are trespassing. “We believe there are certain places in the rocks where elves live,” says Kris. I had simply smiled the first two times I had heard Icelanders refer to elves, but on this occasion I have to inquire. I ask Kris what she means. “You know, elves,” she says, as if this explains everything.
Icelanders are a people still closely tied to their traditional folklore. Before World War II, Iceland was an undeveloped country, its inhabitants living resourcefully and as the elements dictated. Herbal-based remedies provided medicine, and oral folklore passed down through generations provided guidance. When the Allies occupied this strategic location, they brought industrialization. The result: Iceland quickly developed into a sophisticated island with all the modern-day comforts; yet, because it happened so quickly, the cultural, mythical and health traditions were not lost. Here, the spirit is still treated along with the body.
As we continue deeper down the passageway, I stop and look behind me. The darkness is so heavy, I can’t see my hand in front of my face, can’t detect the outline of my body. The flashlight soon reveals a rock where we stop and sit down. Kris recommends that we meditate in this quiet womb of Earth. We spend a few minutes alone in our own darkness.
This island, set just slightly apart from the rest of the world, is being touted as a place of adventure, but it also provides solitude and a sense of healing. Perhaps it’s the creative energy of volcanic fire and glacial ice that makes this land so unique, but for me, it’s also the people: I feel uplifted from experiencing a culture still so close to its roots—these people know exactly who they are. It seems natural that in this place, among these people, I find evidence that sustainable living practices really work.
It’s time to go, and Kris, Inga and I make our way back through the lava tube, quiet, each on our own journey, emerging finally into light and wind.
Lara Evans is managing editor of Delicious Living.