Iceland as Thing

I’d come to stay on the southern coast of Iceland, near the town of Kirkjub√¶jarklaustur, and after a few days there spent mostly hiding from the wind, I finally set out in my tiny rental car toward Skaftafellsj√∂kull, a nearby glacier, and Skaftafell national park. But this was no better than any previous attempt to leave my room. The further out I went, the harder the winds seemed to blow, until finally, while crossing a flat expanse of volcanic dust at the glacier’s mouth, a sandstorm frightened me enough to give it up and turn back around. Feeling completely defeated – though at the same time more than a little awed by the beauty and force of this natural violence – I headed back toward the guesthouse. As I drove the two lane highway around another out-jut of cliffside, I was struck again by something I’d noticed on the trip in. Beyond the cliff, surrounded by flats of moss-covered lava, stood a large rock, like some kind of weird beacon. I made a mental note to return there later, if the wind ever let up.

It was only the next day that the wind stopped almost completely – after blowing fiercely for the entire week that I’d been in the country so far, no matter where I went. So I got back into the little Yaris and this time crossed the black ash flats that had been so treacherous the day before, but only after passing again this strange, beaming rock that I’d already managed to forget about in the interim. It was visually striking, for certain, but there seemed something more about it than that. There was a kind of magnetism to it. It was as if the thing spoke to me somehow. This time I would for certain stop – the lack of the punishing winds would by now let me – but on my way back. For now I was determined to reach the glacier first.

I was already mourning the damage that my camera had sustained to its sensor the day before – caused less through the extreme weather conditions than by simple, dumb mishandling. This damage had rendered my intention of getting as much useful footage of the landscape as I could moot, but also, in a way, freed me from any sense of obligation to do so. In the time I’d spent in the country – not knowing what exactly I was looking for, but certain all the while that I hadn’t found it, and cursing myself for putting myself into such financial disarray to get this far – I’d grown increasingly depressed and defeated. Naturally. Putting so much importance onto a landscape was no better than putting it onto a person – there is no one and nothing that can satisfy the heart’s longings when you’re a hungry ghost. But with the dying of the winds I’d also relaxed a little. It didn’t matter; nothing did. I was just here. Alone and without purpose, maybe, but here.

I pulled the car over as close to the large, strange rock as I could get and walked back toward a stepladder that crossed over a wire fence. A footpath lead through the moss toward the rock, nearing a slow, quiet stream that ran alongside. Forking and converging, the stream flowed with utterly clear, cold water, winding toward the rock, and beyond it some distance, spilling out into the Atlantic further on. Since arriving in Reykjavik about a week before, I’d scarcely thought about the fae at all, putting all these ideas off to only more groundless and unrealistic longing on my part. But as I walked this short distance, I thought, If these people are anywhere, they’re here. Though, to be honest, I couldn’t take this seriously either. I knew was turning to fantasy to fill in the holes in my heart. This was useless. But the land here was beautiful, and with my sensor-damaged camera, I started clicking off pictures, framing the smaller piles of lava stone against the larger formation behind them, and against the sky.

I began to feel, with an inner, mounting anxiety, the sense that, even with the footpaths and the inviting stepladder over the fence, I was being watched, and for the time being, allowed through this place. This sense of presence wasn’t a voice, not exactly, though my own inner voice began telling me that I would be allowed passage for only a short while. It was necessary to be respectful. This landscape was too important to disturb. The sense of presence, and with it my anxiety, only grew, the closer I came to the stone. After a short distance, I couldn’t take it any more. Clearly, it was time to get out of there. But wasn’t I engaging respectfully? Wasn’t I honoring the spirit in the stone? No… no, I was trespassing now, and it was time to leave. The thought occurred to me that if I allowed myself to get too close to the flowing stream, the fae would push me into it. These critters would be happy to make a fool out of me. I knew also from experience that I could only too easily make a fool out of myself, that I didn’t need any disembodied help to do it. But now that the thought had found expression, I also needed to go nearer to the stream. Didn’t I? Didn’t I? I could get more lovely photos, if I just went closer to the stream. Against my own better judgement, I took a fork in the footpath that led near to the water. I stopped at its edge. I shot a few, uninteresting photos, nervously waiting for a shove from out of nowhere. There. Okay. Leave me alone now, I’m going. I put the cap back onto my camera’s lens.

The cap – like it has never once done before – popped straight off with a ping and dropped into the water.

The perfect, clear water.


Now what would I do? I could live without a lens cap, but the water… it was pure and perfect. I could hardly just leave the thing there, littered at the bottom of the stream. But wait – it hadn’t gone to the bottom of the stream at all. The current had taken it. But the current hadn’t taken it away. No, the slow, clear current had lifted the lens cap up, had carried it near the clear surface where it twisted, where it turned and tumbled, in seeming slow-motion, waiting where it hung now, just within reach…

Okay, I said, okay. And, You can take your shot at me, I guess. I knelt down at the water’s edge, balanced on the bank, and reached… out… toward the plastic cap, reaching just short of the cuff of my jacket’s woolen arm. The cap spun and tumbled, waiting for me, right there. I clenched my hand and grasped it, pulled it from the water, held it tight.

There. Wasting no time, I quick-stepped back from the water, back up the footpath to the fence, holding the wet lens cap in my dripping hand, avoiding the many piles of dried sheep dung that lay everywhere along the way. And the further from the rock I got, the more my anxiety lessened. I’d escaped my fate in the stream, but I knew, it was only because I’d been allowed to. Perhaps because I’d shown respect; perhaps because it had seemed more amusing if I should stay dry. Obligingly, they’d even handed my cap straight back to me.

The next night, in stillness, and for all the next day, April snows fell and covered everything.

Iceland As Idea

The travel and tourism industry of Iceland is happy to advertise how more than half of its country’s inhabitants carry a sincere belief in elves, faeries, lake monsters, and other mythical, if normally invisible, types of life. I’ve since seen this statistic thrown into question, the chief argument being how the polling was skewed into meaninglessness. But it hasn’t mattered. The idea – though not the only contributing factor – was part of the imaginative web or growing root structure that quickly became my obsession with the region. And I do mean obsession. Granted, it wasn’t the only thing, but it fit somehow so perfectly into this compelling idea of place that I’d come to form. It became part of the silent history of this geography of the imagination.

I think the process got its real start some years ago when a former colleague, a cinematographer, posted some offhand comment on Facebook about traveling to Iceland on a job. I was filled with envy for my acquaintance’s peripatetic lifestyle, more than having any specific ideas yet about the region. When some time later I read in an issue of music magazine The Wire about Australian composer Ben Frost’s having relocated to Reykjavik to help found the Bedroom Community record label there, the place itself became more apparent, and more specific. Apparent, that is, and specific as an idea. I knew nothing at the time of Frost, but his comments during the interview set up a curious resonance with me, and I soon became acquainted with his harsh, post-industrial, post-punk noise and orchestral music, and was deeply affected. But aside from this, it was the fact that he’d chosen Iceland, of all places, to live.

Why Iceland?

While I have no insight into Frost’s reasons for his move, the thought became a seed in my own mind. Soon, I couldn’t stop thinking about the place. People pick up and move – or at least one person moves – to Iceland. There is something there.

I began to think of the movie industry, and again of my cinematographer acquaintance. Iceland is frequently chosen as a prime location for its unique and varied landscape. Batman Begins. Alright. Game of Thrones. Certainly. The recent Aronofsky film Noah. Nice, very.

But none of this adds up to the sheer, obsessive force of what had grown in my imagination. Iceland as a mythic place, Iceland as idea. I knew that I had to go there. I thought about going and never coming back – knowing all the while and full well that an idea about a thing is not the same as the actual thing. I had to go and compare the two and sort it out for myself, if only to dispel this obsession, since it simply wouldn’t leave me alone. It was in the midst of my research that I came across the above-mentioned statistic: more than half of Icelanders quite sincerely believe in faeries. This is often presented, at least in the touristic materials, in an Aren’t we simply so quaint? Don’t you love how silly we can be? sort of tone. But I’d had my own relation to the fae – and while I don’t characterize my relation as belief, exactly, I had given the matter an amount of serious thought. To my reckoning, these critters were delightful, insightful, sometimes helpful (maybe even lifesaving), but just as likely to be capricious, dangerous and downright treacherous. They can turn on you in an eyeblink, and you may not know the reasons why you’ve pissed them off – or if what you’ve done is any part of the equation. They do what they like. They have their reasons. They don’t make sense to us.

Thing or idea? But ideas are things.

And this is the level at which I chose to work – that at which an idea, or an image, or a dream, is a thing. Not a thing like a rock or a landscape, or money (or wait – money actually is an idea, just one that everyone agrees upon), but a thing within its own context of thoughtspace. This is a place where things as ideas can and do have a life of their own. As a novelist, I cultivate this space carefully and work to observe its contents in their development, seeing as how they are both a part of myself and potentially quite something else. Characters take on their own lives. Situations develop spontaneously and surprisingly. Worlds are built, cohere for a time, and then crumble away. Content such as faeries, or UFOs and their attendant intelligence, while perhaps of themselves transcending this realm alone, do inhabit here very well, at least part of the time. The question of the so-called objective reality of these forms is secondary to the work of observation, but the fact that their behavior may oftentimes spill over from one realm to the next, from thoughtspace into objectivity (and back) is, I’ve found, both extraordinary and common; in a word, paradoxical.

As part of this magical spillover of thought and concretized thing, between the mythic and the literal, Iceland – now as faeryland – became a symbol, a constellation of longing. I bought my tickets early, while they were still cheap. I made my plans. I was inwardly terrified, perhaps because I knew that no single place could possibly match up to what my needs were for it, once such longing had crystallized; there is likely nothing that can satisfy that. But I was still going, knowing that on some level the venture would have to be a failure.