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Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Northern Lights

By coincidence, a few hours after I posted my last entry about birthdays (specifically mine), I ran across my diaries for a trip I made a couple of years ago to Iceland. I'd completely forgotten that I was there for my birthday. That may be because that year my birthday fell on the Easter weekend itself and in Reykjavik all the bars were closed. Fortunately the days leading up to my birthday were so great that I thought I'd share a pared down version of those diaries with you. And a couple of the poems I wrote while I was there too.

The approach to Keflavik airport must be one of the bleakest in the world. As the plane banks a view of a green-grey ocean flecked with the thin white lines of the breakers is replaced by a barren and empty land with patches of snow. In its turn this is replaced by the mountain range that is the landward continuation of the North Atlantic Ridge. Here and there, there are villages - fishing communities - spread out collections of low buildings as flat as the landscape they occupy but with brightly coloured roofs that make them seem rather festive.

We swept down into Keflavik airport, which is large, modern and remarkably quiet, and when we had disembarked we loaded our bags into two massive four-wheel-drive vehicles and climbed in for the drive to Hella. It was a flat landscape of sombre greens and browns in weather that seemed forever to be on the verge of turning really nasty but never actually progressed beyond distinctly unpleasant. We detoured briefly for a stroll on the beach where a freezing wind tore across the black sands and whipped the waves up into frothy peaks that looked horribly cold and uninviting.

Hella was an odd town, small and flat and spaced out but eerily absent of people or indeed any signs that people had ever been there at all. There were buildings and some of them had the lights on and the curtains open but no-one moved inside. The streets were wide and clean and completely empty of any kind of traffic. We were, as far as I could tell, the only guests at the hotel which was a comfortable and pleasant place. Dinner was at a local restaurant which was, apart from our group and two waitresses also empty.

Next morning we set off on our first proper day of the trip. The landscape was still, to begin with, predominantly flat with occasional red-roofed farms being the only structures to break the monotony of it. At this time of year the grass had a yellowish hue and was thin enough that the black volcanic soil showed through. Wherever there was surface water it was frozen and as we drove on, climbing steadily in our approach to the highlands, an increasing percentage of the landscape was covered with snow. Inhospitable as it looked this was farming country. The farms are usually quite large and keep mainly sheep and cows but the animals we saw most were small Icelandic horses which were once working animals but now, having been replaced by tractors are kept more or less solely for riding. They were all short and fat - not one of them came even as high as my shoulder - with shaggy unkempt winter coats.

As we drove on it was into a landscape that was increasingly obscured by the snow. We paused for a photo stop at a waterfall at Trollkomhuhlaup where, so the story goes, a female troll spied a male troll on the opposite bank of the river and threw in all the boulders she could find to make stepping stones so that he could get across to her. Now I realised just how poor visibility had become for whereas I had assumed that the horizon was as flat as out immediate surroundings, a brief breeze parted the mist and revealed that there was in fact a previously unnoticed mountain there. Even then it was visible only as a slightly varying shade of grey in the grey mist and the grey sky.

Up above the cloud line the snowy boundary of the road disappeared into a shifting void a few yards to either side of us and the pools of water became frozen mirrors with even the streams where the water should have been flowing caught in a pattern of ice waves.

The road conditions became markedly worse as craters and pits appeared in its surface and occasional chasms and gaps that our drivers navigated around with the ease of the long practised. Many times we crossed frozen rivers - sometimes directly, sometimes – thanks to the GPS – by following the bank until we found ice thick enough to drive on and then returning to the road along the opposite bank. Now and again in spite of all the caution the wheels broke through the layer of ice and into the water.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at our overnight stop - a mountain hut a very long way from anywhere. It was basic but clean. There was a toilet - of the long drop variety - but it was several hundred yards away and reached by ploughing through knee deep snow. While the cabin heated up from the gas heater and stove we went off in various directions for a walk. It was still overcast but there was no snow or rain and in our winter gear we were warm enough. There was a splendid isolation about it all as we trudged around the area being careful to note our way back to the hut for dinner.

Overnight the skies cleared. There were upsides and downsides to this. The upside was that the morning was bright and the sunlight on the snow scene spectacular. Behind the mountain that we had seen last night another was revealed, a giant shadow silhouette against the pale sky. The downside of course was that the clear night had brought a plunge in temperature and the biting wind tore savagely through our clothes as soon as we stepped out of the shelter of the hut. We ate breakfast and piled into the vans for today’s drive.

It was an interesting journey. The road was the roughest of tracks marked by poles which were often swallowed whole by the snow. Frequently there were areas where either the snow had drifted onto the road too thick to traverse or the road itself had collapsed into pits too unsafe. Our actual route was a kind of harmonic variation on the nominal direction of the road. rather as a jazz riff will weave around a tune, sliding on either side of it, never far enough away to be unrecognisable but never quite hitting the actual notes, so we weaved near – but rarely on – the road. I watched the black triangle on the GPS as it slid first to one side of the line that marked the official route and then to the other.

How, I wondered, had anyone ever managed this before the advent of such technology. I asked the driver. He shrugged and said,
As we drove it started to snow, at first lightly but soon hard enough that the tracks from the other van were filled in before we reached them although less than a hundred feet separated us. The snow came and went in random storms, Obscuring our view completely for a few minutes and opening up an horizon to horizon vista for the next few.

In one of these latter periods with the sun shining and a truly spectacular view we paused for lunch on a bleak rock strewn plain. The wind howled across it raising whirling dervish flurries of loose snow

We continued on our way until we came at last to Aldeyjarfoss. “Foss” is Icelandic for “waterfall” and this was our second. There would be more. Later, for example, we stopped at Godafoss, a smaller but, in the dying rays of the setting sun, much prettier waterfall. We walked along the rim a dozen feet above the water and met up with our vans the short ride to Myvatn which is a small scattered town in an area that is very geothermally active. This activity means that there is a plentiful supply of natural hot water to heat all the buildings so that our hotel was gorgeously warm inside. If anything it was rather too warm. The shower too was lovely and hot with the slight inconvenience of leaving the showerer smelling faintly but indelibly of sulphur.

We had a full day planned for 6th April. It started with a drive around the geothermal area. It was a crisp cold morning so that the steam from the geysers was sharp and clear against the background. So is the steam from the power plant which generates enormous amounts of electricity from this underground resource. This is another area where Bauxite is smelted into aluminium and also where diatomite - a mineral used in filters, insulators and the like - is recovered from deposits in the lakes and refined for export. The power plants that provide the electricity for this vent great clouds of steam into the air and the wind drifts it into plumes that are kilometres long making a ghostly and alien spectacle against the sky. Even those power plants, grey seem to be of a piece with the landscape, as if they belong there -grey gloomy and squat but somehow of a piece with their surroundings. The pipes that snake out from them carrying the hot water also look at home.

At a barren and remote spot we stopped and got out for a couple of hours hiking. The snow on the ground was fresh and about knee deep which made the hiking beautiful but fairly taxing. Wrapped up in my new parka jacket I was warm, rather too warm in fact so that whenever we paused to regroup I had to push down the hood and loosen the fastenings to cool off a little.

We had a second shorter hike in the afternoon, along a twisting circular route that confounded my sense of direction totally so that I was astonished when after about an hour we rounded a corner to find ourselves back at our starting point. The snow was virgin and white and the rocks stark and black so that the hike took on a startlingly monochrome nature with only the washed out and faded greens and browns of trees and earth forming a very slight contrast.

Sadly all the plodding through snow had flared up my old knee problems once more so that I didn’t feel up to any further activities for the day so while others chose between sno-mobiling or more hiking I just sat and read and wrote a little and drank a couple of bottles of ludicrously expensive beer.

The next day there was a lot of driving on the schedule. We set of at the quite civilised time of nine O’clock and reached the northern capital of Akureyn shortly before lunch. We stopped to have a look around the town. It’s quite moderately sized and has a lot of interesting buildings but I was more interested to find that it has a good book shop with books in English and German as well as Icelandic. I can read both English and German but have no knowledge at all of Icelandic. Naturally I was looking for an Icelandic book. It took some time and the aid of two of the shop assistants but I left the shop clutching an Icelandic copy of Lisu I Undrilandi - Alice In Wonderland - to add to my collection. I was slightly disappointed that it was the Anthony Brown illustrations rather than Tove Janssen which would I felt have been more appropriate but nevertheless I had one. I added a couple of CDs of Icelandic rock music and three bottles of beer to my purchases, and went back to the van.

Then it was on to our overnight stop - another mountain hut. Unlike the first one this one was heated and had lighting. The geothermal power provided the hot water for washing and heating and a diesel generator at the weather station about a mile away ran a cable to provide the electricity.

We ate a splendid barbecue dinner, went for a magnificent walk in the bleak but beautiful surroundings, drank our lunch time purchases and waited for the Northern Lights. Last night in town we had seen faint traces of green in the sky and assumed that we could expect no more tonight. We were wrong. When they appeared they were something far more strange and wonderful. A great green, shimmering arc split the sky from horizon to horizon. To either side of it there were lesser patterns of shifting hazy light. Fringes of luminescence rippled across the sky and died even as others appeared elsewhere.

Here, with no disturbing background light and the clearest of clear nights, the show was breathtaking. We all stood around watching them until, forty-five minutes later, that faded. Twenty minutes later the second performance started. This time they formed a series of hazy veils like silk curtains around the edge of the world shimmering as if moved by some unseen hand. It was everything we had hoped for and more. The whole sky was ablaze with them and no-one, however cold hearted or cynical could fail to be impressed by the spectacle. We retired to bed a very happy bunch indeed.

The first poem here is about the town that is described at the start of the piece above.

In Hella

The houses are neatly laid out in rows
and the windows are lit but none of them shows
any signs of life.
The roads are wide but have no cars
and the tables stand empty in all the bars
through day and night.
The banks and shops seem silent and closed
and on the pavements skeletal trees have been posed
but no birds sing.
There are distant throbbings that might be planes
flying away from some distant airport but could again
be some other thing.
The hotel where tonight we have to stay
has no other guests at all to get in our way -
it’s an empty place,
like the town that surrounds, the buildings and all
the streets and the street lamps that can’t quite recall
the human race.

This second poem was written the morning after we saw the Northern Lights when I was first to waken and sat in the early morning silence just watching steam drifting across the landscape.

Northern Lights

There are no lights in the sky now
save for the bullying sun
threatening the faintest of faint clouds
that cling to the horizon
unwilling to let go
fearing oblivion.
Ghosts of steam escape the underworld
to haunt the rocks and hollows
to drift across the empty land
lost, lonely, spectral things,
pale dancers pirouetting
in the daylight.
Since last night the world has changed
for then there were flames and fire
ghosts above us rather than around
angels in a hollow sky
reaching into our hearts
from eternity.
Silk circles wrapped around the world
rippled and shifted and shook
and shrank to faint lace traces
that glowed more brightly as they died
leaving the sky a deep
and empty black.

This last, long, poem was written on the afternoon when I sat around doing nothing. I was in the hotel bar where, on a shelf above the optics, was a very threadbare stuffed arctic fox. It set me thinking and as I sat there I started this poem. It was several months later that I finished it.

Dead Things

Look at me, I used to be an Arctic Fox
With long white fur and bushy tail
My domain was a landscape of ice and rocks
Where I knew each hillside trail
Against this snowy background it was really tough
To spot me as I went about my way
But, so it transpired, not nearly tough enough
Or else I might be living there today
But no...
Now look at me a shadow of my former self
With yellow fur and a tail worn thin
I stand here in the bar room on the knickknack shelf
That overlooks the whisky, rum and gin
I’ve lost count of the years since that bullet through my brain
And makeover at the taxidermists hand
I was never that religious but when I think of it again
It’s not the kind of afterlife I’d planned

Look at me I used to be a crocodile
Admittedly not someone nice to meet
But I couldn’t help my nature and at least I had a smile
Whenever I met someone good to eat
I would lie there in the shallows patiently all day
But move like lightning should the need arise
I thought I was invincible and so I have to say
That my sudden death came as some surprise
So now...
Look at me I have to bear this heavy load
I’m really not the animal I was
I’ve become a creature of no permanent abode
For example my head’s mounted in the lodge
While the greater part of what was once my sleek anatomy
They’ve found a dozen different ways to use
And with great imagination have converted much of me
Into handbags and accessories and shoes

Look at me I used to be an elephant
A hulking great monster of a beast
But I was quite gentle and wouldn’t step upon an ant
Branches leaves and twigs made up my feast
But it seems that I was valued for more than just my size
Or my temperament, however sweet
It’s really rather flattering to be worthy in men’s eyes
But on the whole I’d do without the treat.
Now I somehow feel that my life has gone to bits
For my body parts have gone their separate ways
My feet it seems were ideal for umbrellas, canes and sticks
Though that’s gone out of fashion nowadays
My tusks when carved in shapes by nature unintended
Made ornaments for all the finest homes
As for the rest of me when my life had ended
That was left as rotting flesh and bones.

Look at me I used to be a human being
Master of the world in my own eyes
But that’s because I had my own peculiar way of seeing
And mixing up reality and lies
I strode across the continents and conquered seven seas
Created and destroyed in equal measure
And demonstrated a facility that came with perfect ease
Of muddling the trash in with the treasure
Now I’m nothing more than a shadow on the wall
An outline silhouette of dust and ash
And all because I didn’t know the rule that binds us all
Everything in life at last must pass
And the world on which I lived is just a cinder in the sky
A mausoleum, tomb and monument
To my great capacity to demolish and destroy
With or without a ruinous intent.

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