Iceland: water, water everywhere
What strikes me most about Iceland is the water. It’s ubiquitous. It rains, it mists, it freezes, it steams and it erupts. Iceland is home to earth’s second biggest glacier, and to bubbling cauldrons and spouting geysers. Ocean surrounds the island, rivers divide it, hot springs heat it. Every house, every building, is powered by geothermal electricity and heated by hot water that streams through pipes like blood pulsing through bodies. Reykjavik’s city hall seems to float on a lake, waterfalls run wild across the countryside, and the island’s iconic Blue Lagoon lures tourists to interrupt transatlantic flights just to loll in its eerie neon-blue waters.
Am I infatuated with water because I live in the arid Southwest? Probably.
A 5-minute downpour in our summer monsoon is an occasion to celebrate. In Iceland, I soaked up even the near constant drizzle with joy. My photographs reflect it. They’re all about water in all its forms, including the consequences of all that water, like the spongy spring-green moss that grows on the equally ubiquitous lava. A very young island, it seems to be in or near constant eruption. You sense the tectonic forces in almost all the sights you see.
Reykjavik is an attractive, cozy city of 210,000. That’s about two-thirds of the total population, which makes Iceland a good deal smaller than Colorado Springs. While exploring the town during a 10-day visit, I was struck by the reddish hair and Irish faces of many Icelandic women. Why wasn’t everyone blond? Weren’t they who founded it in the late ninth century all Norse, meaning from Norway? You know, Vikings. Well, it turns out those women look like that for a reason: they’re mainly Irish. A woman in a bookstore explained it to me this way.
“When the men got the idea to move to Iceland a thousand years ago, their girlfriends said, No way, we’re not moving to an even colder place, a barren island in the middle of the ocean. We’re staying here in Norway. So the men had to stop on the way and kidnap enough women to wash their clothes and make dinner and babies for them.” (The scene she drew sounded like a Monty Python routine.)
As a result, 63 percent of Icelandic women have Irish ancestry, DNA studies reveal, while the men are almost entirely Norse. I’m not sure why it hasn’t evened out more after 10 centuries of interbreeding. Trying to check this out after returning, I read something even more astonishing: early Icelandic sagas tell of Irish monks living in Iceland for 100 years before the Norsemen arrived, but that the island was too small for both. The monks drifted off when they couldn’t change the new arrivals’ heathen ways.
When I asked if people were wandering about muttering to themselves with crossed eyes due to inbreeding, my bookstore informant said she had never noticed any problem. They’re a pretty laid back people who take life as it is, I thought. But later I heard about a new mobile app that helps avoid accidental incest: you can “bump” phones with someone you’re attracted to in a bar to check if you’re too closely related. “Bump the app before you bump in bed” goes the clever slogan.
Icelanders consider themselves avid readers and are proud of their writers. They are quick to say they have more published writers per capita than anywhere else in the world. Given the long dark winters with not much to do, I don’t doubt their claims.