25 July 2008

Perfect world

Sea change.

What I think of first, always, is the literary term.

But I've sailed and boated often enough, lived near enough the ocean to know that the sea does change.

And I've been watching it do so as I transit to Iceland.

Indigo in the distance, I've watched the nearer water change from pure turquoise to muddy green the same shade as my eyes to gem-quality aquamarine.

(There's been no repeat of the hanging-over-the-rails incident. Not only have we been enshrouded in fog, the 12-15 ft. waves have been rough enough to ensure that I'd have ended up in the Norwegian Sea. I may be silly, but I'm not stupid.)

There have been, unexpectedly, jellyfish. These have been small and almost flesh-colored, bobbing in and out of the waves.

Birds, too, unexpectedly showed up. Unexpected because we are so far from anywhere. I can't identify them; I haven't got a Sibley analog for this part of the world. They seem too small to be gulls, though their wings are gull -like, but they are large-eyed, slightly desperate looking, and don't have the same crafty, mean faces of the gulls to which I'm accustomed.

Last night, I caught my first glimpse of Iceland--a lighthouse at Langanes. I wasn't expecting palisades either.

Today, Akureyri, which has proven a mouthful for me, even with my foreign-language track record.

I've been so eager for this trip, so eager to see this land and I had to stop and ask myself why? Is it the remoteness and the fact that few people have visited it? Is it a name on a map, half-remembered from childhood--Surtsey--a volcano that rose from the ocean when I was probably younger than my own children? Simply that it is such a geologically young place?

Certainly the area surrounding the fjord on which Akureyri is located is stark, volcanic and glacial, covered in scrub and populated by long low-lying white houses with red roofs.

It is beautiful.

Grateful to be on land again, I don't spend much time in Akureyri, but head inland to the area around Myvatn (MEE-vahn, I hear it pronounced, just the softest trailing "n"), a volcanic wonderland. Sheep populate the hills (oddly, in groups of three), cropping peacefully at the grass on the moorland. The sheep are small bundles of white with the occasional black sheep interspersed among them. I wondered, briefly, if this accounted for the Icelandic sweaters I'd seen which were mainly white with a black pattern around the chest.

I'm told today is the best weather this area has seen in two months, largely clear and very warm (I'd guess a good 72F, with a pleasant cool breeze), and the visibility is so good that it's possible to see the enormous glacier (said to be the largest in Europe) that is 200 km away.

But it is Myvatn, alternately moorland and moonscape that captures my attention. Two continental plates meet here: the Eurasian and North American, and the rift that is tearing open the ground is clearly visible again and again. Hot springs, steam vents, boiling mud pots, sulfurous ponds, racing milky-blue glacier-fed rivers. On one side, low-growing plants cover old basalt, on the other there are hills covered only in black sand, running yellow with sulfur, denuded of all plant life.

I've been to Yellowstone numerous times, and Myvatn is similar and dissimilar. Smaller scale, certainly, but here there is a lake in a crater created by the conjunction of lava and ice, but not volcanic eruption. The colors are stellar, but it looks somehow beautifully toxic. I am reminded, for no good reason, of a lake at the site of a former copper mine. Perhaps it is only the smell, which is certainly sulfurous, but is different to Yellowstone or Kilauea. I can't define what I'm smelling in addition to the sulfur, but it's certainly pungent. It doesn't surprise me to learn that the Icelandic name for this area translates to "hell."

While some of the lava in this area dates back to eruptions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some has flowed as recently as 1984.

Black-headed gulls yell fiercely from a near-by rock, and I suspect they must be protecting a nest. There are numerous ducks swimming in Lake Myvatn, and I watch them float by as I have lunch at a hotel on the shore of the lake (asparagus soup, halibut, potatoes, and veg that seems to have come from a freezer bag). When I walk out along the shore, a pair of arctic terns swoop in low to investigate, their long swallow-like bodies graceful in flight. Happily, they decide I am unworthy of attack.

On to Godafoss, a most spectacular waterfall, a miniature Niagara.

Back on the road, passing small farms that all incorporate a nesting place for tree ducks in their barns, I think I might be persuaded to give up the apple orchard in Norway and possibly the cottage in Bornholm for a little house in Iceland.

Go listen to some good music: "Perfect World" from the album All That We Let In by Indigo Girls.

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