Connecting with earth in Iceland

Connecting with earth in Iceland

In Iceland, I've learnt that there is a sort of willingness to embrace any sort of surprise the earth throws your way.

A Norwegian saying goes, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

The same could be said of the Icelanders, who are seemingly impervious to the fact that their country often experiences all four seasons in the space of an hour, from blue skies so clear and bright they hurt to look at, to an assault of hail 20 minutes later.

My husband and I visited the world's northern-most capital earlier this month for a writers' retreat. We didn't quite know what to expect.

The driver who picked us up from the airport was a Lithuanian who had been living in Iceland for the past 15 years.

"Welcome to the moon," he grinned, lobbing our bags into the back seat. Our car sped through broad, mossy expanses of empty land, the sun large and bright overhead. Snow-studded mountain ranges bookended the horizon.

Just after we arrived at our hotel, a minor spring blizzard kicked in and it was snowing sideways.

All around our room, there were framed poems by Icelandic poet Jon Helgason. One of them read:

While roaring breakers flush the foreshore clear and fleets of clouds sail high above the land the days will ask: "What ties detain you here. twig thrown by waves upon an alien strand?"

I felt very much like that crumpled twig thrown about by waves of freezing weather in an alien land.

In Singapore, I don't often feel the urge to connect with the earth. I grew up cycling by the beach and I still run through our park connectors, but there's nothing very savage or spiritual about striding through a manicured garden.

Like Singapore, Iceland is an island in the middle of an ocean.

But its people have a deep connection with the world around them - everyone we met in Iceland seemed to be exquisitely well-versed in international affairs - as much as they did the world beneath their feet, in a land of restive volcanoes and stubborn ice.

They also have to contend with an environment that is mercurial, to put it lightly, and almost uninhabitable. Almost.

One of our guides grinned when she said, "I'm descended from hobbits!" And she meant it.

Just several decades ago, her grand- mother lived in a turf house emerging from the ground, one of the ways to steel yourself against the elements.

I'm not quite sure what her ancestors were thinking when they crossed the ocean to make their home on a rock nearly as barren as the moon. (Nasa's astronauts have, in fact, trained on Iceland because of the similarity of its terrain to the moon's.)

The result seems to have been a fierce industriousness and daringly versatile approach to life.

There are just more than 320,000 Icelanders, a tiny population to keep a country going.

This means it is a place where a geophysicist can also be an award-winning writer of short stories and poetry - and a mountaineer, and a radio host (his name is Ari Trausti Gudmundsson).

We struck up a conversation with an undergraduate at the Reykjavik library; her mother has been an actor, a director, a writer and a politician.

When an enormous economic recession devastated Iceland in 2008, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and soldiered on - the same way they have picked themselves up after every catastrophic volcanic eruption (most recently Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, which infamously bottlenecked air travel in Europe).

We went on a glacier hike along Iceland's south coast on the relatively small Myrdalsjokull glacier. (Read: it is four-fifths the size of Singapore.)

We stood on the blue ice. It was perfectly silent. Occasionally, our crampon-clad hiking boots would crunch over the black grit and ash from the volcano beneath.

There's nothing quite like standing on something that has aged quietly for nearly a millennium, caring nothing about your existence, something that has continued to bulldoze its way through the mountain, inch by inch, hiding a secret of ash and lava and fire.

We spent only an hour on the glacier, barely leaving a dent on the dense, crusty ice. But it was enough to leave feeling both terror - and awe.

corriet@sph.com.sg

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