The sui generis landscapes of Iceland

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Travelling around Iceland has always been a sui generis experience. One of the elements making it unique is the framework of stories embedded in the areas one passes through on one’s route. Usually, the stories relate to the Norse and their sagas, physical features, elves and trolls. Trolls of rocks serving the role as a reminder that nature is always on the edge of the social world and infringe upon it, but also stories of a landscape that at times may look harsh and unwelcoming for many. Sometimes I think back in time, how the Norse might have experienced this island for the first time, with its geological setting, hot springs, geysers, volcanos opening up to the center of the earth, -into the unknown.

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Travelling through the cultural landscapes of these thrilling settings, the narratives embedded within them, it is amplified that one’s world is never complete but continuously under construction, retracing a path through the world of others. Here stories of the sagas can be perceived and explored in various ways, being a child, a grown up, an old farmer or a tourist. Nevertheless, these cultural landscapes opens up to a fantasy world of stories.

Here, cairns indicate old paths in the wilderness across vast and barren landscapes, telling stories of travels across the landscapes.

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Likewise, narratives and naming remain tell thrilling “histories” and are among the most significant remains of the past; they shape the landscapes redolent of memories, becoming a timeless reference point, of this northern world. These stories are shared through the local knowledge and the sagas uniquely connected to specific locations, regions and environmental settings.

Travelling through this northern world, which in the eyes of an outsider usually is experienced as; a pristine environment; being sparsely inhabited and with an indescribable wilderness, holds deep marks of history and meaning for Icelanders. Here history is a vital part for the local memory and therefore for the sense of localness, the sense of “Icelandicness”.

 One of the places I have travelled was Svartárkot. Like many other farms on Iceland, Svartárkot is an isolated farmstead in a dramatic landscape. The oldest remains of the Svartárkot farm are from the year 940, when it was located further south, where the mound can still be seen. The reknown Arctic archaeologist, Daniel Bruun, had travelled through this area thinking that there would not be any farm here any longer, because of the amount of erosion and its isolated location in the highlands. The erosion had, indeed, been problematic for the old farmers, who then, in 1880, moved the farm to its current location, a few meters away. Nevertheless, the remoteness and harsh environment had been no problem.

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There had been an important reason for them to have stayed and survived.

“People have been coming here and been able to live here because of the fish in the lakes, birds and eggs supplementing their harvest”

-Farmer from Svartárkot.

This quote indicates that the resources available in the environment surrounding the farm had a great importance for the farm being able to survive despite being located in a remote and, at times, in terms of farming, unmanageable environment. Furthermore, the quote indicates how important resources that supplemented farming were, and how people relied on them. They relied at least as much on the resources surrounding the farm, as they did on farming. Resources were hunted or gathered, either from the farm or by moving out in shorter periods to harvest the supplies needed for winter.

Today the farmer stilled fished the lake, smoked the trout by reusing the sheep dung which had been dried by the thermoheated rocks, and traces of old volcanos.

Many associate Iceland with farming being the main pillar of sustainable economy; that humans have shaped the environments for farming, settled to farm and identified themselves as farmers. However, the Icelandic economy was founded on two gifts of nature: farming and wild resources, and looking at the place names of the first settlers, it is evident that, besides farming, hunting and gathering were of great value:

 “Skallagrim took the land from the mountain to the shore of the Myrar marshland out to Selalon (Seal Lagoon)”

-Smiley and Kellog 2000: Egil’s Saga.

“He had a farmstead built on Alftanes and ran another farm there and rowed out from it to catch fish, cull seals and gather eggs, all of which were of great abundance. There was plenty of driftwood to take back to his farm. Whales beached, too, in great numbers, and there was wildlife for the taking at this hunting post; the animals were not used to men and would never flee. He owned a third farm by the sea on the west part of Myrar. This was an even better place to gather driftwood, and he planted crops there and named it Akrar (Fields). The islands offshore were called Hvalseyjar (Whale islands), because whales congregated there. Skalagrim also sent people up river to catch salmon”

-Smiley and Kellog 2000: Egil’s Saga.

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On Iceland the recitation of narratives enables people to assert unity both in time and space. In time, they anchor people in history, from the great myths and sagas to the tales known only within the family circle. The variation of content shows a complex set of layers on which one’s identity is built: the ethnic layer, the group, the family, the rules, the supernatural, and the surroundings.

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When unfolded, Landscapes are attached to and relate to a wealth of memories, which for most of us outsiders are invisible. These areas create a meaning and a linkage through which people shared their experiences and memories that were practiced through a multisensory palette of senses, sight and smell, as they moved through the landscapes.

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From a geographical perspective (as well as topographical or local perspective), memories and stories can be classified according to the level on which they operate: local and regional. The regional level would, as sagas, encompass legendary and historical tales set in the particular territory of the particular cultural group. On this level, the land is analogous to a history book: Memories are embedded in the history, and the land is their guardian. Regional tales comprise legends and the Icelandic Sagas, often recounting the origin of certain conspicuous land features associating with places visible on land, as for example Gisli Sursson’s Saga in the Sagas of the Icelanders, where his fight and death recount and associate with the well-known, distinctive land feature in the Barðardarlur. The story was told by Viðar Hreinsson when hiking up the ridge to the majestic, typological feature embedded with history:

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“Then, when it was least expected, Gisli turned around and ran from the ridge up onto the crag known as Einhamar. The battle was fierce, and they succeeded in wounding Gisli several places with their spears, but he defended himself with great courage and strength, and they faced such an onslaught of rocks and powerful blows that none escaped being wounded. When Gisli struck, he never missed. Now Eyjolf and his kinsmen saw that their honour was at stake, and they attacked harder than ever, thrusting at him with their spears until his guts spilled out. Gisli gathered them up together in his shirt and bound them underneath with the cord. Then he told them to hold off a while. ‘The end you wanted will come,’ he said and spoke a verse:

Goddess of golden rain,

who gives me great joy,

may boldly hear report

of her friend’s brave stand.

I greet the sword’s honed edge

that bites into my flesh

knowing that this courage

was given by my father.

This was Gisli’s last verse. As soon as he had spoken it, he jumped off the crag and drove his sword into the head of Eyjolf’s kinsman, Thord, and split him down to the waist. In doing so, Gisli fell down on top of him and breathed his last”

-Smiley and Kellogg 2000: Gisli Sursson’s Saga.

The tale achieves three goals: It accounts for how certain natural phenomenon came to be; together with the majestic feature in the landscape it provides evidence that the event actually happened; and it reinforces the sense of shared identity of the local group.

And sitting there, being told this fascinating story, in the actual setting, was incredible. In some way I would have wished that I was a child who could have lived myself in to a fantasy work of vikings, when walking down the valley, fighting of enemies and supernatural beings.

“I love how people will explain geological features with stories of elves or stories from the Sagas”

-Farmer from Svartárkot.

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But the cultural landscapes also hid other stories; a remembrance and a virtual map of people of the coasts reaching up to the highlands surrounding Svartárkot from where my Icelandic observations and experiences arose.

”It is from travelling through these landscapes with my father, who loved nature and the surroundings, that I have my knowledge of the stories. We travelled with him when he went hunting. As children, we would follow him, and while travelling the landscapes, stories were shared with us as a virtual storybook”

-Farmer from the Svartárkot area.

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And it is true, travelling down from Svartárkot and through the valley  of Barðardarlur towards the coast, the landscapes are embedded with place names representing toponyms, such as Lundarbrekka, – a clearing of the woods by a slope, which is the name of the farm area of the first settler; Rauðafell, – the red hill; Myri, – wetlands; Engi meaning a field; as in Engidalur, where “dalur” refers to a valley; Vellir, referring to a grassy area; Storuvellir – a larger grassy area; Litluvellir – a small grassy area; Lækjavellir – grass area with small springs running through it.

“Bólstaður means a place to stay or a place to live. We have a song where one sings ‘up on the heath, I found my place to stay”

-Farmer from Barðardarlur.

I was told stories of how Barðardarlur was named after the settler Barðar. The areas of Kálfborg, Kálfborgaráfell and Kálfborgarárvatn were named after a slave of his, who escaped from the farm and was caught and killed in the area. Kálfborg can be split into two words: Kálf meaning calf and borg meaning a small hill. One could discuss if Kálfborg is the name of the feature where the slave was killed, if the story of the place name is made to remember the name as a link to a virtual map, or if he really was called Kálfborg. In any case, many of the people I travelled with emphasized, what a farmer had told me, while hiking in the great valleys of Barðardarlur:

“Nature tells stories of how to pass a river or where its dangerous to step”

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The landscapes of Iceland are deeply historicised. It is not simply the surface setting the scene as a stage for how to play one’s social roles; it is part of social space; it infiltrates practice (mobility, movement and knowledge) and makes history, hereby laying the groundwork for building one’s identity and feeling of localness.

“We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.”

-Lawrence Durrell

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