64 degrees north latitude

I expected cold and gray.  Iceland is cold, it’s true, and rains sweep across the stark landscape about as fast as they did in Scotland.  But gray is sometimes the best background.  I have been in awe these past two days by the brilliant colors of this North Atlantic country, though of course the sun needs to come out for colors to happen.  It’s autumn in Iceland.  Birch shrubs and trees are at or just past their peak of color.

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Yesterday, in driving rain, I zipped up my purple raincoat to my chin, and leaned into the wind at an angle, climbing the hill toward this stunning church (below) which dominates the skyline of Rekjavik.  In 1930, the people of the United States gave this heroic statue of Erik the Red to the people of Iceland.  He stands a hundred yards in front of Hallgrim’s Church.

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Hallgrim’s Church is named for a beloved Icelandic composer of psalms, whose hymnbook is a national classic.  The inside of the church is very simple, though the lines have a Gothic-arch feel to them, but in the back is the most impressive thing in the place, a massive set of organ pipes.  The pews are even set up so you can switch the seat-backs to face forward toward the altar or slide them backward to face the organ.  After looking around the sanctuary, I took the elevator and a few flights of stairs up to the bell tower where the wind was howling.  The view was wonderful, including this traditionally sod-roofed house that’s now a pub.

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And here is a longer view facing north toward the harbor.  Moored there is a new French naval frigate, the Languedoc, on its North Atlantic shakedown cruise, calling on its NATO ally.  In the foreground is the statue of Erik the Red.

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The statue was given in commemoration of the One Thousandth Anniversary of their annual parliament, the Althing.  Since 930, and with only one lapse when Denmark made them stop from 1799-1844, Icelanders from the four parts of the country sent nine representatives each to a place we now know is on the very boundary of North America and Europe: the mid-Atlantic Ridge.  Today, on a bus tour, I saw the site of the parliament.  The cliffs behind the Icelandic flag (below) are the edge of the North American tectonic plate.  The flag is planted next to the Law Rock, where for centuries the Law Speaker would recite all the laws of Iceland, from memory.  Actually, he did it over the three summers of his term in that office.  The audience was grateful.

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Thingvellir National Park was created to commemorate this amazing history AND the remarkable location of Iceland on the very line of tectonic separation between the New World and the Old.  On my bus trip into the park, we also saw Geysir, which is, um, a geyser, sometimes twice as tall as Old Faithful, but not as faithful.  Every five to fifteen minutes, the pool explodes into a dome of water and then goes vertical.  You can’t see the idiot who stood directly downwind, all alone, with his phone recording him getting utterly drenched with hot water.  Phones aren’t waterproof yet, are they?  #DarwinAwards.

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There are hot springs all around, like these:

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After seeing the geyser erupt, I climbed a hill and saw the snaking of a small river on the valley floor below.

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Iceland is 100% volcanic in origin, formed by magma doing what comes naturally: as the tectonic plates pull apart, there’s a constant pressure from below seeking to fill the gap.  Volcanic eruptions and hot springs happen all over the country, but especially along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and new Iceland is getting wider all the time, growing from the middle.  Most of that rock is pretty soft and porous, but some layers are very dense, and that’s the magic ingredient for waterfalls all over the world: a hard layer with soft rock below that erodes much faster.

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This rainbow (below) welcomed us to Gulfoss Waterfall.  The name means Golden Falls in Icelandic; and sure enough, the whole countryside was lit up with gold light yesterday whenever the sun appeared.

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Besides geology and weather, the other extreme in Iceland is the price of food.  This bottle of sparkling water and paper cup of soup set me back $19.

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Today is my last day here.  It’s been raining heavily and the wind blowing with a vengeance, so museums seemed a better plan than the bike ride I had contemplated.  One of my favorite bits of sculpture was this three-foot tall stack of copier paper with “imported cigarettes” on top.   Everything else in the room–walls, floor, ceiling, and art–was white.

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Through the windows of the Lutheran church on the main square, I saw these Mountain Ash trees hanging on to their berries, at least for a few more days.

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As I walked along the harborside, I saw this mural (below) of a fisherman and was reminded that some time in the last generation tourism surpassed commercial fishing as Iceland’s top economic contributor.  The couple in the picture appeared to be off to the airport.

My bus picks me up at the hostel at 4:30 am tomorrow, so I’d better post this and get my act together.

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John.bellaimey@breckschool.org

I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

2 thoughts on “64 degrees north latitude”

    1. Thanks, my friend. Lynnell’s home in Mpls for ten days and I’m off to Paris in the morning to stay with friends, then to Taizé monastery for four days of chanting. I’ll pick her up at the airport on our anniversary, Oct. 13, which is, if I recall, very close to yours, too! Love Back Atcha.

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