I stare out of my window into a surreal white sky, knowing the mountains of Mount Esja lie just behind me, soaking in their glory and in the clouds which they so kindly wrap around themselves. This place is a dream. I have been here for nearly two weeks and time has ceased to exist, it fell away from me during my flight across the cloud-ridden ocean. All that’s left is the rain and the sun and the wind and the rain again and the sun and the rain once more and the sun and the fog and the rain, and yes, you guessed it, the rain once more. What better way to introduce you to Iceland than to speak of its personified weather?
Within a week I have gone through more layers of clothes than I think I own. The weather here likes to dance around in the sky and play tricks on its observers, it waves its hands around and alters the flow of energy as it pleases. It’s caused me to repetitively put on and take off layers. Yesterday I had to walk to class in a sweater and a jacket, and by the afternoon even a t-shirt felt too warm.
I purchased a wonderful Icelandic sweater, hand-knit of the most beautiful, itchy wool, and I’m worried I’ll never be able to wear it throughout the entire day without feeling like I need to take it off. Needless to say, this weather truly has an overwhelming personality. But it’s beautiful, the way it pushes the clouds into Eyjafjallajökull, the way it melts the fog with its glowing orb of warm light. I took a trip towards Skógar last weekend for a trip through all of Njáls sites (Njál being the subject of Njáls Saga, one of the most popular Icelandic Sagas), and I was fairly disappointed that it had been raining during the first bit of our journey through otherworldly landscapes. I would gaze out of the rainy, crying window and see the clouds drape themselves over each landform, as if on cue to announce, “sorry, show’s over.” When I walked off the bus, I could feel a light haze pass through me. Our first stop towards Skógar was on sort of hill overlooking the town of Hveragerði, which stood silently and unusually still as the wind played with my face.
The sky stayed with us as we carried on, the windows of the bus fogged from the outside and I could hardly fog up the window anymore with my own breath (which tends to happen the longer you press your face against the window in awe at the landscape). Iceland was doing its job for me, and it was doing it well.
The next stop in our trip was the Oddi, which is the site of one of the first churches built in Iceland around the 11th century. It took climbing out of the bus to see that the sky was the most unusual color I had ever seen: stark white. When you think of a sky and its natural color, the immediate answer is a blue, perhaps an orange, a yellow, golden rays streaked through purple, sometimes grey. But no, the sky was whiter than every one of its clouds: it was a collective of vapor lingering and crouching over the bright panels of the church at Oddi. It felt like the atmosphere came straight out of a song by the composer Ólafur Arnalds. The sky was literally so white that my eyes were lost within it.
Inside the church were these beautiful colored stained glass windows, simple and minimalistic but I was drawn to them for their exuberant color. They resembled the landscape outside the window, but in a pixilated manner, green mountains amid a white sky.
Just over the hill was a wonderful field containing little white cloth barrels/bales of land (I don’t know what to appropriately call them, and this poetic definition sounds much more intriguing). They stood against the green field like their own clouds, perhaps to declare that the land was also synonymous to the sky in that it could produce its own white ether, with the help of human hands. I suddenly fell in love with the white sky, and watched it melt over in its own melancholy grey. At this point in the trip, I began to feel a sort of longing in my chest, to be out in those fields, face to the grass, cool breeze to help me forget where I was going. I felt the word “need” roll around in my head like a glass marble, and every time I bent my head towards another field, the weight of the marble would follow with it. I was being pulled. I am being pulled. I keep thinking to myself, how can I ever leave this place?
The feeling came back upon the visit to another church further towards the mountains. To get to this church there was a bit of a climb, as it was situated on a nice hillock surrounded by fields blotted with quaint sheep.
I had a hard time figuring out where to look during the ascent: Off to the left was a small, treasured waterfall, to the right the mountains clouded by sleeping fog, and right below me a rocky path dotted with the worst part of the journey: the sheep shit (haha). I ended up spending ten minutes perusing through a small maze until I reached the top, where I found this:
I had always considered myself a person of self-isolation before I saw this view. I have the personality of someone who likes to curl up in the midst of things, alone, to introspect upon the world. But as I saw this lovely church lying hidden from the rest of the word, I realized I wasn’t isolated to the extent that I had assumed I was. This old, withering church was stranded on a hill amidst magnificent rolling mountains, flower-speckled grasses, wind upon extravagant wind: I had never seen anything so isolated in my life. And yet it was so beautiful, it held itself with such grace among the overwhelming atmosphere around it. It was isolated yet it had all of these lovely things it could soak into its chipping paint. It was going to die there, and it was going to die well. I suddenly wasn’t insecure about my own self-isolation anymore. If this church could do it, why couldn’t I? It had withstood the company of the weather with grace, never faltering, always watching like a lighthouse without legs, and with a much more topographical view.
It revealed itself to me as I was looking out into the landscape, this thought, something I had never really considered: I had to die somewhere. There was going to be a place, whether ugly, whether ethereal, where I was going to die. I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it, except watch the world fall away around me. I thought to myself, “I have to die here.” Whenever it may happen, whenever it may be, it had to be here. How could any living thing want to die in a place less beautiful than where I was this very moment? I envied the sheep who had died in these fields. I envied the rain for being able to soak into these grasses before reincarnating back into the sky again. It’s a strange thing, to spend your life living in the same place that you want to die. A manifested fate within your own hands. I now think back to my Icelandic tattoo which says “endalaust,” or “endlessly” in English, and attribute it to the water that gets to fall out of the sky and float back into it at the same time, a cycle of endless reincarnation, never dying. If living here means dying here then perhaps I can become endless, like the rain.
I can imagine this one song by Ólafur Arnalds named Gleypa Okkur, in which rain patters on the cobblestones behind the sound of violin; a lovely embodiment. The song name is fitting because it translates to “swallow us” or “absorb us.”
Just after reaching the church, an extraordinary thing happened. The clouds began to subside off the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in the distance, and a vivid image of the layered landscape was exposed beyond the curtain. I had never seen mountains so close to me before, they were so large and otherworldly. I had asked an Icelandic professor of mine a few days ago where he would live if he had to move to the United States. He said that he couldn’t live anywhere where there weren’t mountains, he had to have them. He had lived with them out his window all his life, so how could he abandon that? There was such a certainty in his voice as he said this, as if it was absurd to think that one would not be able to live near extravagant landforms, or to think that one would not want to. I didn’t really know what it felt like to long for the mountains until I saw these. They made me feel small and insignificant, and I liked that. It’s a comforting feeling, a shudder throughout the body that makes you feel sheltered and secure. Most people I come into contact with can’t stand the idea of being insignificant. They spend their lives with religion and spiritual practice, blindly fumbling for purpose. The mountains teach those who long for purpose that there is no purpose. There is no significance, except the significant between the interaction of two objects, like that of a mountain and a human being, that of a giant mass of atoms interacting with a very small mass of atoms. I like to think that one day I will fall away from the earth and my atoms will somehow be the atoms that make up these giant creatures, if they may be called such.
All throughout my adolescent years, I believed that I was meant for the city. I would gaze up into the sky in the middle of downtown Chicago and feel a sense of security that no other human being could give to me, not even my own parents. I saw these buildings towering over me like giant beings, they were getting smaller the further up they were from me which gave them the illusion of curling in over my head. I felt this safeness, I was protected from the elements, I was secure from the unknown around me and outside of myself. The sound of the city sang with motion, I felt like a whirring consciousness of movement and ebbing and flowing. These manmade structures looked taller than mountains. I didn’t think I would feel comfortable with anything else. I spent years longing for the city again.
And then I found Iceland.
I discovered camping, hiking, volcanos and mountains. I’m just now realizing that nature was all it took to make me realize that those buildings simultaneously acted as a cage. I was being protected from elements I was afraid of, only because I had never known what they were, I genuinely feared the unknown. But these mountains, how could I fear them when they rose so delicately into the sky, and how could I fear them when they disregarded me and went about their own business? The mountains don’t care about anyone, they grow on their own and reclaim anything that falls in their way with motive to alter them. The skyscrapers in the city, well, they’re regarded for us. They’re meant for only us, they’re constructed so that we feel more secure, fit to our every need. But do those who build skyscrapers ever think that maybe we’d all live a little more freely without control over the elements? And maybe we would fear less if we were to live and die knowing that our atoms would first become mountains, and not skyscrapers.
I admire my professor for dedicating a part of his life to the mountains, and I admire the mountains for not letting human influence get in the way of their beauty.
Other sites along our trip included the lovely Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss, two ethereal waterfalls crashing their bodies into the earth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen water so aggressive and dedicated, it was like martyrdom was manifested in the way they fell.
Here is skógarfoss:
Views from the top!
Throughout this trip, I was surprised with myself. In most situations of such overwhelming beauty I tend to start spilling over with tears as a way to express the emotions that well up within myself. Internally and unconsciously I was awaiting it. Intuition told me that eventually it would come. I was contained, and I had a feeling it had to do with the fact that I was with a group (my Icelandic class) the whole time. My feelings were all internalized, not purposefully, so as not to disrupt the order of things. But a moment did find itself and it happened where I least expected it. I cannot recall the exact location, but we had ended up driving far out into a barren field to visit another one of the stop in the Saga trail for Njáls Saga. It was quite remote, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place so open and flat in my life before. The bus stopped at a small house in the middle of the fields, and the group gathered around our professor to hear about the historical significance of the site we were at. I had been one of the last people to gather around, and instead of huddling in with the group, I decided to press myself into the ground and sit down amid the openness.
My initial reason for sitting was because I wanted to know what the grass felt like underneath me. It was slightly damp when I pressed my hands into it, and my fingers were able to lose themselves in the long green strands. It smelled of something other than grass, it was of earth, more of soil and pure growth. It was nothing like the neatly cut lawn-grass smell I experienced while growing up. This felt more genuine and wild, unruly, untamed. I sat in a daze with both my hands out to my sides, pressing down into one slice of a grass carpet that was miles long. I hadn’t really looked up yet, something held me back. Perhaps it was a fear; I knew that what I would see wouldn’t be anything like the city I grew up in, and I was afraid my eyes wouldn’t be able to take it in. Slowly I lifted my face up, I felt the grass fall away from my line of vision, felt the sky take hold of my eyes as I tried to contain it. There was more sky than earth, I was deluged, lightheaded. And that’s when it hit me, the overwhelming
feeling that I had fallen away from myself, and I was nothing any longer, just an amalgamation of atoms whirring around in all of this space, these endless spaces and the spaces between those endless spaces. Endalaust. I couldn’t tell if I was the space contained within all of this solid air or the solid entity disrupting the space around me.
I started to cry. Whatever I was, I was beautiful, and the spaces were beautiful, between my fingers, between my my endless lines of vision, between myself and the people around me, I was isolated, alone, like that church who held itself with grace.
The whole way home after that, I stared out the window in an overwhelmed flurry and cried. Sigur Rós was playing in my ears and I knew in that moment that my heart was going to be buried here. I was already testing the ground with my hands for places where my heart might like to reside. I’m still searching, but I will find it. And it will be buried, and it will feel every last earthquake and movement in the earth, as if the earth was beating with it.
Svo ég anda, og ég anda, og ég anda
So I breathe, and I breathe, and I breathe