Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).
Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.
Oh, the irony.
So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.
Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…
Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).
I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.
But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!
So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.
I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.
I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.
The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.
I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).
And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.
Iceland is like Sweden’s weird cousin that shows up at all the big holidays. It looks more like the moon or a newly-discovered boiling planet than the other Nordic countries, yet it shares the same ancient gods and speaks some variant of an old mother tongue. It’s intriguing, mysterious, remote, cold and hot (simultaneously)… It’s the one who tells all the cool stories at family gatherings, tales so far-fetched that we’re not sure whether they’re real or not.
It’s roughly the size of Kentucky (or, the size of Ireland and Belgium combined), but with a population smaller than the city of Nice; so once you leave Reykjavik virtually everywhere feels like you’re in the middle of Nowhere. It’s almost like a theme park, divided into regions where the farther from the airport you stray, the more A-tickets you’ll need (Adventure tickets, that is…).
One corner looks like a troll nursery, while another, a boiling cauldron ready to burst its seams and spew scalding water or lava or unicorn entrails… one never knows.
I’ve been curious about this strange place, and I’m known to take a photograph or two (or 642) when I travel, so I made plans for a 3-day stopover here on my way back from Sweden, taking advantage of Icelandair’s #MyStopover promotion, where they don’t charge you extra to add days to your ticket when you fly through Reykjavik. You do, however, get to pay for your hotel, rental car and anything you do or eat while you’re here. One thing to note: Iceland is not cheap. On the plus-side, most of the things to do are outdoors, and for the most part, free (unless you do a tour).
So I land in the land of fire and ice, acquire my rental car (another note: you need 11 different types of insurance to cover the land/air/sea hazards that may or may not occur while driving in this place), and I’m off: first stop the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which I’ve nicknamed Snuffleupagus because it’s only just moderately easier to pronounce, to see mountains and waterfalls and old churches and fantastic coastlines.
My first observation: there are no trees here. But: black mountains and weird green rolling hills pop up from flat expanses, appearing out of the fog like they’ve just sprung from the depths of some grim faery tale. It’s like Kansas meets Mars or the Moon, in black (and green) and gray, but there are still literally no trees, just a smattering of what looks like wheatgrass and moss-covered boulder fields. And rainbows appear on a moment’s notice, since it’s drizzling then sunny…not terribly unlike New England weather. But with ink-black earth. And volcanoes. And maybe trolls.
About an hour outside of Reykjavik, wending my way north and west, I encounter a tunnel*. Only later do I find out that it is called the Hvalfjarðargöng, and only when I’m 1 or 2km in, do I realise it’s the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven (nearly 6km long and 165 metres deep), rock-lined and sloping steeply (8%!) to enable travel beneath the Hvalfjarður fjord. It’s as I resurface here that I behold the first of many Icelandic rainbows I’ll see in the following days.
The hotel is the only thing lit in the little town of Hellnar when I arrive. And by little, I mean there seems only to be the one hotel, a cluster of about 15 clean-cut, brown houses, an old church, a couple of other buildings, maybe another restaurant, and an expanse of coastline. The staff, friendly; the tea, hot; the bed, cosy. I’ve spanned 2500km in a plane and another 230+ kms driving up here in the wild and woolly weather. This flicka is ready for sängen.
I shot on the order of 600 photos in 3 days, beginning that Monday morn. How? When the landscape and the light are otherworldly, and the sky shows a different side every 8 minutes, even a simple snapshot out the window of a hotel room has a mood and a texture like a painting.
So on this new day, when the dreariness looked like it wanted to thwart an entire stopover, I woke up and steeled myself for the worst of elements. At brekkie, though, the clouds broke. For a precious few moments the sun appeared as if it would stay the day… alas, by the time I was ready to embark (a mere 20 minutes later), the skies darkened and Thor reigned (and rained and rained). Undaunted, I set out (rather, there is quite literally NOTHING to do here except look at nature, so I went anyway). First stop: Kirkjufellsfoss.
The road from Hellnar to Kirkjufellsfoss is across the Snæfellsnes peninsula: follow the main road, make a left at the black church “on the corner” and make a right when you see water again. There are few roads here and, it must be stated, they are in very good condition – Iceland even has a website dedicated to road status…the weather here is so changeable that many roads close due to water, mud, snow, ice, etc. at the drop of a hat.
The Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the most-photographed landmarks in Iceland, and my ultimate dream was to capture the Northern Lights here, though I’m doubtful the weather will permit it. I arrive, driving through the small mountains, then along the coast, a drive lined with moss-covered lava fields, dramatic green hills, glacial peaks and an otherwise other-worldly landscape.
Kirkjufell side view
The tour bus and teeming tourists turn me off at first (as do the rain and wind). But the clouds momentarily break, the bus leaves, and I am left with a living photograph before me… The shot, worth it. Then the skies then darken and it begins to hail.
Hailstorm, brief, I set off again, towards the seaside town of Stykkishólmur, situated on the northern side of the Snuffleupagus peninsula. It is quaint, and I climb up to the lighthouse during a break in the showers, rewarded with a view of the bay, rainbow touching down on one of the surrounding islands.
My Snæfellsnes loop continued with a stop at the renowned Búðakirkja, a dark-brown church built in the early 1700’s by a Swedish merchant, torn down and rebuilt (twice!) before the mid-1800’s. It is only made more stunning by its site (mountains on one side, the wild North Atlantic on the other) and the magic Icelandic skies. I continue along that coast, stopping multiple times, gape-mouthed, to photograph the landscape. I vow to put that Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens on my wishlist.
By midafternoon on that first day, cold and wet were factors by which I had stopped measuring my well-being. The weather began as gray, moved to alternately downpouring and sunny, shifted to gale-force winds (in which, at one point, I had to hold onto my rental car to avoid getting flung off a cliff), hail, more rain, then brooding fog. More sacrifices to the gods of Gore-Tex. The winds, unrelenting! Njörðr (Njord), Norse god of sea and wind, is ever-present. One wonders why this strange place wasn’t called Norway instead.
On Tuesday, I’m slated to stay in the South Coast town of Vik. My plan is to head that way in the morning, stopping along the way when I see things that pique my interest. From Hellnar to Vik is about 360km, the weather only marginally better than the day before.
I stopped to get gas in a small town called Hveragerði, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hell(a)… Turns out it’s a geothermal hotbed here, the hillsides boiling just below the surface, and the continental plates threatening to move farther apart at any moment.
I took a small hike in the town’s geothermal park, met a lovely local woman named Jenny (pronounced “Yenny”) and her dog, and visited their quirky earthquake museum, where I stood in the void between the Eurasian and North American plates.
Iceland, where the earth boils…
…and unicorns thrive
I stand between the European and North American tectonic plates
Just in case the boiling earth wasn’t enough of a deterrent
The earth here, mineral-rich and vibrant in the pre-downpour sunshine, seemed to speak…creaking and bubbling as it sent up its wafts of steam from underground cauldrons. The air, its texture, like silk: smooth and thin and soft. Jenny told me she moved here because the energy was different; that the place somehow called her to stay.
As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I stopped to explore Seljalandsfoss, tourist magnet that it is – it’s one of the waterfall wonders here, and because of the stone’s configuration, you can walk behind it (if you don’t mind getting a tad wet!).
Adventure girl dons all the rain gear in her pack…
Icing on the cake: a rainbow after the rain showers… This is where the unicorns come to party
And again the landscape changes on this part of the island, on one side of the roadway, there’s glacial peaks bounded by dormant volcanoes, on the other there’s flat, black expanses dotted with what looks like meteorites. It’s remnants from the volcano that erupted here in 2010. Nobody can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, so they just call it “the volcano that mucked up all the flights.” All this lava yields to fertile fields and farms promising horse riding on the celebrated Icelandic ponies. It changes again as the road wends back towards the coastline, with its basalt cliffs and black beaches. And I arrive at a little guest house in Vik for my final night.
Once upon a time there was a volcano whose name we couldn’t pronounce…
My last morning, I spend an hour or two wandering the hills above the town, then out the jetty to view the Reynisdrangar rocks from my perch some 300 metres into the sea. Legend states that the rocks are mischievous trolls, caught in the sunlight and frozen as pillars of jagged rock, after a night of dragging ships to shore.**
Waves crash on Vik’s black sand beach, but not before taking the form of giant polar bear paws…
This is a statue not far from the black sand beach, a tribute to fallen seamen
Behind the volcanoes: the glaciers!
Vik, from the jetty
I drive the way I came, stopping along the route to see what I can in the little time left. As I leave, I reflect that what I’ll remember more than the famous waterfalls, the oft-photographed landmarks, and the tourist-filled hotspots, is the landscape leading to-and-from the wonders.
This is how I spent most of my time outdoors in Iceland…this, and holding onto heavy things to avoid getting flung over cliffs.
NB: I’ve found that the coolest, most amazing experiences I’ve had travelling are the ones not in a guide book, but rather what arises (and surprises) when you least expect it: A trail lined with wild blueberries; cartoon mushrooms popping up from the mossy forest floor; fresh kanelbulle from a local baker; a stranger coming to your aid when you are out of options; a kind local guiding you to the best view in a town you can’t pronounce; deep sleep in an old dirt-floored cabin beside a stream; a paddle down a canal beside an urban island once used as the Royal hunting grounds; a hike through rainbow-coloured steaming earth; a hail storm then a magnificent rainbow on a volcanic coastline in a village with 12 houses…
And so, with a last-minute road closure that diverts traffic over a small mountain on a semi-paved road and gets me to the airport almost an hour later than necessary, I leave these Nordic lands behind, hoping to return again as soon as my interpreter will have me.
A view from our misty, mossy camp along the Berslagsleden…