Exploring Landscape and Storytelling in Iceland

From Process to Performance

Exploring Landscape and Storytelling in Iceland

During the month of September 2018, I was in residence at the Fish Factory Creative Centre of Stöðvarfjörður in the East fjords exploring the relationships between landscape and storytelling, and then spent ten days traveling around the southern coast of the country before taking a bus up to Skagaströnd in the remote Northwest to spend an two additional weeks in residency at NES through mid-October.  I have documented my journey of story-collecting and art-making here!

September 1:

​I arrived in Stöðvarfjörður as the sun set, sending warm glowing rose and gold fingers of light over the fjord—a gorgeous greeting from my home for the next month!  It was a long two days of travel to get here, and so exciting to finally set out on this adventure which had been seeded almost a year ago!  Una met me at the Egilsstaðir airport in the late afternoon, and after a whirlwind stop at the grocery store, we drove an hour to Stöðvarfjörður, the road carving out space through lush green fields of fat, woolly sheep (soon to be shorn, in a week or two!); mouths filled with long grasses, they lazily looked up at us as we zoomed past.  Tumbling waterfalls and rugged hills sloped up and away from the paved one-lane highway, and I marveled at all the shades of green, hues tinged with brown and yellow undertones, fed by the rich volcanic soil and misty grey air. Indeed, I have already experienced the tempestuous and quickly changing weather, determined by the whims of the icy cold winds; boarding the little prop plane to fly from Reykjavik to Egilsstaðir, every passenger was soaked on the tarmac as the gentle downfall suddenly transformed into a sleeting sideways rain, drenching us all as we ran across the runway and up the narrow stairs into the plane!  I quickly forgot my wet clothes after take-off, my face pressed to the window to watch the landscape below.  As we lifted away from the city, a beautiful rainbow bloomed beneath us, and I felt like Dorothy, transported literally over the rainbow, with the start of a fantastic adventure ahead of me to rival any story of Oz. From my vantage point at 10,000 feet, I watched tumbled green fields carpeting the earth, giving way to sharply sloping brown peaks, topped by brilliant white snow, with wide expanses of glaciers snuggled in between.  The wild Atlantic ocean, a deep brooding blue dotted with white caps and long slashes of windblown waves, crashed against the coast, quieting as it spills up the finger-like fjords and laps against the mountains.  


Now I record these impressions snuggled in my cozy little bedroom; I am delighted by the rustic house that will be home for a month, and as the first to arrive, Una had urged me to choose my bedroom from the four available; I peered quickly into each room, looking at the window views rather than the furniture, and right away was captivated by the simple small front bedroom with a window overlooking the fjord—beyond the small trees in the front yard, I can see the long line of blue water and the beautiful striated mountains rising on the other side.  Instantly, I wanted this room to be mine; Una nodded sagely.  “When I first came here as an intern, this was my room”, she said. Before I could even unzip the first suitcase, I heard gravel crunching on the drive, and looked out the window to see my first roommate to arrive—Nika, and her friend Andy, who was staying the night after driving her here.  They are both Russian, living now in New York City.  I rushed out to meet them, and amidst conversation and introductions, we settled in, putting away our groceries and stacking clothes on the shelves in our rooms.  As the evening darkened, the three of us walked down to the docks, bunching up together against the biting wind, to see our studios at the Fish Factory Creative Centre, a converted fish freezing factory which fell into ruins with the 2005 collapse of Iceland’s economy, and was revitalized and revisioned as an international artist residency.  We set up our supplies in the studios, and spent an evening in laughter and stories, ending with a shared late night meal around our kitchen table—sliced cheese, salted tomatoes and thick sunflower seed bread, pulled together from our separate shopping trips.  Already the house felt familiar and cozy, as we chatted over mugs of hot tea, saying good night as we retreated into our rooms.  I snuggled gratefully under the weight of the duvet and the handmade patchwork quilt to record these impressions of my first day, listening to the soft hiss of the heater, and ready for a good night’s sleep…

September 2:

It is late afternoon, the quality of light slanting across the mountains is bolder and brighter than this morning, breaking through the thin grey clouds in a glorious burst of sunshine for an hour or so, and now once more succumbing to the caravan of clouds drifting slowly over the fjord.  There is a saying in Iceland, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”; the mercurial nature of wind and water is evident here, shifting quickly in intensity and direction.  Today however, was forecast to be a beautiful day, with only clouds and sun—but of course we wore our rainjackets anyways, just in case! 

This morning, Nika, Andy and I collaborated on breakfast; I scrambled eggs for us, Nika made coffee with the Italian press she had brought along in her luggage from New York, and Andy supplied a delicious moist apple cake, purchased at the one café in town (whose owners, it turns out, are also our next door neighbors)!  Afterwards, Nika and I walked the town (as Andy packed up to continue his trip North); the town of Stöðvarfjörður has only one main road (about a quarter-mile in length along the Highway 1, which circles Iceland), with several residential streets rambling up a few blocks til the slope becomes too steep and the hillside continues upwards in shades of green.  We walked down to the dock, noticing the reflection cast upon the water by the little line of moored boats, almost mirroring the mountains behind.  The sea was calm this morning, with good visibility in the absence of wind, and we spent time peering into the shallow water, the silt substrate carpeted with gently waving seaweed, strewn with pale pink seastars and long white fish skeletons, barely glimpsed through the green, red and brown fronds.  Suddenly a large long-limbed crab emerged from the seaweed—with legs he was easily more than a foot across—faded orange with a scarred carapace and spiderlike segmented legs. I watched him travel slowly out of sight and then we walked on, returning to explore the Fish Factory two-story warehouse, converted into a multi-use art centre with studio space for each of us.  We are both excited to officially start working in the studios tomorrow! 

After a brief stopover back home to grab water bottles, gloves and scarves, we set off in the other direction, walking towards the mouth of the fjord, where it empties into the Atlantic.  The highway was bordered with tall grasses gone to seed and blooming wildflowers in the last throes of summer; survival here means adapting to be small and efficient in this harsh climate—tiny bursts of brilliantly colored petals, vivid lichens spreading like bulleyes on rocks, micro-sized leaves in greens of every hue weaving the landscape together.  We walked around the Northern edge of the fjord to a place called Saxa, where waves and high tides sometimes result in a dramatic blowhole.  Today however, we arrived at low tide, but were delighted to see all the shadowy tide pools and tumbled kelp drying in the cold air; the receding sea revealed a complex and everchanging ecosystem, the boundary between land and water in ebb and flow with the moon.  We climbed over rocks and peered into these tiny fragile worlds—the intricate shells of sea snails, darting small fish, husks of barnacle colonies marooned above the water line, and pieces of bleached desiccated bull kelp that looked almost like reindeer antlers.  Attracted by its glittering reflection, we even found a white and blue seam of quartz in an exposed boulder, sparkling as the sun broke through the clouds.  Everywhere in this beautiful landscape there are treasures, whether stunning waterfalls or small green growing things—truly a place from which sagas and folklore are born…

September 3

​Today I awoke to a brilliant blue sky and bright sunshine, perfect for adventuring out of doors! After stopping at the Fish Factory to meet Debbie and Jenni, two of the other artists, staying in the other house, and to play with Tumi, one of the studio dogs (owned by Una), Nika and I visited Petra’s Stone and Mineral Collection, one of the largest exhibited collections in the world. We spent several hours photographing rocks, entranced by the multitude of textures, colors and shapes forged by the earth—the majority of stones are from Iceland—amazing to see such diversity in the geology!  The captivating, grandiose vistas that lure visitors to this volcanic country are here distilled down in scale—so many stories to read in the types of rock, the crystalline lattices, the swirling patterns and fossilized structures.  I wondered what Rick and Jim, my geologist friends, would be drawn to in this vast collection—would they linger over some of the same stones that I did?  Which stones did I walk past that a geologist would find irresistible?  I loved the details of these rocks—each photo could inspire a fairy tale, or a movement phrase, or a painting—each of them a treasure from the earth, born from fire and ice and pressure and time.

After the museum, Nika and I returned to our house for lunch and encountered our new roommate, still traveling with her husband, and just popping in to drop off supplies; Adrienne and her spouse Julian are both very nice (Adrienne is from Montreal and Julian is English), and after tea and conversation, they invited us to ride with them to Seyðisfjörður, a picturesque port town a few fjords further north, where they were staying (we would have to hitchhike home). Unable to pass up the opportunity to see a new place and pass more time in conversation with them, we grabbed our jackets and loaded into the backseat of their rental car.  The drive was lovely—a languorously twisting road between steep green mountains and rolling fields filled with enormous sheep. In Seyðisfjörður we parted ways; Adrienne and Julian having dinner with friends, and Nika and I hiking to a double waterfall just beyond the end of town, adorned with a beautiful rainbow. This community was larger, with colorful houses and boats, the destination of the Smyrill Line Ferry to the Faroe Islands and Denmark.

With the sun sinking slowly behind the mountains, Nika and I began hitching home, which turned out to be a rather anxious event, since passing cars were extremely infrequent and with the fading daylight, the temperature was dropping rapidly.  However, three hours, 98 kilometres and four rides later, we arrived happily home*; all of the women that picked us up were fascinating and kind—first we caught a ride with three twentysomething girls from Portugal (two doctors and one vet, all on holiday together), followed by three more rides from Icelanders—a bookkeeper traveling back from an appointment up in Akureyri, followed by a dental assistant on her way home, and concluding with a friendly mountain guide traveling with her Australian Shepherd; I sat in the back with him and enjoyed petting him (in exchange for exuberant doggy kisses of course)!  It turned out that Bryndis is also a tour guide for Inside the Volcano, which is one of the premiere tours in Iceland–I had read about it prior to my arrival (would love to do it, but it’s $450 per person, so out of budget)!

Tired and happy to be home, we made dinner and explored the record collection donated to the house by Vinnie, one of the local artists who runs the Fish Factory—in addition to a great stereo setup and record player, there are two big stacks of records—the lefthand stack is all Icelandic musicians, so we listened to three albums, sifting through the stack to select the most interesting and eclectic cover art of course:  Mannakorn, Paradís and Júdas No:1, all rather retro disco/seventies rock, and great background for our meal! Mannakorn’s cover reminded us of a Dali-Magritte-ish melding of influences, and the Paradís album art featured a fabulous mix of legends–from Eden to Viking settlement in the fjords, and with ravens perched in branches, perhaps emblematic of the Norse myths of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, who flew all over the world and brought back stories to their master, perching on his shoulders to whisper collected tales.  We certainly intend to listen to all of the records in the stack during our stay!

Now as I finish writing this, around midnight, I hear the weather shift outside—a rising wind bringing rain, which drums on the roof, a lullaby to send me to sleep.


*Although Nika and I have decided that we will probably not do this again—the opportunity to chat with people was wonderful, and we enjoyed meeting each set of female travelers who shared their cars with us, but the worrisome wait times in twilight between lifts was too iffy!  Even though many locals had assured us that it was a very safe and acceptable thing to hitchhike on the main roads, it probably should be left to more populated areas (and summer)!

September 4

This morning there were no mountains, no fjords—they had vanished in the night, stolen away by a thick bank of fog and a steady drizzle.  I inaugurated the hood of my new rainjacket and slid into my silvery rainboots, and set off down the hill to the Fish Factory.  Inside my studio it was warm and dry, and the high row of windows filled with grey clouds was a nice contrast to the bright and cozy interior.  Throughout the day, as I settled into the space, my desk slowly accumulated things as I spread out and started playing with ideas.  I left the studio door ajar, and soon Tumi nosed his way in, carrying the remains of a tennis ball (half a tennis ball, with no innards actually!), and I tossed it to him a dozen or so times before returning to the little sketches I had started, based off of the stone photographs from yesterday.  Prior to my arrival here, I had intended to explore the relationships between landscape and memory—enormous vistas and personal histories rooted in the present.  Now I am shifting perspective, interested in time on a different scale, interested in the passage of centuries and epochs—not just looking at the massively majestic mountains, but thinking about the processes that forged them, the changes over time.  

In the mid-afternoon, Una and Rosa gave us a detailed tour of the Factory—such a wondrous labyrinthine place, filled with art and possibilities—room after room devoted to specific genres:  sewing machines, a metal shop, wood-working, ceramics, print-making, a darkroom, a recording studio, in addition to shadowy dark spaces stuffed to overflowing with collections of things (scrap metal and timber, ropes, old electronics and dissected machines—fodder for future projects)!  I collected some thinly-sliced boards of local wood with the layers of bark still attached, and an old unraveling fishing rope, severely frayed from the sea and salt.  I was also drawn to an old vintage typewriter (I’ll discover tomorrow if it still works)—not since high school have I used one!  Words seem to have different cache and impact whether hand-letter, digitally created, or struck out on a typewriter—the satisfying and definitive sounds and the weight of each word—the precision of fingers marching over the keys, the metal stroke of the inked letter impacting the paper, the unique distribution of stamped ink for each letter, the effort of erasing an idea.  I am not yet sure how I will weave together all these art-making ideas and mediums into a project, but I intend to just experiment for a few days!

Though almost all of the Factory has been repurposed for art-making, a local fisherman still uses a large garage downstairs to clean, store and sell fish; Jón allowed us to peek in this afternoon as he was cleaning freshly caught halibut and skates—each at least 2.5 feet across! The halibut he cleaned and filleted, but the skates were to be fermented and dried for three months before consumption.  Such beautiful massive fish (of course I prefer to see them in the sea and living)—off California, when I worked on the R/V Sea Explorer, the halibut and skates we brought up for catch-and-release in the otter trawl were typically only 6 – 8 inches…now the giant fish skeletons I glimpsed on the bottom of the shallow waters off the dock make sense…


September 5

It feels like autumn arrived today; there is a definite chill to the air, prompting me to tug down my hat as far as it would go, and stand my coat collar up as I walked to the Fish Factory (time to add a scarf and switch to a wool hat)!  I spent most of the day in my studio, with a few breaks to go outside to peer down into the water (and to pet the dogs)—I am still working on texture studies based on the stones and lichens, playing with layers of oil pastels, watercolor paints and pencils, and acrylic paint, thickening them like sediment stacking up over time or striations in rock.  I played with the typewriter between layers, as the paints dried, remembering how to roll in paper, double-click to move the page up, pace myself when typing so the keys don’t get stuck.  Half the roller is damaged on this one, since it is salvaged, but if I tore the paper into thin strips, I could successfully feed them in!  So much more effort in word production—feeling the strength and sureness of the index and middle fingers as they strike the keys, the pinkies and ring fingers weaker and slower.  Remembering that unlike typing on the computer, one has to pay attention to where the paper ends, and plan words accordingly as the end of the line approaches…noticing the charming little eccentricities with this keyboard, the capital letters sitting a little higher and crooked on the line, the spacing asymmetrical if I type too fast…and no easy way to correct misspellings!  I remember in high school having the chalky white “correction paper”, and the tediousness of having to backspace and strike out mistakes…so different from the casualness with which we type today, and our (sometimes misplaced) confidence in autocorrect!  Sadly, after playing around with a few small paragraphs, the ribbon ran out of ink, and since this was a scavenged typewriter, not sure if there are any replacement ribbons…tomorrow I will experiment with trying to re-ink it.

Studio soundtrack today:  Jónsi & Alex Riceboy Sleeps, Jónsi Go and We Bought a Zoo

September 6

Last night before bed I checked the tide charts, in anticipation of wandering the rocky shore late morning; the sea-rounded grey rocks made satisfying crunches beneath my feet as I walked, and there were no other sounds besides the lapping waves and occasional screams of gulls (and they doscream—it sounds quite different than our Western Gulls). I picked up several tiny salmony-orangey-red rocks, some milky-clear pieces of quartz, and one stunning agate-green-mustard-yellow-with-turquoise-blue-spots stone the size and shape of a thumbnail (future necklace, I think).  There were two beach berms piled high with kelp—high tide and storm markers; such lovely shades of green and red and brown—from opaque to nearly translucent, slimy-smooth to deeply patterned, rubbery ribbons tangled in tall piles. I found bull kelp holdfasts in all sizes, each supporting communities of barnacles and mussels, all now slowly drying in the chilly air.  I walked to the other end of town (only a three minute stroll) and followed a winding overgrown path down to the shore again—the tumbled rocks were larger here, and there were shredded fishing nets and plastic bags strewn among the seaweed.  As I walked back to the Fish Factory, I saw a bright orange cluster of flowers by the side of the road—Icelandic Poppies!  I remember working at Scenic Nursery back in Modesto as a teenager, excited by the exoticness of these flowers, which held secrets of the far away cold North. My 11thgrade English classroom also had a poster with a drawing of Icelandic Poppies, like the old-fashioned designs on seed packets (I spent many hours looking at that poster, hanging up in the left front corner of the classroom, above Miss Baker’s desk)—I dreamed of one day journeying North, and wondered how these flowers would look, growing in a mythical land of ice and snow…now I know! (-;
So far no luck in re-inking the typewriter ribbon—instead I made plans with Debbie (a fascinating artist from New Zealand) to start a dance project tomorrow in the large industrial attic—we picked out coveralls to wear (it’s very dirty up there, but a super cool view out the dingy old windows overlooking the fjord), and scouted the space in preparation.  I then spent the afternoon sketching out stories, inspired by the unique shape of the mountains across the fjord—like a sleeping troll princess and her loyal dragon, turned to stone by the rising sun, and blanketed with an eon of moss and earth, set to slumber through the age of man…

Today I also took a photo of the city information sign (and included it below), pointing to my little home for the month (it’s the red roof just to the right of my finger!)—the Fish Factory is the large white structure at the bottom, below the shopping cart symbol (which is for the Brekkan Café, which sells gas, candy, sodas, lotto cards, and postcards—sadly, they are not very pretty postcards, which is a shame, since just walking outside yields magnificent vistas!  Nonetheless, I will be purchasing some).

Studio soundtrack today:  Julianna Barwick self-titled and Nepenthe, Bon Iver self-titled and For Emma, Forever Ago


September 7

Today marks one week since I began my travels to this land of extremes—dramatic meeting points between land and sea, volcanoes and ice, a tiny remote village with artists from all over the globe.  Tucked away here in the East fjords, bustling metropolises far, far away, there is lots of room for creativity, and space & time to let things evolve…each morning when I open my curtains and look out at the mountains, I reflect anew on how lucky I am, my trip having faltered into question a mere ten days before departure by a dark mass inside, captured in images; a phone call telling me to come back to the hospital for more tests, waiting while the doctor read the results, confirming its presence, and scheduling a biopsy (they were so kind to fit the appointments in so quickly, aware that I was leaving the country—all the doctors and nurses extremely nice).  At each appointment, I heard my voice, so like my mother’s, shy and scared as I asked questions, my heart drumming in fear.  Everything put on hold, packing and planning paused and dates with friends cancelled, waiting for one procedure, then the next, and then The Phone Call, not daring to think ahead, worried that this surreal adventure was too good to be true, and that I would receive the same phone call as my mother had all those years ago.  Relief and joy are not strong enough words to describe how I felt when the doctor called, stating it was not cancer, and that they would look at it again in six months—I felt all the emotion I had kept suppressed for the week of waiting and testing flooding out, so grateful, so ready to dive into LIFE, into this adventure, this affirmation of being here, NOW, of being healthy and alive.  The surface has bloomed deep purple and wine red with bruises, unfaded two weeks later, reminding me of my good fortune, and that nothing evil lurks within.  In the front of my travel journal, I pasted a fortune cookie quote: “Beautiful things await you.” And indeed, luckily, they do. 

Today has been filled with experimentation.  Debbie and I donned blue jumpsuits, thickly splattered with dried paint, and danced in the dusty attic, lit by great old windows with cracked double panes and dingy stains, our feet making sliding-swooshy sounds on the dirty floor as we turned and jumped.  I let Debbie choose the music (since I am happy to move to anything!), so we had a fabulously uptempo soundtrack of Daft Punk, and danced until we were sweating and exhausted.  Afterwards, I returned to my studio to stretch, enjoying the ability to move (now that it has been two weeks since the biopsy surgery).  I passed the afternoon writing, taking a break to pet Tumi and Skotta, nestled on the sofa in the ceramics studio while Una and Rosa painted the birds they sell here and at several galleries around Iceland to help support the Fish Factory.  They have to make 500 more birds by November for a festival, so they will be busy!

 Studio soundtrack today: Sigur Rós Ágætis byrjun, Angels of the Universe, Takk, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, and  ( )

September 8

Fall is here: very grey and cold and rainy! We spent the morning here in our cozy house, lingering over coffee and conversation; first Andreanne and then later Nika donned raingear and left to trudge through the drizzle down to the Factory, while I stayed another few hours writing at the dining table by our big beautiful window—every day I look out, the mountains are brand-new—sometimes disappearing for hours, sometimes dramatically jagged-y and mossy-looking. Today they are absent all together, obscured by the rain, although if I look closely, I can see white waves breaking on the opposite shore (which must mean the ocean is really rough today, if the swell is carrying this far into the fjord).  When my laptop battery nears 5%, I plug it in and pack up to join them down at the Factory; I started writing a short story yesterday, inspired by rocks and ocean and myths, and plan to keep working on it a bit each day (and share it when it’s ready). 

After an afternoon of art-making (during which I also choreographed the ensemble movement phrase I will be teaching all the other artists for my video project—everyone has agreed to don coveralls and be filmed up in the attic and down on the dock, and I will also audio record their impressions of Iceland and film  a series of close-up gestures), I speed-walk up the hill in the rain (discovering that my hood does not extend quite far enough to prevent my face and forehead from getting drenched), and I am decidedly damp and chilled when I arrive home and strip off all my outer layers.  Andreanne starts cooking while I sift through all the non-Icelandic records, tasked with identifying good music for tomorrow’s housecleaning; it is an eclectic assortment:  early Peter Gabriel, Kenny Rogers, Benny Goodman, Stevie Wonder, The Platters, REO Speedwagon (for some reason, two copies of the same record), Eric Clapton, MC Hammer, The Bee-Gees, Spandau Ballet, Tammy Wynette, and an assortment of compilations from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s (including two 80s albums which I think must be recorded at festivals in Iceland, because in addition to artists like Culture Club, Billy Idol, and UB40, there are also Icelandic artists–I really want to listen to these!).  There are also two movie soundtracks:  The Lady in Red and Saturday Night Fever, and one Elvis album jacket with no record inside.  I ask Andreanne what she’d like to listen to, and she requests something from the 60s—I find a 60s compilation and start the record, enjoying the satisfying scratch and hiss of analog.  The first track, quite surreally, is California Dreamin’ by The Mammas and the Pappas—certainly fitting for the weather, but strange to encounter here!  I dance my way into the kitchen and join Andreanne in chopping up veggies for our shared dinner, singing along to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, waiting for Nika to get home…


Our dinner is spectacularly suited for autumn:  a simple salad dressed with vinegar and spices, brussel sprouts sautéed in butter and salt, and a cheery stew of chickpeas, ginger, yellow peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes—with squares of dark chocolate for dessert!  We listen to the two volume collection of Benny Goodman over dinner, as the rain drums down outside…divine!

 Studio soundtrack today:  RY X Dawn, Haelos Full Circle, Atomos A Winged Victory for the Sullen

September 9

The weather forecast predicted a few hours of morning sun before the next rainstorm, so I put on my hiking boots, grabbed my rainjacket, and set off along Highway 1, up towards the valley-end of the fjord.  I walked a few kilometers, but then decided to turn around and head back past the town and towards the Atlantic.  About a kilometer east of Stöðvarfjörður, I saw a beautiful rocky beach below, and followed a tiny footpath down to the shore.  The sunlight glittered over the blue water, rushing wavelets lapped the shore, and tumbled piles of kelp and seaweed lay strewn about from the recent high tide—still rubbery-wet and smelling of tangy salt.  I felt skittery with happiness—I love rocky tidepools and wild beaches, and as I stood surveying the shore, I delighted in all the different sound textures—the distant thunderous booming of the big waves at the mouth of the fjord, the messy splashing of the water between rocks as the tide diminished, the clattering roll of pebbles as they pulled under the retreating waves.  As I climbed among the rocks, making my way along the tidepooled-shore, I vividly recalled the first time I saw the ocean.  As a child, I adored Jacques Yves-Cousteau; every week we would go the Stanislaus County Library, and I would check out one of his Undersea Adventures books (I believe it was an 18-volume set, and when I got through all of them, I would start over with book one again!)—I spent hours drawing the fish I found in the pages, reading about marine life, and picturing the crew’s expeditions in far-flung corners of the globe.  When I was six, my parents planned a weekend trip to Monterey—I remember getting to leave kindergarten early that Friday, so excited to drive to the ocean!  After a three hour drive, we arrived and parked our guacamole-green Volkswagen bus along the Pacific Grove coast—and just beyond the red-tinged mounds of iceplant—there it was!  The Pacific Ocean! Hours of scampering over rocks and peering into tidepools ensued…and I was hooked forever.

Here as well the rocky shore is delightfully wild—there is nobody but me and a few seabirds, and the only sounds are the wind and waves and crunching of rocks under my feet.  I step carefully from rock to rock, marveling at all the colors and textures, the long histories of stones—sagas of time and weather and transformation.  I find the tallest rock on the shore and clamber up it, sitting on top and enjoying the view—the water below me is full of undulating seaweed–reds, yellows, greens and browns–whooshing back and forth in constant motion with the frothy waves.  I sit there for almost an hour, watching the clouds creep into the fjord, and suddenly I am splashed by icy spray from a very ambitious wave below! Laughing, I climb down and hike back up the beach, this time drawn to tiny details—the variety of sea snails sprinkled across the rocks, tucked safely into their homes until the tide returns; sparkling veins of quartz and jagged streaks of color in the rocks; voluminous clouds of beach flies lifting off from the high tide berm of rotting kelp, and touching back down; and the trickle of tiny waterfalls seeping down the hillside to meet the sea.  I am sure I will return here again soon—such a lovely place to spend a few hours of sunshine!

When I arrived back home and checked the weather, the rain forecast had slid back later into the afternoon, so I took advantage of an extra hour of nice weather, and went back outside!  This time I hiked up—there is a trail up into the mountains which starts at the top of town, right next door to our house, so I walked up to the first mountain pass, enjoying all the green foliage, and the view back down to the sea.  The mountains beyond had already been erased by the quickly descending clouds, but on the next sunny day, I will definitely hike further on this trail!

Records listened to while housecleaning in the late afternoon (Sundays we each have assigned tasks—today mine was vacuuming):  Eric Clapton Coffee and Cigarettes, REO Speedwagon HI-inFIdelity


September 10

Today was Grocery Store Day; the nearest supermarket is 45 minutes and 50 kilometers from here; Vinny had been rebuilding a junked van and planned to have it finished in time to take all of us today, but he told us sadly that he still needs a few nuts and bolts, and it won’t be ready til Friday (I think it’s very impressive that he’s able to rebuild it at all!).  For our trip to the market today, he phoned the postlady, and arranged to borrow her bright blue van when she delivered mail to our town around noon; certainly in such an isolated place, teamwork and supportive neighbors are extremely important!  We drove two fjords north to Reyðarfjörður, through drizzly grey weather and looming fog. In Iceland, one must always drive with headlights on, day or night, and it is easy to see why; the ocean wind blows up the narrow fjords and the close-knit mountains catch the clouds and pull them down, creating weather conditions that are constantly changing. I remember driving this road when we hitch-hiked home last week, and even in the twilight, seeing rocky islands just offshore—today the coast is obscured by fog, and there are no islands at all, like looking through a viewfinder, seeing only a grey ribbon of road and perhaps 100 meters in each direction—the rest of the world only fog. The one lane highway cuts an asphalt swath through the lush green landscape, and sheep graze along the road.  In each valley, the peaks look a bit different—some long and sloped, some craggy and ominous, some terraced and gradual—one can see why the rocks and mountains feature so prominently in folk stories; Icelandic lore tells many tales of trolls and hidden people, living in the landscape, unseen by most; perhaps a rocky outcropping is the petrified remains of a troll, turned to stone in sunlight, or hides a door to the homestead of an elven family.  Some tales are beautiful or tragic, but many are meant to teach lessons and encourage good behavior; recently I read a story* about a hideous troll woman who was famous for her “bad kids stew”—she had outstanding ears and could hear the shouts and cries of misbehaving children, and would race down from the mountain with a great sack and snatch the naughty children from their beds at night, stuffing them into the darkness before they could scream. This troll woman was apparently so fearful to behold, that children would be struck silent with terror, unable to call out for help in time.  One day, she stole a young girl, and since this girl looked especially delicate and scrawny, the troll did not move as quickly as usual—the girl flailed about, kicking and scratching, and pulled off the troll’s traveling cloak. Unbeknownst to the girl, this cloak held the secrets to the troll’s power—it was full of magic and had the ability to make her appear nightmarish and monstrous to everyone who beheld her—now that it had been removed, she was just an old, wrinkly troll—not very big or scary at all!  No longer frightened, the girl grabbed the sack and opened it up, and out tumbled several boys who had been stolen earlier in the evening—the children worked together to chase the troll woman away—and they kept her cloak, so that she could never scare children again.  But in case there might be another cloak or another troll making stews, the children seldom misbehaved again.  (The possibility of dangerous trolls with cooking skills living nearby would make me behave too!)

*The Guardians of Iceland and Other Icelandic Folk Tales by Heidi Herman

September 11

Productive studio day!  I started filming clips for my dance for camera project, and played around in the attic while the rain drummed on the roof.  Nika, Debbie and Jenni gamely donned coveralls and learned a phrase of choreography, which we then shot from three angles.  In the afternoon, I finished my little square mixed-media series, Lesion 1- 9, that I had been working on–and photographed each pinned to the cork board in the studio (ideally, there will be different materials behind each torn hole–I am pressing the images to flatten them, then will photograph them again with various backings once done).  Mixed media:  acrylic, watercolor paint and pencil, oil pastel, needle and yarn, razor blade to start each hole.

September 12


​What a welcome surprise to open the curtains to bright sunshine this morning!  I set off into the hills, following the path that cuts up towards the mountains.  Everything was silvery with dew and sparkling under the sun, and the clouds were blown out into long wispy strands, matching the horizon line of the sea. As I climbed up to the first pass, I looked out over the Atlantic and saw an enormous cargo ship on the edge of the ocean—with the streaked watercolor clouds and the sun exposure on the water, it looked like the black ship was floating through the sky—I could easily imagine a Viking ship sailing to the afterlife in Valhalla, filled with strong warriors ready to feast in Odin’s great hall.  As I walked on, I noticed solitary little mushrooms in brilliant reds, yellows, and browns popping up amongst the green—like the homes of small faerie folk; I stepped carefully over them as I wandered up, up, up.  All the foliage is low and colorful and intricate—bleached white mosses, diaphanous cotton-y strands gone to seed, plump round blueberries, bright yellow dandelion heads with large fuzzy bees, pastel lichens blooming on rocks, and the rare find of Icelandic bluebells, their bonnets bent under the weight of dew—so many treasures underfoot!

September 13

​Last night we experienced a magical and unexpected evening.  The community gathered for an annual candlelit celebration at Petra’s Museum to herald the start of autumn—the entire stone garden was filled with tealights and glowing LED birds and candles, illuminating all the stones and pathways.  The rows of rocks and geodes glittered in the warm glow, and the trees were hung with lanterns. People brought home-baked cakes and cookies, and everyone enjoyed hot chocolate and coffee while several townspeople played the accordion and sang folk songs—children ran laughing through the paths and bridges, and adults chatted in cozy clusters, everyone dressed in warm layers against the chill as the sun set and twilight arrived in hues of blue-tinged fog.  When the sky turned dark, someone shouted Flugeldar!  The music stopped, and everyone crowded together, looking out above the water—and so did I, feeling the anticipation in the air (and wondering what flugeldar might be).  Suddenly there was a great boom! and a twinkling display of fireworks burst over the fjord, sealing the magic of this beautiful event.  

September 14

I type slowly, still thawing out after a late afternoon beachcombing and seal-watching expedition at the end of the fjord.  Rosa and Una (and the dogs) took a few of us in the van down to the beach, where we wandered over the rocks and sand looking for treasures, while the dogs ran happily with sticks of driftwood in their mouths and played in the surf (brrrrrr!).  A solitary seal popped his head up and watched us curiously, swimming lazily back and forth along the shore, his sleek dark head visible against the silvery flat sea.  We strolled down the whole length, finding whale intervertebral discs, shells, and the bones of sea monsters; by the time we all walked back, the wind and dampness had seeped through all our layers and chilled us thoroughly! 
It is only now, back here in the cozy heat of our little house, that I feel properly warm again!

September 15

​This morning I walked out to the Atlantic edge of the fjord with Maggie, our newest roommate—an American print-maker living in Poland.  On the walk she told me that her city of Wroclaw boasts one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe, and we passed the kilometers chatting about hot chocolate, Glühwein, candle-making, flaky sweet pastries, carols and snow!

As we rounded the end of the fjord, the vast ocean on our left, the dramatic landscape unfolding ahead of us, I saw in the distance what I have dubbed my “Little Prince” island—I first glimpsed it two weeks ago when Nika and I hitchhiked home—as we traveled the fourth leg of our hitching adventure, it had appeared suddenly when we rounded the fjords from the North, looking exactly like the snake who swallowed the elephant. I remember I had even pointed it out, and Bryndis, our Icelandic driver, had nodded and said she had always thought the same thing!  Today, the island floated on the horizon—I mentioned it to Maggie, and she said she had heard this island is also the subject of many ghost stories here; it is uninhabited but holds wreckage from many ships, dashed to pieces on the rocks and ice during winter storms in the past.  So whether it is a story of shipwrecked sailors haunting seacoasts, or a stranded pilot in the Sahara meeting a traveler from asteroid B612, clearly this is an island that invites the telling of tales.

We scrambled down to the coast at low tide—the retreat of the sea left long trails of glistening pools and seaweed-covered rocks.  The ocean was a flat, matte grey today, but bright cerulean blue flashed through openings in the clouds, and reflected magnificently off the mirror-glass tidepools.  There were also several streams here, ending their journeys down from the mountains and feeding the algae-green rocks—a convergence of salty sea and snowmelt.  I saw many tiny snails, recently revealed by the tide, still slithering over the rocks, leaving little silver trails behind them.  So many colors of seaweed, so many textures in the rocks!  The satisfying crash of the ocean against the shore and the trickling of fresh water were the only sounds, and we spent a delightful few hours exploring, until the quickly descending grey clouds prompted us to start the long walk home (we almost made it before the rain, but not quite—arriving back at the house damp, but not yet soaked! Now the weather has turned drizzly and cold—perfect for staying in and uploading this blog post)!

September 16

​It rained all afternoon and night yesterday, with the wind howling and shuddering against the house while we slept.  Today the steady downpour continued til early afternoon, when the storm suddenly blew itself out, ushering in unexpected sunshine and interludes of blue sky!  I passed the rain writing by the big window, but was lured out into the crisp air and sunbeams—the mossy mountain waterfalls were swollen with rain, and new silvery trails zigzagged down.  The distant peaks wore fresh coats of powder—lightly dusted stripes of white peeking over the nearer green hills.  I walked down to the rocky beach in late afternoon for high tide, interested to see what the storm had washed in.  The rubbery rainbow piles of seaweed looked beautiful in the sun, still soaked from the sea.  I stood there for a while, listening to the clatter of rocks rolling in the undertow and the cymbal-like crash of the surf slamming down, a dramatic post-storm symphony on the shore.

September 17


Rain, rain, and more rain!  From sideways sleet to barely sprinkling, today’s storm is certainly mercurial.  One minute the mountains are in view, and the next, nothing remains to be seen but swirling grey!  A great day to work in the studio and listen to the water drops drumming on the roof.  I made a series of acrylic and watercolor abstracts, collaging on words from my initial play with the typewriter (before it ran out of ink, sigh).  I’ve decided to cut out all the words, and construct them into page-worthy phrases (I’ve included several below–however my iPhone bleached out the colors a bit on all the photos, and the type is hard to read)!


Studio soundtrack today:  Olafur Arnalds Re: member, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, Nocturama, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, Tom Waits Alice and Frank’s Wild Years

September 18

The blustery weather continued as I worked in the studio this morning; there is a large series of windows high up near the vaulted ceiling, and each time I glanced up, the clouds were racing by, carried on the back of the fierce wind.  Framed by the window, the shifting tableau reminded me of watching one of those old zoetropes, the whirling cylinder creating fantastic scenes.  As a child, I often laid down in the green grass and named the surreal shapes and animals viewed in the clouds–here, today, I glimpsed creatures and images in the bits of blue that appeared between the quick-moving clouds–a heart growing enormous and transforming into two people holding hands, a giant’s bare foot with five wiggly toes, a boat with a full curving sail, a tall fir tree with branches spreading.   

I passed the afternoon sorting through and listening to Icelandic CDs and vinyl records in the house collection; one particularly delightful two volume record is a collection of Icelandic renditions of popular mid-twentieth century American songs.  The arrangements and the singers are very good, and the hiss and crackle of the old record is nostalgic and wonderful–there is something so warm about vinyl.  I took the album down to the Factory to ask Vinny if they had equipment to digitize it.  He said no, but since they have multiple copies, he is going to allow me to have the record; I can’t wait to share it with my musician friends–I also plan to take it to our college radio station–I think they will love it, and perhaps play a track or two on air!  I mentioned this to Vinny, and he was thrilled, since undoubtedly this album has not been heard outside of the country; he also told me that the record label, Íslenzkir Tónar, was the first major label in Iceland.  When Una saw me carrying it, she smiled and told me this was her favorite record in the house, and that she had very fond memories of listening to it with her mother while she was growing up.

Studio soundtrack today:  Luluc Passerby, Gem Club Breakers, Acid and Everything, and In Roses

September 19

​The wind rattles our little house, blowing so ferociously that two window panes burst open in the living room; cold air swirls through as I pull them shut, tightening them down as far as they will go to prevent them popping open again!  It is assuredly a badly-behaving wind today.  It is easy to imagine how trolls and other mischievous creatures crept into so much of the lore of this land:  the desolate mountain ranges, the tempestuous weather, the isolation of many parts of the country.  I asked Una about unique Icelandic holiday traditions the other day, and the role that trolls and other mystical beings play in them; she told me that instead of Saint Nicholas, there are 13 Christmas troll brothers, the Yule Lads (and their mother is none other than the troll witch who makes “Bad Kids Stew”)!   I wrote about the troll chef and her terrible stews last week—she is always accompanied by her cat, his keen ears constantly listening for the cries and shouts of bad children, showing his mistress where to find them and steal them from their beds.  Una said that this cat is known throughout Iceland as the “Christmas Cat” (Jólakötturinn), because on Christmas night he prowls through all the households, checking to see which children received new clothes—only good children, who helped with the weaving of cloth, and properly did all their chores, would get new clothes.  The cat then reports back to his evil mistress, who sets out with her sack to snatch up all the children who have not deserved new clothes for Christmas (gifts of scarves, socks, hats, sweaters and other clothing items are still very popular today)!

In addition to the Christmas Cat, the troll witch’s thirteen sons aid in mischief-making; for the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, each child sets out a shoe before bed, and each night, one of the troll brothers comes and leaves a little gift (usually sweets, etc) for the good children, and a rotten potato for the bad ones. Each Yule Lad is known for particular gifts and little acts of mayhem as well, whether slamming doors, peeking in windows, or stealing sausages from the pantry.  In looking through images online, I saw that the Iceland postal service has had several recent Christmas stamp collections featuring the Yule Lads, so I included a set below!

September 20

Great brown-grey Skuas and bright white Herring Gulls with long, black-tipped wings wheel in the air.  The wind skates over the sea and frothy whitecaps advance like armies across the surface. The wind is cold, chilled from the north, but its bite is lessened by the sunlight boldly slanting across the fjord.  I spend an hour sitting on the rocky shore, watching the waves.  Suddenly, I feel water drops on my face, and look down to notice that my navy blue rainjacket shimmers with tiny iridescent droplets, though there are no menacing grey clouds overhead.  Nika says that in Russia, this is called mushroom rain (gribnoy dojd)—the fungi flourishing in the rainfall, but people still going out in the sun to collect them.  She describes a thick break baked with potatoes and mushrooms that her great grandmother made, the recipe passed down through generations.

As the day wears on, the wind increases—the East Fjords yellow-alerted with a severe gale warning that will bring snow and sleet across the mountains.  Indeed, the high peaks at the end of the fjord have been swirled in diffuse white clouds all morning, and as they blow over, they leave fresh powder in their wake.  The combination of gusty wind, rainclouds and peek-a-boo sunlight seeds rainbows by late morning—they crop up over the town and against the mountains, appearing and disappearing throughout the day.

(When I arrived at the studio, all three dogs ran to the door, and Jenni took a photo.)

September 21

The gale cleared out the skies, revealing an enormous rose-tinted harvest moon against a neon blue twilight sky yesterday—I realized that I had not seen the moon all month, since the clouds have been so thick!  I ran out into the street to look up at the stars—like glittering diamonds.  All night, the wind howled and shook our little house, groaning and making monstrous noises in the dark.  Today we awoke to see all the fjord mountains dusted with snow—so beautiful!

It is probably for the best that last night, with the wild storm, I had not yet heard any Icelandic ghost stories.  This afternoon I asked Una if she would tell me some more traditional tales; she smiled and said that she, like me, is a collector of stories, and happily obliged, telling me tale after tale as I scribbled notes.  Over the next week, I will include them here…today, I will write about the skotta and the móri.

Skotta are female ghosts, and móri are male ghosts in Iceland—they are very different than classic representations of ghosts, as they are usually clad in reddish brown rags and are quite solid and fleshy…Una said there are even tales of people eating these spirits. Ghosts are often linked with the land they arose from, not only in locale, but also geologically; Iceland is a volcanic country, with eruptions altering landscapes over the centuries, and new layers of earth appearing quickly.  Ghosts are tied to the land upon which they are formed, so Una said it is not uncommon for people to talk about seeing ghosts from centuries past who walk through the earth at hip height, reaching up through house floorboards but unable to rise higher, since they are walking on the ground of their era.

There are also many stories about ghosts formed from bulls; traditionally, if one slays and skins a bull, a knife must be left in the flesh or the ghost of the bull will rise from the dead and haunt its killer.  Una explains that this superstition is inspired by the many tales of þorgeirsboli—a horrible and vicious bull ghost, who drags his flayed skin around, hanging from his tail, as he walks.  He is said to have been created by a farmer, using witchcraft (Una said that in the legends and sagas, there are always farmers with magical powers); the farmer had proposed to a beautiful girl in the village, and had been rejected by her. He then created a bull ghost to haunt her as punishment for refusing his hand in marriage. Þorgeirsboli was so powerful that the girl needed a guard of 5 or 6 men when she traveled outside the village to protect her from the fiercesome bull spirit.  Eventually, the bull killed her and then began haunting her female relatives (the bull also began attacking the farmer who had created him—indeed, no one in the area was safe).  Much later, þorgeirsboli joined forces with the Mývatns Skotta, terrorizing communities and causing mayhem.  

 The Mývatns Skotta is one of the most famous female ghosts, created in the North near the beautiful Mývatn lake.  There was once a farmer who had magical abilities, and he was embroiled in a terrible feud with a neighboring farmer.  One day, a young girl walked through the village, seeking lodging for the night; the farmer invited her in, and then murdered the girl.  He used his magical abilities to then raise her from the dead and transform her into a ghost; he ordered the ghost to haunt his rival, whose family suffered strange misfortunes and bizarre accidents for generations. Þorgeirsboli and the Mývatns Skotta went on a killing spree, and celebrated on the frozen shores of the Mývatn lake; the bull allowed the skotta to sit on his skins, and raced over the icy surface, pulling her along as if in a sled.


…Una and I are sitting in the ceramics studio while she tells me these tales—I scribble notes as she paints the birds she and Rosa sells, carefully brushing a layer of black glaze over each clay creature.  The dogs are curled up in the cozy studio as well, and I suddenly realize the origin of Skotta’s name—her fur is the rusty-brownish-red of a ghost’s skin!



September 22

Icelandic coins of silver and gold, fronted by fish and backed by the country’s coat of arms—Una told me that the four figures featured are ancient land guardians and symbols of protection; the bull (Griðungur) watches over the West, the eagle (Gammur) the North, the giant (Bergrisi) the South, and the dragon (Dreki) the East.  They are known as landvættir, land wights, and have enjoyed a long reign keeping Iceland safe from invaders.  There is a legend that once a Danish King, Haraldr Gormsson, sent his most insidious wizard to Iceland to see if he would be able to easily invade the coast; the wizard took the form of a whale and swam all the way to Iceland, where he tried in turn to transform and come ashore in different parts of the country. Every time he swam into a fjord or bay, the wight of the region appeared, enormous and towering over the shore, and accompanied by hundreds of beasts.  After trying to slip ashore in the North, West, South and East, the wizard was deterred by the ferocious spirits, and swam back home to advise the king not to invade.  In addition to these four famed guardians, there are many other wights, or spirits of the land—they are often associated with waterfalls, mountains or rocks.  These creatures cast both blessings and curses, depending on how they are treated; great care has been historically taken to keep from angering local wights, and early Icelandic maritime laws even instructed ships to remove wooden dragon’s heads from their ships before entering harbors, so as not to frighten or offend any landvættir.  The dragons which adorned Viking ships served similar purposes while at sea–they were meant to protect the ship and its crew, as well as frighten away enemies, but the warriors were very respectful of taking these dragons down before entering port!

September 23

The Fjallkonan, or Lady of the Mountains, is a more modern myth of Iceland, first appearing in folklore in the mid eighteenth century, and coming to represent Nature; Una describes her as a mother goddess of the earth, and a muse for poetry and art. 

A well-known description of her is contained within Eiríkur Magnússon’s1866 collection of Icelandic folktales (English translation by G.E.J. Powell).  This book also contains the oldest surviving drawing of the Fjallkonan, by Johann Baptist Zwecker (which I included below): 

“Konumyndin á að tákna Ísland, því hefur hún ískórónu á höfði, sem eldar gjósa upp úr. Á öxl hennar er hrafninn, Íslands einkennilegasti fugl, Óðins forni vin og skáldanna eftirlætisgoð, fréttafugl mikill og margkunnugur. Yfir sjónum flögrar már, en yfir brimsævi tíma og sögu berast rúnakefli að landi eða upp í fang konunni, og hefur hún þegar náð einu þeirra. Þetta átti svo sem að vera symbolum (tákn) bókmenntalandsins og sögulandsins okkar. Yfir er nótt og stirndur himinn og máninn uppi. Á bak við eru fjöll, tunglroðin á eggjunum.” 

“The picture of the woman is to represent Iceland, thus she has a crown of ice on her head, from which fires erupt. On her shoulder is the raven, Iceland’s most characteristic bird, Óðinn’s ancient friend and the favourite of poets, a great and knowledgeable carrier of news. Over the seas flutters a seagull, but across the surf of time and history are borne rune-staves to the land and up into the embrace of the woman, and she has picked one of them up. This is intended as a symbol of our land of literature and history. It is night, with a starry sky and the moon up. Behind are mountains, moonlight on the ridges.”

She is a beloved symbol of Iceland; Una told me that each year since 1944, on June 17th (the Icelandic independence day), someone dresses as the Fjallkonan for the national celebration and stands in the square in front of the parliament building to read poetry.  


I have also included images from my morning hike up to the mountains (on this sunny day, I thought it would be a fitting way to honor the Fjallkonan!); I followed the path all the way to the boulder-strewn edge of the mountains, where late-nesting birds still wheeled in the cliff face.  Beautiful geodes and rainbow-layered rocks were stacked and arranged like gifts atop a large boulder, and recalling yesterday’s tales of nature spirits, I imagined that perhaps a wight lives there.  Star-tipped wildflowers (either Wild Angelica or Giant Hogsweed–I’m not sure which!) bloom and burst into dried brown fireworks, fuzzy dandelions wait to become wishes on the wind, and wispy blooms glow almost translucent in the sunshine.



September 24

Here the wind has teeth; it whips through the fjord with wild abandon, herding deepest grey storm clouds out to make way for vivid blue skies, all in the span of a few minutes.  From sleeting sideways rain to crisp clear blue, today ran the gauntlet of weather!  The wind howled into corners and shivered the buildings, throwing itself against the windows most of the day.  As the afternoon faded towards evening, the weather cleared just in time for spectacular sunset clouds backed by the most brilliant shades of blue!  As we walked home from the studio, the sky faded to twilight, and the luminous full harvest moon appeared candle-yellow above the horizon.

September 25

Today was a full work day in the studio, while the rain drummed against the roof, and the wild wind made a terrible racket–like yesterday, the force of the wind blew the storm out by late afternoon…leaving open the possibility of clear skies tonight!  The last two nights have also been clear (for the first time the entire month), and Maggie and I have sat up in hopeful anticipation of the aurora, but alas, despite a strong “aurora forecast” and clear skies, the full moon is much too bright to allow the aurora to show itself…hopefully in the weeks ahead I will finally get to see it!  Two nights ago, at midnight, as Maggie and I stood huddled outside staring up at the sky, we saw faint, milky white streaks, like watercolors, stretching across the entire sky from mountains to sea, and imagined that if the moon had been less full, perhaps that might have been it!  However, we did see a magnificent shooting star–well worth the cold night air!

September 26

I have one more story to share about the “Little Prince” island, which is properly named Skrúður; Una shared with me the tale of the giant who resides there, named Skrúðsbóndinn.  Long ago, a priest named Guðmundur góði traveled through the country, blessing the land and driving out many pagan spirits and evil dwellers.  It is said that when he arrived in the East fjords, he stayed the night in a village near the island, planning to travel there by boat the next day to consecrate the land.  While he slept, he was visited in his dreams by Skrúðsbóndinn, who implored him not to sanctify the land, because it would be very difficult for him to move from his home–the giant pointed out that other than himself and the birds, the island was uninhabited, and begged the priest to allow him to stay.  When Guðmundur awoke, he remembered his dream, and decided to travel on, leaving the island to the giant.  After this, Skrúðsbóndinn thought more kindly of humans, and was regarded as an “ocean rescuer”, helping steer ships away from the dangerous rocks and keeping people from drowning in the rough waves.  Sadly, as time wore on, the giant and the villagers grew distant from one another, and in the 1980s, there was a terrible shipwreck on New Year’s Eve, in which the entire crew was lost.  This tragedy in turn led to the legends of the haunted nature of the island today, which I wrote about in an earlier post…

September 27

I woke before dawn, walking down to the town bus stop in the predawn blueness, the moon still hanging over the mountains.  It was just under two hours, and two busses, to get to the Egilsstaðir airport–such beautiful light as the sun rose, a glorious apricot and rose profusion of color reflecting off of the sea and the snow-dusted mountains as we rode the long slow curves of the fjords and then inland to the airport.  What fun it was to greet Bentley upon his arrival–the tiny airport has no security or gates, so I could literally dash out to meet him on the runway as he deplaned!  We picked up our rental car, and drove off towards nearby Lagarfljót, the long lake that legend names as the home of the Lagarfljótsormurinn, a great sea serpent.  Long ago, a young maiden received a gold ring for her birthday; her mother advised her to put the ring in a box with a heath-worm, a small mythical creature which can multiply treasure, so that perhaps her gold would grow.  The girl heeded this advice, but to her surprise, over a very short time the worm grew so much that he filled the box completely!  Frightened that this larger serpent could be dangerous, the girl ran down to the lake and threw the box in, gold ring and all.  Over the centuries, the serpent grew to be enormous, claiming the long lake as his home (the longest lake in Iceland), where reports of sightings have flourished over the centuries (and perhaps, somewhere deep below, the treasure as well).  

Today the lake was silent, save for the lapping tide, and beautiful edged with trees–Iceland’s largest forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur, is located on the southern banks, and Bentley and I happily walked through the quiet groves, a mix of lacy evergreens and golden autumn deciduous trees.  The shores of the lake were pebbled with multicolored small stones, and the water was an icy minty pale blue.  In the distance, we could see large mountains, all blanketed with bright white snow, and after exploring the lake for a while, we set out for Seyðisfjörður, a lovely little fjord town where once weekly the ferry between here, the Faroe Islands, and Holland, docks.  The road snaked up and over a stunning snow-covered pass, and down into the valley furrows to meet the sea.  Along the way, we saw a few remaining herds of sheep; in Iceland, all the sheep are set out to forage in wild pastures all summer, and then brought in to be sheered at the end of September–we even saw some sheep herders and their dog bringing in the final flocks closest to Seyðisfjörður, and I finally got to see some sheep up close!  

​Tonight I have planned a dinner with Bentley and my housemates, and tomorrow, we will drive south towards the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.


September 28

As a parting gift, our fjord was sprinkled with snow this morning, the mountaintops like powdered sugar!  After packing the car, I said goodbye to everyone at the Fish Factory (including the dogs), and we set out southbound—for the first time, I traveled the road across the fjord, continuing on south for several hundred kilometers and many hours, through all sorts of weather (except sunshine, haha).  Little sprinkling rain with snowfall higher up gave way to gale-force winds and sideways sleet and swirling fog.  We followed the road as the landscape changed from the carved and notched cliffs of the east fjords to long rust and grey scree volcanic slopes and vast plains with twisting mint-silver streams of glacial runoff.  All along the way, there were sheep grazing—we even saw one group down in the rocky tidepools!  We stopped so I could photograph them; years ago, while working at the Ocean Institute, I had done research on the adaptations of the North Ronaldsay sheep of Scotland, which had been isolated on the remote island since the early 1800s, subsisting on a diet of seaweeds and algaes. I was so excited to see sheep here similarly feeding on seaweed—so fascinating! (Of course, these sheep can easily cross the highway to forge on grasses and plants, unlike the North Ronaldsay sheep, which eat only seaweed.)

Our blustery drive took us past vast black sand beaches, where giant waves crashed against the shore—the wind was so intense that it blew the enormous whitecaps like fog across the road, hitting us with salty spray and creating whirling patterns of sand and water in the air.  We saw ominous rocks like craggy dragons, and mossy slopes topped with snow.  Eventually, we arrived at Jökulsárlón, the famed glacial lagoon at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park; the weather was horribly uncooperative—the wind was so intense I could barely walk, and the air was so cold that the rain froze instantly, stinging us sideways with a barrage of tiny ice particles.  We struggled to the edge of the lagoon to take photos, but couldn’t bear the elements too long…the one perk was that as the sun was briefly revealed through the storm clouds, a beautiful rainbow stretched all the way to the ice.

Soaking wet and utterly chilled, we clambered back in the car, spending a difficult hour in sleet and fog, with the road barely in view and the wind shaking the car.  Finally, we arrived at our destination for the evening:  Hotel Skaftafell.  The storm blew itself out shortly after, leaving us with a stunning sunset, the massive clouds painted in surreal shades of rose and gold, and tinting the entire landscape a vivid rusty red (the photos are unaltered—the colors really were that intense!), and a surprise sighting—two sheep grazing right next to our room!


September 29

​After yesterday’s tempestuous storm, we anxiously peeked out the window this morning, and were thrilled to see blue skies, sun and white fluffy clouds above the mountains! We decided to drive back to Jökulsárlón, since the weather had been so horrible and we had seen nothing but sleet, fog and the road; today we were amazed to see the striking white glaciers and snowy mountains that lined the highway, and we visited both Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón to view the icebergs floating in the lagoons in front of the giant crawling glaciers (with a few sleek harbor seals popping into view too).  We walked out to the black sand beach, where the bergs from Jökulsárlón float into the sea; many become beached along the shore, which was covered with beautiful glittering ice—all sizes, shapes and textures, from diamond clear to chalky blue.  The windswept surf pounded the beach, crashing against some of the bergs farther offshore, and it was stunning to walk amongst these frozen sculptures of nature, slowly melting and constantly changing.  

In the afternoon, we returned to the Hotel Skaftafell to hike the trail which started right behind our room, taking us up and over the green scrubbrush and scree, and rewarding us with a phenomenal view of the SvinafellsJökull glacier—covered with earth and looking positively lunar with shades of rust, grey, brown and black coating its surface.  In the evening, we went to the happy hour in the hotel bar, and enjoyed a lovely hour-and-a-half chatting with other visitors (from Liverpool, Chicago, Jacksonville and Portland) about their experiences in Iceland.  As the sun set, we walked to a nearby gas station café for a veggie burger and French fries—a fabulous end to a great day!

September 30

As thick flows of lava cool, they can sometimes form unusual structures like columnar basalt—creating a stunning series of tall columns with 4 – 8 sides, clustered together like a giant pipe organ; Svartifoss, the famous waterfall near the Skaftafell glacier in Vatnajökull National Park, and the rock formations at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, both formed under conditions that produced unforgettable rock columns, like tall, vertical honeycombs—there is something sublime and otherworldly about the appearance of these formations, that cannot be captured in photographs.  The temperature today hovered right around 0 Celsius today, resulting in beautiful crystallized dew and blooming fractals in frozen puddles, as we hiked the trail up to Svartifoss in the morning, and then traveled the highway down to Vík, past the beautifully bizarre moss-covered Eldhraunlava fields near Kirkjubæjarklaustur. 

When walking on the black sand beaches at Vík and Reynisfjara, it feels as if you are treading on the soil of an alien world—it is easy to see why so many films have used these beaches and rock formations as a backdrop, as they are so unique and captivating!  This afternoon the waves threw themselves with great fervor against the shore as the tide surged in, spilling farther and farther up the beach—wide white fans of frothy water against the jet black sand, and as each wave receded, the water sunk dramatically like silver into the porous sand, mesmerizing to watch.  The columnar basalt forms stunning pillars and caves along the beach, some looking like giants’ faces or reaching hands in the rocky cliff.  In the water, the three craggy outcroppings feature in a number of folktales–some people say that they mark the remains of three giant trolls, who marched out to sea to try to attack a ship; the captain and the crew fought them off valiantly, and managed to keep the trolls so busy that they failed to notice the rising sun, and dawn caught them before they had time to escape into the shadows—their three tall hats remain visible, marking the spots where they turned to stone as they marched back towards the shallows.  In other versions, it was only a single she-troll, and as the captain and his men fought her, they realized that the battle would be lost, so the captain set a powerful curse, which turned not only the troll to stone, but their three-masted ship as well!  The view from Vík and Reynisfjara provide different perspectives of the jagged formations, and different versions of this story…

October 1

Last night we stayed at the Hotel Laki, near Kirkjubæjarklaustur; all night the storm howled, throwing hail against our window with a frenetic rat-a-tat-tat.  This morning we awoke to a winter wonderland—before dawn, the wild rainstorm had transformed into graceful snow, swirling with the wind in all directions—the rolling green fields and shiny sapphire lakes now frozen over.  What a transformation from yesterday!  The vast expanses of black lava rock are now dressed in bright white instead of mossy green.  The Eldhraun lava fields mark the site of a great natural disaster for Iceland; in 1783 the nearby volcano erupted, engulfing surrounding farmland and one-fifth of the population of the country at the time. Kirkjubæjarklausturis famous because it was the stopping point of the lava; it is said that a priest was responsible for saving the village—as the lava cascaded towards the village, the people were at mass, and the priest asked for the village to be saved—the fiery liquid stopped just outside of the town, and Jón Steingrímsson was written into legend.

As we drove towards Hella, the snow flurries turned back into downpour and drizzle, and the fields shifted back to golden yellow; we saw several beautiful rainbows on our drive, and stopped to look at Skógafoss—the waterfall was majestic, bedecked with spray and ringed with rainbows as well.  Folklore tells of a buried treasure hidden by a Viking settler behind the fall; certainly with such lovely rainbows, one can imagine a full pot of gold nearby!


As the afternoon faded, we arrived at Þykkvibær, considered to be the oldest rural village in Iceland (with a population maintained since 1220); the community is known for potato farming, and is close to the ocean, set against wide fields with grazing sheep, cows and geese.  We are staying at the Hotel Vos, a charming collection of little guestrooms on a farm outside of town, with a beautiful view of the fields—perfect for watching the gusty winds and rain from the warmth of our room as the grey skies melt into evening!

October 2

Today was filled with waterfalls and national parks—we visited Gullfoss and Öxaráfoss, our clothes dampened by mist as we marveled over the beauty of the plunging falls at each site.  Gullfoss is fed by the Langjökull glacier, and is a symbol of the burgeoning environmental movement in Iceland; in the early 20th century, foreign investors purchased the land in order to build a power plant—a local farmer protested this, and his daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, carried this fight forward, becoming known as Iceland’s first environmentalist. In 1979, Gullfoss finally became a nature reserve, and today includes a memorial tribute to Sigriður for her advocacy. 

Öxaráfoss is part of Þingvellir National Park, which is famous both geologically and culturally.  Since the 10th century, Þingvellir was established as an important gathering place for the clans of Norse settlers, who traveled from all across Iceland to convene there to discuss laws and decide judicial matters; some chiefs had to ride on horseback for over two weeks to get there, but all the clans recognized the significance of the annual meeting, called the Alþingi.  Over the next millennium, Þingvellir maintained its role as a gathering place for the formation of new laws, and many of the most important decisions made to move the country forward occurred here.  Geologically, Þingvellir is well known as a boundary of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, which are slowly moving away from one another over time.  It is easy to envision the monumental history of this place, with its rock formations edged with moss and shadows, and the afternoon light bathing the dramatic rift.

While driving, we saw many Icelandic horses in the fields along the road; petite and covered with a thick, shaggy coat, these beautiful horses are considered to be an ‘ancient breed’–they were brought to Iceland with the first wave of Norse settlers, where they bred in isolation over the last millennium.  Apparently, these horse are also famous for their tölt and skeið–gaits which other breeds do not usually perform; we were content just to pet them at the edge of their pastures though!

After exploring Þingvellir, we drove north towards Snaefellnes peninsula, staying the night in the coastal town of Borgarnes.  Once our bags were installed in our room at the Hotel Borgarnes, we went out for a walk—the gold and rose light of the setting sun reflected like a mirror on the black sand beach at low tide, the glistening deep green seaweed lay exposed on the rocks, and the sand rippled from the lapping waves.  We walked through the sleepy harbor town, and came across a delightful coffee house (Kaffihús), lit with twinkling lights:  Blómasetrið – Kaffi Kyrrð.  The inside was a series of charmingly eclectic rooms furnished with beautifully mismatched old sofas, throw pillows, books and garden gifts, all warmed by the glow of little lamps and star-shaped lights.  We enjoyed a wonderful meal of paninis and salad (with homemade carrot cake for dessert), and chatted on the sofas long after closing; the owners welcomed us to linger, informing us that on Tuesday evenings, the local ladies of Borgarnes arrived at 8 PM for a knitting club, and as we lounged over dessert, they filtered in one by one with their knitting bags. 

October 3

Imagine a whole beach of perfectly rounded grey skipping-stones, smooth oval shapes to fit hands of all sizes—a vast shoreline ringed with jagged black volcanic rock and icy mint blue waves crashing violently—rolling in from deep water and hitting the steep shore suddenly; these waves must have traveled great distances before heaving themselves up on the desolate coastline here, the water vanishing quickly into the lava rock. Djúpalónssandur, or black lava pearl beach is aptly named, not only for its impressive geologic features, but for the polished pebbles, like pearls, worn smooth by the pounding surf.  We strolled the beach at low tide, exploring the seaweed-strewn berm—black tangled kelp, bright yellow sponges, holdfasts encircling shiny shell remnants, broken sea urchin testes with striped purple walls, large coiled shells that once housed sea snails, and even a golden-brown amphipod.  In summer, the high cliffs sing with birds, but now, with the onset of the winter season, they are silent save for the percussive surf. This Western beach is within Snæfellsnes National Park, encircling the white-capped Snæfellsjökull.  We spent the day driving around the peninsula, marveling at the breathtaking volcanic features, from hiking up 4000 year old craters, to climbing into mossy gorges with water dripping steadily down the rockfaces, slowly carving out change over time.


We stepped carefully from rock to rock as we entered the Rauðfeldsgjá gorge on the southern side of the peninsula, the sunlight slanting sharply down across the vivid green mosses.  Snow was piled up inside, feeding the stream that bubbled merrily at our feet as we tip-toed over the slippery rocks.  This gorge is rooted in the folklore of Iceland, reported to be the site where Rauðfeldur was exiled after pushing his cousin Helga onto an iceberg that drifted all the way to Greenland, where she arrived safely. Rauðfeldur was not so lucky—Helga’s father, a half-troll with a fierce temper, punished the lad by throwing him into the gorge; he was not seen again and is believed to have perished in the cave system.


The peninsula certainly evokes myths and surreal possibilities—trolls and giants lurk within the rock shapes, and the wind sweeps viciously across the stark lava fields.  The great mound of the glacier-topped volcano towers over the landscape, inspiring fictional fantasies for authors who visit; Jules Verne’s masterpiece, Journey to the Center of the Earth, has the adventurers entering one of the lava tubes of Snæfellsjökull as they start their descent into the bowels of the planet.


In late afternoon, we stopped for lunch and coffee in Grundarfjörður—we visited Kaffi Emil, which in addition to being a little coffeehouse, was also the local library, a photo museum (Bæringsstofa), the tourist information center, and an exhibit on historical artifacts from the area! We sipped out coffee and sat in a tiny darkened auditorium, watching a slide show of photographs on the village, collected from the 1950s to 2014—smiling children in the elementary school in the 60s, the construction of the main road in the 90s, fishing vessels in the harbor and fish drying outside on lines.  The heavy rain turned to snow flurries as we drove on past Stykkishólmur, squinting out the window as we hunted for the rustic country lodge off a gravel road where I had booked a room for us (Stundarfriður)—after a wrong turn and several kilometres of backtracking, we arrived—adorable!

October 4

The rustic country lodge we stayed at last night was run by a local farming family; I asked their teenaged daughter, who was managing reception in the evening, to tell me the story behind the image on the left below.  She told me that her grandfather owned this mountain chain, and her parents’ farm was located high in the hills—she said that there is a local legend about the strange shapes of theLjósufjöllmountain range—a troll woman from Kerlingarskarð was traveling back from the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, leading a horse who was carrying a barrel of skyr and a haystack, and a billy goat.  She traveled through the night, but the journey was slow and tedious, and dawn was quickly approaching.  Nervous about the impeding light, the troll drove the horse too hard, and he collapsed—the haystack rolled from his back, becoming the mountain Heysáta (haystack), and the horse, exhausted, collapsed and became Hestur (the horse mountain).  Anxious about the encroaching daylight, the troll tried to lug the barrel of skyr, but soon dropped it, and its shape makes up the Skyrtunna mountain.  She tugged the goat along as quickly as she could, but he became tired and transformed into Hafursfell (billy-goat mountain), and finally, the first rays of sunlight shot across the sky and turned the troll into stone—she stands today as Kerlingarfjöll.  I tried to photograph the mountain range, but after the evening’s snowfall, and the extreme wind and fog in the morning, capturing the range proved difficult!  (The drawing is based on viewing it from the north side, but my photograph is from the south side.)

This afternoon we drove into Reykjavik—so strange to be back in a thriving metropolitan area after five weeks of remote places! We parked in downtown and walked around—today the wind was unbelievably fierce—cold and so strong that it nearly knocked me off my feet—I literally had to lean into it to walk!  The tall buildings shielded us a bit from the gusts and the spitting rain, but the cold bit through all our layers—it was blissfully warm to pop into shops to browse.  We prowled through a lovely large bookstore, complete with its own cozy orange-and-white cat, where I purchased a copy of The Little Prince in Icelandic (I try to buy copies in the native languages of every country I visit), as well as a fabulously eclectic book of poetry based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and set in the Bónus budget supermarket, a popular chain with a bright pink pig logo that exists throughout Iceland (apparently, this little book holds the record for poetry sales here, and it is delightfully sarcastic and witty). We also had fun looking at ornaments in a Christmas shop—the Yule Lads and the wicked Jólakötturinn were of course featured on everything!  As twilight fell, we walked up to look at the famous Hallgrímskirkja, which is modeled after the beautiful columnar basalt that we saw at Reynisfjara and Svartifoss, and also today at the Gerðubergcliffs in south Snæfellsnes.

October 5

We strolled around Reykjavik again today, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful snowy mountains ringing the city in the distance.  We visited the famous Harpa concert hall, overlooking the white-capped bay–the architecture is extraordinary–stunning geometric shapes of glass and metal, refracting the light from all angles, like being inside an enormous futurist honeycomb or a transparent columnar basalt structure.  It was designed by a team of Danish and Icelandic artists and architects:  Ólafur Elíasson, Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects.  The flow of the space is gorgeous, sweeping across the 3-D shapes and following the paths of light–one can see the inspiration from nature, both in the building’s organic patterning and the geologic structural influences.

October 6

Bentley left for the airport before dawn, and as the sun rose, I waited at the Mjódd bus station to catch the #57 bus to Blönduós, and from there, a little car with the Strætó bus logo in the windshield that drove me all the way to the Salthús Guesthouse in Skagaströnd, where I will be staying for the NES artist residency for the next two weeks.  The four hour drive was through rolling golden hills, that turned more frosty the further north we went—waterfalls and ponds were frozen over, and sheep left little thawed trails behind them in the grass as they walked, in haphazard wiggly paths, crisscrossing over and over as they searched for the best grazing bits. The bus even had to slam the brakes to avoid a group of 6 or 7 woolly sheep that suddenly decided to run in a little flock at full speed across the road—they barreled up the hill and squeezed back between the wire fence lengths as we passed them…clearly, an example of the grass being greener on the other side!  As the ocean appeared in the north, the mountains grew tall and white again, thick blankets of snow snugging their peaks, and their roots spreading into farmland, full of Icelandic horses and contented sheep.

I arrived at the Salthús Guesthouse and retrieved my key from the lockbox, lugging my suitcases to my upstairs corner room, and peeking out at the mountains from my window. The room is very spacious and comfortable!  I met one of the co-directors of NES, a very nice choreographer who showed me around the guesthouse and pointed out where the studios are across town; I look forward to getting settled there on Monday!  After unpacking, I grabbed my reuseable bags and walked into town to the grocery store; once back at the house, I encountered several other guests, Icelanders from different parts of the country in town for a wedding tonight—it seems the bride’s extended family is staying here.  I spoke with a uncle, who told me he was from Skaftafell; I exclaimed in excitement that we had visited Jökulsárlón and Svartifoss, and hiked above several of the glaciers—I told him it was a highlight of our trip, and he beamed with pleasure.  He told me that years ago, when they filmed the James Bond film, Die Another Day, at Jökulsárlón, he had been a security guard for the 27 day shoot; he smiled and said it was a beautiful memory—he had felt like James Bond himself!   In fact, two Bond films have scenes shot at the lagoon:  Die Another Day and A View to a Kill—I will have to rewatch those films with an eye for the glaciers!  

As I write this, the wind is picking up and the grey sky is fading towards twilight—as the other guests head out for the wedding, I will do laundry (much-needed, after our ten day travels) and cook dinner—mundane tasks that sound downright cozy tonight!

October 7

​I walked out along the bluffs this morning, following the trail hugging the cliffs, edging around the outskirts of Spákonufellmountain, my eyes traveling from the snowy peak down its slopes to the cold blue water, where the feet of the mountain are soaked by the sea.  Ice crystals sparkled in the mud, and I stepped carefully across frozen puddles in the tall grass.  Here, in the north, so close to the Arctic Circle, one can see the economy of scale, the tenaciousness of small growing things—tiny flowering plants clustered on the ground, sending forth only a few stalks to burst into bloom—petals now withering and fading with the coming winter.  The wet, dark weather has ushered in a new season of growth—fungi in all shades of tan and brown, with a few poisonous-looking vivid orange ones popping into view.  The ocean beneath me is relatively calm this morning, after last night’s storm—tuxedoed guillemots sit on the surface, bobbing up and down as the waves roll beneath them and break gently against the rocky shore.  The north of Iceland is a haven for nesting birds in the summer; many species migrate here for the warmer months of round-the-clock daylight, and then wing their way back south as the season shifts—in October, only a small number of species remain—small groups of fulmar, guillemots and skua surf the air currents offshore, and beyond them, in the hazy distance, I can see the mountains of the West Fjords across the bay.

As I turn to retrace my steps back towards Skagaströnd, I am reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost; she writes of our tendencies to forge ahead without looking behind—when we walk out into nature, the view of where we came from often looks very different from the landscape ahead, making it easy to lose one’s way.  As I step along the cliff edges and the wild slopes, I notice how the view changes, marveling at rock formations that look entirely new from this vantage, noticing different plants nestled in crevices, seeing how the sun shifts on the snow of the faraway mountains across the water.


**I’ve included a photo of the Salthús Guesthouse below as well–my room is the upstairs farthest right window!

October 8

​I walked down to the main NES studio by the waterfront this morning—the waves were crashing spectacularly against the rock wall by the shore, crescendo-ing down the length of the wall and sending great plumes of foam into the air, hinting at an imminent storm.  Inside the warehouse studio, I met several of the artists—two from Australia and two from Germany (I think there are 12 in total here, but only 4 up this early!), and all very kind and inspiring.  After chatting for a while, I asked them about the local research library I had read about, Rannsóknasetri Háskóla Íslands, which turned out to be only two buildings away from the guesthouse I am living in—a three story cream building with a red roof, that houses the little library on its top floor.  I walked over, and met the librarian, Oli, who was very friendly—I asked him if he could tell me some local folklore, and he told me two stories of the hidden people of Skagaströnd.  He gestured to the seacliffs behind the village, where I had walked yesterday, and told me that when the harbor was being built in the 1930s and 40s, they had dynamited the bluffs; the day after the rocks were loosened, a local resident told the construction crew that she had been visited by a hidden person in her dreams, who said that the explosions had damaged their homes in the rock faces, and that in retribution they would curse Skagaströnd with twenty years of bad luck.  Very soon, the once-plentiful herring disappeared from fishermen’s nets, collapsing the economy and causing many families to leave—this is viewed as the two decade period of bad luck, prophesized by the woman’s dream.  In the 1970s, life in the village improved, and today, there are several businesses here and approximately 500 people.  

Oli also pointed through the town-facing windows of the library at the large grass-covered boulder nearby; he explained that this large rock is called Einbúi, which means one who stands alone, or a hermit.  It is named this because it stands so far from the cliff face, and it is said that hidden people still live within.  He explained that when the flagpole was erected on top, a special ceremony was performed first to make sure that the flagpole would be allowed by the hidden people, who accepted its presence.

Most of the books in the library are in Íslenksa of course, with shelves and shelves of saga books and folklore from different regions.  But there are a few in English, and I know that I will enjoy sitting in here during the next 10 days and reading them!

October 9

In Iceland, the weather determines many things, as its extremes decide what activities and travel are possible, and people here shift schedules in accordance with the sun, sleet or snow conditions.  For example, today was an unexpectedly exquisite day—the morning began cloudy, filled with potential, the ocean waves gentle against the shore compared with yesterday.  By noon the pale blue sky was diffused with streaky white clouds, and the sun shone warmly down (40 degrees!)—so warm that in fact in the afternoon I walked out along the bluffs without a jacket (granted, I was still wearing a thermal layer, a winter windproof layer, a fleece vest, thick wool socks and hat, and fleece-lined pants…but still! No outer jacket)!  Everyone in town was captivated by the brilliant blue of the sky and the heat of the sun—smiles were plentiful, and everyone had a comment for the lovely weather.  I had planned to spend the afternoon at the research library, but like many of the other artists, I headed outside to enjoy the rare sunshine; visibility across Húnaflói Bay was breathtaking—the snowy West Fjord mountains were a gorgeous bluish-purple in the distance, and the sea sparkled sapphire in the light. 

I walked past the Salthús to the edge of the cliff walk, over the golden grasses, down towards the sea—the ground sloped down to a large boulder field that stretched to the tidepools; the tide was out, exposing great mounds of seaweed, and I walked down to sit on a boulder overlooking the water, watching the waves thread in and out amongst the rocks, the white fingers of foam reaching and curling further up, the water arching and rolling and spilling to shore.  Birds sat placidly on the surface, just beyond the surf, gently floating up and down.  Everything was silent save for the sounds of nature, and for an hour I watched the waves roll in from the north, from the Arctic—such cold and deep waters here.  The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and the temperature dropped noticeably—with a slight shiver, I began to head back; when I climbed up the boulders towards the bluff, I noticed shells strewn about, no doubt deposited by feasting birds—vivid blue mussels and pastel sea snail shells littered the rocks and crevices.

 I joined Madeline (English, but living in Australia) at the local “hot pot” later in the afternoon; due to the plentiful supply of geothermally heated water through the country, most towns in Iceland have a “hot pot”, and they are a social place to congregate and converse.  Interestingly, coffee is served to everyone while in the “hot pot”!  At first it seemed strange, but drinking the bittersweet warmth went perfectly with the hot water and the cold outdoor air.  Afterwards, I invited Madeline and Grit (from Germany) over to the Salthús to have dinner with me; after a month cooking and conversing each night with my wonderful roommates in Stöðvarfjördur, and then traveling through the country with Bentley, it has been lonesome living (and cooking) alone here these past few nights, so I enjoyed the company!  We feasted on linguine with stewed tomatoes (and mushrooms from Madeline), and Grit brought a bar of dark chocolate to share for dessert!


October 10

​The sun was bright on the gold and green fields surrounding Skagaströnd this morning, strong light revealed by a fierce wind; I walked through the country roads, flanked by pastures of horses and sheep, the white-capped bay behind me an unbelievable shade of cold turquoise. What incredible variety the landscape of Iceland reveals in each region, from fertile farming plains that sweep up to snowy peaks, to jagged mossy lava and vast glaciers.  I wandered the back roads of town—the children were out on recess at school, laughing and playing on the swings.  The steeple of the church arced gracefully up towards the heavens, its white sloping roof like the mountains behind it. After two hours, my ears ached with the wind, and I retreated indoors, walking to the library to enjoy the blustery view in the company of good books.

In the afternoon, I was alone in the research library—the only sound the wind whistling at the windowpanes and murmurs from the offices on the floor below; sun filtered in as I sat in a red velvet armchair reading Norse mythology.  One must leave shoes in the entryway before entering the library, just as in Icelandic homes, and there is something so cozy about reading in wool socks while alone in a beautiful room full of books.  

Later, I explored the shelves and discovered an amazing treasure—a lovely large book of historic maps of Iceland from the 17th thru mid-19th centuries, created by cartographers throughout Europe—gorgeous!  I turned carefully through the pages, marveling at the drawings and peering in closely to see how places’ names had changed over time.  I adore old maps—impressions of the world sketched through the eyes of different nations, with different goals and relationships to the land—one can see how some cartographers view themselves as conquerors, some fill in uncertainties with surreal creations, and some are entranced with features of the landscape or the possibilities of further settlement.  In earlier maps, there were still sublime sea monsters offshore, their backs hunching up out of the water, boding ill for seafarers.  In others, positions and scale of places were misshaped or missing.  As the centuries crawled forward, the focus on navigational directions and the presence of the compass rose became more prevalent, and depending on the nationality of the cartographer, in many maps Iceland was depicted in relation to the large mainland of Europe, while others showed a mysterious and not-completely-mapped Greenland.  Below I have included some of the images (which were difficult to photograph in the barely-lit library—one dim overhead chandelier and diffuse sunlight slanting across the table), and afterwards, I have listed the artists/authors/adventurers of each map in the order in which they are imaged:

1. Íslandskorti Orteliusar (undated)
2. book cover
3. GuðbrandurÞorláksson, 1595
4. Joris Carolus, 1628
5. Matthias Quad, 1596
6. Evrópukerti Jodocus Hondusar, 1595
7. Evrópukerti Jodocus Hondusar, 1613
8. Henricus Hondius, 1636
9. Nicholas Sanson, 1667
10. Pierre Duval, 1674
11. Gilles Robert de Vaugondy, 1757
12. Thomas Kitchen, 1782
13. Peder Resen, 1680
14. Johannes Mejer, 1650
15. Þorður Þorláksson, 1668
16. Joris Carolus, 1626
17. Jacob Aertszoon Colom, 1632
18. Pieter Goos, 1600
19. Jan de Vos, van Zierikzee, 1761
20. Robert Dudley, 1646-7
21. Niels Horrebow, 1752
22. Maria Cassini, 1796
23. Pontoppidan and Eggers, 1786
24. J.C.M. Reinecke, 1800
25. Aaron Arrowsmith, 1808
26. Philippe vander Maelen, 1827

October 11

Today the sky and the sea were almost the same hue upon meeting, and the landscape truly looked like an oil painting–there was an almost abstract quality to it, like it had been flattened onto a vast canvas.  So many shades of blue and grey and periwinkle, so many textures and brushstrokes, with the blinding bright white snow almost surreal on the pastel mountains–with each passing second, everything subtly shifted as the wind kept reinventing the vista–the sun, buried deep behind thick clouds for most of the day, would appear suddenly diaphanous through lightened layers, turning bits of the sky bright gold or fluorescent pink as if it were already time for sunset, and then just as quickly disappear into the gloom.
It was a good day to start video editing; I finally downloaded and began working through all the landscape and gestural video I shot in Stöðvarfjördur, starting to sew everything together–looking through all the files brought back wonderful memories of the amazing artists with whom I lived last month.  The fjords are so different than the remote plains and sweeping bluffs of the north–so fascinating to compare them, and also to see how much the color palette has shifted as the season turns towards winter.

October 12

Here there be monsters.

I unearthed another beautiful large book of Icelandic maps in the research library, these even earlier; the book contained reproductions of maps of Iceland as early as 1000 C.E., and though the enormous book was written in Íslenksa, it also included an English summary of the history of Icelandic cartography.  Interestingly, through the Middle Ages it was widely believed that Iceland might in fact be the fabled island of Thule, as set down by the Greek seafarer Pytheas between 350 – 300 B.C.E. as the most northern landmass explored.  Most scholars now think that he in fact reached England, but the mythical name of Thule is still somewhat associated with Iceland.  The country first bears its current name in the 1000 C.E.; I had always heard that the Vikings had called it Iceland, but the book also discusses the possibility that the Irish monks that had previously settled there may have named it.  Through the 16th century, fantastical sea monsters and mythical beasts still abounded in the deep ocean on maps–I have included details from the Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus’ famous 1539 Carte Marina, which includes Iceland (which is part of a larger, gorgeously detailed map of the European, Asian and African continents, as they were known in Sweden at the time–it spanned two pages in the library book and was too intricate to capture with my camera..apparently when Magnus published his map, it was one of the largest ever made, covering nine woodblocks); the close-up images of the monsters below are actually from the Roman cartographer Antonio Lafreri’s 1572 reproduction of Magnus’ Carte Marina (and then I have included two images from Magnus’ original).

I spent a long time looking at all the details of the large scale map–the tiny mountains, settlements, historic battles, even driftwood and shipwrecks–what a view into history!  I loved especially looking closely at the monsters, and imagining the stories the sailors spread about what they had seen in the deep, dark waters of distant voyages–and how those stories grew larger and more ferocious with each telling, each beast becoming larger, each escape becoming narrower, each sighting of the unknown magnified and made fearsome.  In Magnus’ drawings, I could see narwhals with spiraling horns like unicorns, great baleen whales spouting at the surface, enormous polar bears on rafts of ice, dolphins leaping through the waves, and tusked walruses swimming in the seas he rendered, basing many features of his map on port stories from sailors and merchants to fill in many of the northern details (although he was also very well-travelled himself).  On his maps, as in the popular imagination of the era, these creatures still bear the traits of the supernatural and the fantastical, not yet distilled down by science, not yet set to scale or separated from myth–no, these maps still whisper of monsters in the depths…

October 13

I finished editing the video piece I made at the Fish Factory, capturing gestures and hand movements of all of the artists at work in the studios and also within the surrounding landscape of Stöðvarfjördur; I included the link below!

October 14

This morning I watched the golden glow of dawn send neon pink and vivid lavender clouds ahead over the mountains to announce its arrival…at 8:45 am!  Each day shrinks in length, giving dominion to the moon and to the lengthening darkness of night–by 5:45 pm, the sun is sinking behind the tall peaks of the West Fjords and the lunar orb is already high in the sky–evidence of our northern latitude, where each day there is 20 minutes less light.  The roads of the town are marked with large streetlights, like sentries, and I can certainly see how important their presence is during the long winter months.  In the small grocery store in Skagaströnd the aisle of knitting needles and woolen yarns is the same size as the entire dairy section, demonstrating the role that knitting and crochet work plays in the lives of the locals, especially in winter (there is a large shelf across from the aisle, filled with knitting pattern books and pamphlets, new and used, and I have seen several people perusing them when I am there); I have bought several skeins of yarn, which remind me of all the wonderful sheep I have seen in this country–there has been something very cozy about sitting in my chair by the window, the snowy mountains visible in the distance, feeling the scratchy texture of the yarn and the coarse strands of wool  in my fingers as I work the needles (I knit a new striped hat, with a rather boisterous pom-pom).  The yarn here is called lopi, and contains fibers from both the outer and inner coats of sheep (the coarse wind and weather resistant hairs and the soft fleece)–it is unspun and therefore has more space between fibers, making it a better, lighter insulator, perfect for knitting things to keep warm in winter!  Like the Icelandic horse, the sheep here have been isolated for a millennium, and are renown for their thick, warm coats–the knit products here are remarkably warm and lightweight.  I was invited to dinner at one of the artists’ shared houses for a lovely vegetable soup in the evening, filled with brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes and rutabaga–I mentioned the knitting, and Etta and Penny told me that the grocery store in Blönduós, the largest town in this part of Iceland, has an even largest selection of yarns–Penny ran to her room to bring out some of the beautiful yarn she had purchased, and Etta has started knitting an infinity scarf.  Tyler agreed, speaking of the beautiful local made sweaters, called lopapeysa, he has seen here–he said that there are a number of traditional Icelandic sweater patterns, including ones that are said to provide protection to the wearer against evil, and whose designs have mythological significance.  


And speaking of legends and myths, I will share another folk tale that I came across in several books, in several versions, in the research library…


Once there was a small farm that needed a herdsman to manage the sheep; the farmer and his family were kindly people, but each year on Christmas morning, they would mysteriously find the herdsman hired for that season dead in his bed, no signs of trauma or struggle.  This worried the farmer and his family greatly, and they feared that some curse must be at work.  Word spread through the countryside of the strange circumstances, and each year, it became harder to find someone who would take the job.  A young, strong herdsman (who is unnamed in each version I read) was traveling through the area, and went to the farm to take the position; the farmer told him of the deaths of his predecessors, but the herdsman still agreed to the job.  He was a hard worker and enjoyed spending his time with the flock.  When Christmas Eve came, the farmer and the family went to church, and as in all years past, the herdsman (who would be back too late from tending the flock to join them) and Hildur, the quiet housekeeper (who worked long hours cleaning and cooking) were the only two left in the house.

When the herdsman got into bed that night, exhausted from the day’s labors, he remembered the passing of his predecessors, and strove to stay awake; before long, he heard the door to his bedroom creak open–he pretended to be asleep, and through lowered lashes, saw the figure of Hildur enter the room–she carried with her a magic bridle that she put in his mouth; he rose from the bed, unable to speak or control his actions, and she mounted his back, flying out the window with him.  They flew over the landscape until they came to a great precipice, where Hildur dismounted and leapt into the chasm below.  The herdsman watched her go, his heart beaten madly in his chest, and he decided to follow her.  He had in his possession, passed down through generations, a small pebble that made him invisible when he so chose; he closed it into the palm of his hand and jumped down after her.  At first, he fell at great speed, but eventually, he saw bright lights below, and his descent slowed, allowing him to land light as a feather.  He saw Hildur ahead of him, walking towards a great shining castle–its gates opened and beautifully dressed people ran out to greet her joyfully–they brought her gorgeous robes and bedecked her with jewels, and placed an intricately designed crown on her head.  Small children hugged her tearfully, and the king also came to her, crying with happiness and kissed her gratefully.  The herdsman was dazzled by the beauty of this realm, which he knew to be the world of the elves, since such richness and loveliness does not exist in the world of men.  He silently followed everyone back inside, and watched them lay out their Christmas feast, with Hildur and her king at the head of a great table, and her children seated next to them.  Hildur smiled with great joy, and everyone sang and danced for many hours into the night.  Some of the smallest children became bored at the festivities, and Hildur gave them some of her large jeweled rings to play with–one of the rings was dropped and rolled near to where the herdsman was hidden.  He carefully collected the ring and hid it in his breast pocket.  

Before long, the king arose and spoke to a wretched old woman who was seated in the corner, and who had not taken part in any of the festivities; he begged her to free his beloved wife from the curse that she was under, but the woman turned away.  Next Hildur entreated her, saying that sooner or later she would be caught and killed for the murders that resulted from the curse, she cried at the cruelty of being forced to live apart from her family and from her elven people, save for one night a year.  This old woman in fact the king’s mother; Hildur was a low-born elf, and when the king fell in love with her and married her despite her poor status and upbringing, the angry mother-in-law cursed Hildur, banishing her to the world of men, and allowing her only one night, Christmas Eve, on which to return to her rightful kingdom. But no amount of entreaty could sway the old woman, and as the light began to shift towards dawn, Hildur hugged and kissed everyone good-bye.  The herdsman quickly left, returning to the top of the precipice, where he returned his stone of invisibility to his pocket, and lay down and pretended to still be fast asleep.  When Hildur returned a little later, she again put the magic bridle in his mouth, and they flew home, where once returned to his bed, the herdsman sank instantly into slumber.

Meanwhile, the farmer and his family awoke, fearing that this year, like years past, their herdsman might again be dead, and went immediately to his room–they shook him and he awoke, to their cheers of happiness.  Hildur entered the room as well, looking surprised and also quite happy.  The herdsman said he felt fine, but had had a very unusual dream.  He then recounted the tale to the family; Hildur pointed out that he had no proof of this bizarre and surreal story…at which point, the herdsman took the ring from his pocket–instantly Hildur was transformed with joy and rushed to him to thank him.  “You have removed the wretched curse”, she said.  “It could only be broken if a man was brave enough to follow me down into the kingdom of elves, witness the world and bring back evidence of his presence there.  Now you also all know that I am innocent of these murders, which were a result of my mother-in-law’s horrible curse.”  She took back the ring and told the herdsman that he would be rewarded with good fortune throughout his long life, and she left instantly for her kingdom, to be reunited forever with her family.


​And thus ends the story of Hildur, the Elf-Queen.

October 15

I have been in Iceland for 45 days, each day checking the aurora forecast, each clear evening peering hopefully up into the sky (admittedly, there have not been that many clear evenings), and tonight, FINALLY, I have seen the Northern Lights.
I had given up hope, convinced that it was all a ruse to attract tourists, that Photoshop and filters and time lapse photography were responsible for the magnificent images I have seen in advertising.  But tonight, I saw them dance–glowing green, undulating over the mountaintops, stretching overhead across the entire sky, layers of greenish white mist reaching up towards the heavens and down towards the earth.  Every moment they transformed–first one layer rising from the horizon, then three, then a long burst of light opening like a fan, then quieting and turning ghostly pale, and then again luminous and brilliant green–strands of emerald hues spanning across the blackness.  I hadn’t believed that they danced and moved like that–fluttering and fleeting and oh-so-sublime…now I know why the Norse myths speak of realms in the heavens and the rainbow bridge between worlds–such a magnificent display cannot be fully rationalized–such a thing of ethereal beauty cannot be fully demystified.  I tried to capture them with my cell phone (I unfortunately packed my Sony up and sent it home with Bentley–although by the time I would’ve run to the Salthus to get it, I would’ve missed everything), and only the faintest of green splashes appear on my phone, the merest traces as a record of what I saw–the aurora is truly meant to be seen in the moment–to be transmitted through memories and words, or painted or made into poetry (or captured with state-of-the-art camera gear).  I stood with Penny in the field until we were both shivering and our ears and fingers were aching–the aurora dimmed and slipped away as I walked home alone to the guesthouse on the edge of the bluff–I kept looking up at the sky, at the bright pinpoints of stars, the aurora now just a barely-visible haze–my heart beating wildly with joy at the beautiful, indescribable vision Nature had allowed me to see.  Thank you Iceland!

…and of course, now for the reason that I was standing outside by the docks with Penny, Tyler and Etta in the black of night to begin with…

Oli, the research librarian, is a connoisseur of Kæstur Hákarl, the traditional fermented Greenland shark that is a culinary speciality of Iceland, and he invited us to see how it is prepared.  Oli has a drying structure set up about 10 km from town, as well as a corrugated shed down by the docks (which is where we met him tonight) where he presses and freezes the shark meat.  It takes several months to prepare this delicacy, which is enjoyed year round, but also especially during midwinter celebrations.  Greenland shark cannot be eaten fresh, as the ammonia from its uric acid is toxic; these sharks do not have kidneys and bladders to store and process urine, and instead urinate directly through their skin.  In order to prepare the shark, it is pressed for several months to get all the fluids out and start the fermentation process, which transforms the ammonia into a less toxic variety, and makes the meat edible; traditionally the pressing was done by burying the shark in a sandy pit, weighted down with rocks, but Oli stores them in a great plastic bin, weighted down with wooden pallets and barrels of water.  After two or three months, he hangs the sharks to dry for several more months, and then, they are frozen until they are ready to be consumed.  He also dries codfish, known as Harðfiskur, on his racks, and explained to us that one of his favorite things is a “sandwich” with a piece of buttered Kæstur Hákarl between two pieces of Harðfiskur!  He and his son had gone fishing today for cod, which he will be preparing and hanging to dry for several months.
Fortunately, Oli had asked us to meet him at his storage shed at 9 PM tonight when he returned from his fishing trip, and when we all walked out of the shed afterwards, we were treated to the aforementioned amazing display of Northern Lights!

October 16

The mountain Spákonufell rises behind the town of Skagaströnd, and plays a prominent role in many stories and sagas associated with this area.  It is said that Þórdís the Prophetess lived here in the 10th century, and that everyday she climbed the mountain to brush her hair with a golden comb.  She was skilled in witchcraft, had a fearsome temper, and was the foster mother of the first settler of the region.  Before she died, it is believed that she buried a treasure chest somewhere on the mountain, and that only a woman who is unbaptized, does not know any of the names of God, and has drunk only horse milk during her life will be able to find the treasure of Þórdís, which so far, remains unclaimed…


Since the 15th century, the town has also been important as a trading port and of course, a fishing village–there are several large and small fishing boats based here, and a trawler that goes to sea for one month at a time.  Over the last century, the fishing industry has slowed, and many families have moved away–the most recent downsizing came a decade ago, when 100 fishermen lost their jobs, and these families moved away from Skagaströnd.  The NES artist residency has been part of a revitalization movement for the town, which is struggling to stay afloat in a dismal economy.  As in many small towns throughout the country, unless they are employed by the fishing industry, the marine technology company, or a local textile factory (which makes pillowcases sold in tourist shops around the country), people here often have multiple part-time jobs–for example, in addition to being the research librarian Mon/Wed/Fri mornings, Oli also sells his Kæstur Hákarl and Harðfiskur, and teaches a class for young men to learn life skills.  Apparently, in a recent class, they covered two important things:  how to tie a necktie, and how to debone a codfish.

October 17

Such a contrast from dawn to dusk;  I woke to howling wind and rain sluicing against my window in Skagaströnd, with sideways snow flurries as I later lugged my bags out to the shuttle bus.  The weather behaved better through the five hour journey South, staying dismal grey with occasional fits of rain and rainbows, as we drove past golden fields of tall wild grasses and tamer pastures of green, clipped short by busy sheep.  As the light started to shift towards dusk, the bus arrived in Reykjavik, and a short taxi ride deposited me in bustling downtown; the taxi driver had inquired about where I had been, and when I told him, he heartily welcomed me back to civilization.  I deposited my bags at the hotel, and set off strolling through the streets (and had a delicious veggie burger)–so much light and noise (and so many people!) compared to the places that I have been, where sometimes an entire day might pass without seeing someone, and the only sounds were those of nature.  Now, even though it is after midnight, the noise from the street floats up–I still hear traffic whooshing past, people shouting and laughing, thumping music from bars down the street–civilization indeed.  Tonight I attended a jazz trio performance (the Gunnar Hilmarsson Trio) in the rooftop Björtuloft lounge in the Harpa Concert Hall, with a lovely nighttime view over the water–Harpa looked beautiful; Bentley and I had walked around it in the daytime, marveling at the unique architecture, and at night, everything is lit up–stunning against the water’s edge.  


The city of Reykjavik means “smoky bay” in Old Norse, so named for the rising steam from the geothermal springs in the area that the Vikings glimpsed from sea.  Legend proclaims that it was selected as a settlement site in the 870s by Ingólfur Arnason, who famously had thrown his high seat pillars into the sea and declared that he and his shipmates would settle in the location that they washed ashore–in some versions, the Vikings have temporary settlements and send scouts looking for the pillars, and it is a full three years later before they are spotted on shore.  Today of course, Reykjavik boasts of being the most Northerly capital city, with over one third of the residents of the entire country of Iceland living here.


October 18

Today was a beautiful day of music and bookstore browsing in the rain.  I always measure a city by how eclectic, cozy and varied its bookstores are, and by the strength of its arts and culture scene (and perhaps also by how many delicious vegetarian dining options abound).  On all counts, Reykjavik is a delight; this morning I walked to a nearby bookshop/cafe, IÐA Zimsen, for spinach quiche and a perfectly-sweet mocha, and then strolled up through the rain-sprinkled streets filled with colorful shops towards Hallsgrimkirkja–at noon, the church had a meditation session with organ music–so lovely to hear the sound fill the cavernous cathedral.  As I wandered back down the street after leaving the church, it began to rain in earnest, and I returned to Mál og Menning, the bookstore with the orange and white cat that Bentley and I had visited previously–I ordered cream of celery and chickpea soup and sat upstairs watching it pour (and of course, taking some time to adore the cat).  I also fell in love with Penninn Eymundsson Austurstraeti, a multicolor bookstore with fantastic displays and staff picks (so many good ideas for future book club books!), and there are still more bookstores to hunt down tomorrow…

Music remained a theme throughout the day–my desire to travel to Iceland began years ago, inspired by the fantastic bands that I knew and loved that came from here–starting with the Sugarcubes and Björk, then Múm and Sigur Rós (and all their related projects–Amiina, Jónsi and Alex, etc) and on to Ólafur Arnalds and Kiasmos and Of Monsters & Men…and the list keeps growing (and I’ve certainly added dozens of new and intriguing music artists to my list since my arrival).  Last December, Jónsi and his sisters opened a shopfront/art experience called Fischer here in Reykjavik, and this afternoon, I went searching for it.  The shop is down a little side alley street, with only a black sign adorned with a key to mark its presence.  Inside, the rooms are sparsely decorated with dried flowers, beautiful paintings of plants with long roots and fragile petals, hanging succulents swaddled in burlap, apothecary shadowboxes, vials of herbs and spices, antique brass telescopes and bare bones…an atmospheric soundscape, created by Jónsi and other family members plays in the background, and the warm scents of anise, thyme, vetiver, wild angelica and numerous other unknowns tints the air.  I wandered alone through the space, delighting in the sensory experiences offered by the displays and rooms–what a wonderful treasure to encounter from one of my favorite musicians!

This evening, I returned to Harpa, this time to hear the Iceland Symphony with Canadian soloist (piano) Jan Lisiecki in the main Eldborg hall.  Out front of Harpa tonight, two large ice pieces were slowly melting when I arrived–an Arctic Circle art exhibit had ben installed since yesterday, and I enjoyed the opportunity to look at the sculptures inside, all inspired by the fragile relationships of man and nature in this era of climate change.  When I walked back to the hotel after the concert, the melting ice outside was illuminated with blue lights, and a large puddle slowly lengthened along the sidewalk.

One more musical tale from today to share…when Bentley and I were together in Reykjavik two weeks ago, I had discovered another new artist–Eivør, who is actually from the nearby Faroe Islands.  Earlier today I was happily leafing through CDs and vinyl in 12 Tónar, a fabulous new/used/rare music shop, and I found a recording she had done with the Danish Radio Big Band entitled At the Heart of a Selkie, based on a selkie folktale that I have heard and read in various forms while here in Iceland; I have always loved selkie myths, probably because of the years I spent volunteering at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur and working at the Ocean Institute–seals always have a welcome place in my heart!  I immediately asked the guy behind the counter at 12 Tónar if he was familiar with the CD, and he ushered me to a little room, filled with comfy sofas and headphones, and let me listen to the whole album (which of course, I bought, and can’t wait to host a listening party when I get back)!  Below is the story which inspired Eivør’s collaboration for this project…


Once, on the twelfth night of Christmas, a young fisherman was walking alone by the shore.  In the distance, he could hear laughter and music, and he followed the sounds to a shadowy cave where the tide flowed in and out.  Carefully, he stepped from rock to rock and made his way deep into the cave, where he saw a circle of beautiful young women, all naked, dancing around a fire.  Nearby, he saw a pile of sealskins, and he immediately knew that these were selkies, magical seal women who are bound to the sea and to their skin, without which they cannot transform or return to the water.  Overcome by a strong impulse, he took one of the skins, and crept out of the cave, taking it home and locking it in a chest*. Sure enough, when he returned to the shore, he found a woman alone, crying in the surf, shivering and naked in the night.  He took off his coat and wrapped her in it, and took her home with him to warm her by the fire.  Everyday for a long time, she went down to the shore and searched and searched, hunting for the skin that separated her from the sea, while her seal sisters watched from the water, crying and helpless.  Everyday for a long time, the fisherman struggled with himself and the truth of the hidden sealskin, but he loved her so much that he could not bear to tell her.   As time passed, the woman fell in love with the fisherman and they were married and had several children.  He never told her that he was the one who had taken her skin, and she never told him that she was a selkie, but she would tell marvelous tales to their children about beautiful kingdoms beneath the sea.  The chest with her skin remained hidden deep in the closet, and the fisherman always carried the key with him when he left their house.  One day, he left in a hurry and forgot to take the key.  She saw it sitting on the table, and wondered what it was for.  She picked it up, and suddenly, she was drawn towards the closet, where she found the chest, hidden under piles of blankets and old possessions.  Almost as if in a trance she unlocked the chest and found her sealskin–for a moment, she was caught in a terrible struggle with her heart–feeling the pull of the sea and her beloved sisters, and the love for her children and husband and the life she had made on the shore–but the blood of the ocean surged through her veins, and she ran to the shore, leaping into the waves and swimming home.  But it is said, that she often swam back to the shore, and followed the fisherman’s boat, crying for her lost husband and children, torn between two worlds.


*I have not previously shared this tale, because it actually makes me very angry!  He should not have stolen her skin to begin with!

October 19

In 1986, the world waited with bated breath while Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time to begin steps towards ending the Cold War at the Höfði House in Reykjavik, a few kilometres from downtown, just across the bay from where Harpa stands today. This historic building is a symbol for the potential of peace and the possibility of a brighter future.  On October 9th, just ten days ago, Yoko Ono spoke at Höfði to commemorate the lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower, on an island offshore from Reykjavik where starting in 2007, a beacon shines each year at night from October 9th through December 8th—the dates of John Lennon’s birth and death.  There is a “wishing well” beneath the tower, and Yoko Ono has organized Wish Trees in cities all over the world; people write wishes on pieces of paper and tie them into the branches of the tree, and they are all collected and placed in the wishing well on Viðey Island.  In the city hall today, I tied a wish onto Reykjavik’s tree (they have two little trees there, actually), to join the over one million wishes already in the well.


Tomorrow I fly on to Ireland, where I will begin a month in residence in the city of Galway, working with Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, a nanophysicist at NUI Galway; together she and I have a Public Engagement grant from the UK Institute of Physics to produce a performative event based on her lab’s research as part of National Science Week Ireland next month.  I will be starting my NanoChoreography blog in the next few days in coordination with this project—please continue to follow my journey there, and thank you for reading and sharing in the stories and images I have collected in beautiful, magical Iceland these past seven weeks.  Takk fyrir!