Iceland is famous for its landscape. There are grazing fields but few trees. (Iceland’s Christmas trees are imported.) There are no forests, and the few trees that exist do not reach any significant height. Another Icelandic well-worn joke: If you are lost in a “forest” in Iceland, stand up. Few crops are grown other than fodder for wintering livestock. There are some greenhouses growing foodstuffs, but there are no fruit trees, lettuces, or broccoli growing in the countryside. Almost everything from wood to food must be imported. I wondered why Icelanders have not perished from scurvy, and the answer may be root vegetables. Turnips, I learned, are a good source of vitamin C, and rutabagas are a super source of that essential nutrient. And Iceland is awash in cod liver oil, which contains mega doses of vitamins A and D. I was told that the natives take it every day, and it was available at every breakfast.
The countryside is dotted with well-maintained homes and farm buildings that stand out starkly in the landscape like oh so many houses on the American prairie. Much of the countryside is covered in lava flows. The classic Eleventh Edition of The Encyclopedia Britanica (1910) describes it much better than I could: “The great lava-fields are composed of vast sheets of lava, ruptured and riven in divers way. The smooth surface of the viscous billowy lava is further diversified by long twisted ‘ropes,’ curving backwards and forward up and down over the undulations. Moreover, there are gigantic fissures, running for several miles, caused by subsidence of the underlying sections.” Icelanders seem proud that the Americans practiced for the first moon landing on the otherworldly lava fields of their country.
This landscape coupled with the lack of welcoming weather for much of the year made the golf courses we saw often surprising, but many Icelanders are avid golfers. I asked one of them how long was the golf season. Without cracking a smile, he replied, “Last year it was very good–all of Wednesday.”
Most of the landscape seems drab (perhaps this is why most of the houses are brightly painted) except for stands of blooming purple flowers. This lupine is controversial. It was imported from Alaska to halt soil erosion. The plant takes nitrogen from the air and transfers it to the plants’ roots and then the soil. Lupine has spread tremendously over the island. Some see it as beneficial making for a richer earth and preventing erosion. Others see it as an invasive species whose spread needs to be controlled, but for the tourist it adds a beautiful color to the landscape which, except for greenish gray moss, is otherwise dun brown and gray and black from the lava, rocks, and basalt.
Besides volcanos, Iceland also has waterfalls in abundance, and I hiked to many of them. I don’t have the literary ability to describe the array or their power or their fascination, so let’s just look at some pictures.
Iceland also has summer houses in abundance. This seemed strange. Did people really need to escape the summer heat of Reykjavik and the other towns when the temperatures might soar to seventy degrees? But the guide said that summer houses are part of the Icelandic culture, although they often broke Icelandic patterns in one way. Icelanders overwhelmingly own their own homes. There are few renters, and those outsiders who come to Iceland for an extended stay find few places to rent. (Icelanders are also car owners, often owning more than one. Our driver owned three, all American vehicles. Icelanders keep them until they no longer work. The used car market is small.) Often, but not always, the summer homes are owned by those who use them, but many are owned by corporations for use by employees, and many are owned by unions, which are strong in the country, for members’ vacations.
(to be continued)