Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

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.

Lupine (photo by AJ)

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.

Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ

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)

The Termination of Roe

          The Supreme Court has terminated Roe v. Wade. Many of the most important consequences of aborting the constitutional right to abortion are obvious, but I have also been thinking about other effects.

          There is a glimmer of good news in the Supreme Court case that overruled Roe v. Wade. The opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization averred that there was no right to abortion specified in the Constitution, but it also held that access to abortion was an issue for the states to decide. I had little doubt that the Court would kill Roe, but I was concerned that in doing so, the majority would suggest that a fetus was a human being. This, of course, is a common view. For example, in an opinion piece in the New York Times published on the day Roe was overruled, Karen Swallow Prior, a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that if you believe as she does “that abortion unjustly ends the life of a being that is fully human [Emphasis added], a life that exists independently of the will of the mother, is self-organizing and unique, developing yet complete in itself, then you will understand Roe not as a ruling that liberates but as one that dehumanizes—first the fetus, then the rest of us.”

          People who have beliefs like Prior’s will seek to have states that do not already have laws making abortion criminal to pass them. They will not have success everywhere. I doubt that will be the end of their efforts. When they lose in the state legislatures, they will turn to the courts hoping to get rulings outside the democratic process that a fetus is a human being. If courts ever conclude that, then an abortion would be depriving a life without due process of law. Abortion would be illegal everywhere.

          But right now, there is that small bit of good news that the Dobbs Court held that abortion is an issue for the states.

          A justifiable concern is that with Roe overruled, other Supreme Court precedents that relied on reasoning similar to Roe’s will also fall. Clarence Thomas concurring in Dobbs said that Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) should also be reconsidered, and there is little doubt that he would overrule them all. Alito’s opinion stressed that only abortion was at issue in Dobbs, and Kavanaugh concurring suggested that the Court should not consider other precedents. However, if the Court is consistent, these other decision, too, could be overruled. So what would that mean?

          Obergefell held that there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The consequences of striking it down and returning the issue to the states are obvious. Griswold held that married couples had the constitutional right to access birth control, a right that was extended to non-married couples by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Eisenstadt v. Baird. I don’t imagine that states will rush to outlaw condoms and birth control pills. At the time of Griswold, only Connecticut and Massachusetts had such laws. However, many state legislators have stated an intention to ban the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices under the theory that IUDs and the medication cause abortions. If Griswold is overruled, these laws will be constitutional because states can not only regulate abortion, they can also regulate these forms of contraception.

          Lawrence is thought to hold that laws prohibiting gay sex are unconstitutional. If it is overruled, states could again criminalize this behavior. Lawrence, however, did more than that. Thomas was correct in saying that the case constitutionalized “the right to engage in private, consensual sexual acts.” Some state anti-sodomy laws made oral and anal sex illegal for all people. In these places, married people who engaged in fellatio or cunnilingus were violating the law. Even if Lawrence is overruled, states might not pass such laws again. However, the assumption is that with the fall of Roe, anti-abortion laws that were in effect before Roe and remain on the books are again operative. A similar thing could happen if Lawrence is overruled. Laws still on the books would be back in effect. Gays, and perhaps others, would be breaking the law.

          This makes me think back to my childhood. I read the local newspaper of my town of 45,000 growing up, and I learned early that people were arrested for adultery, fornication, and cohabitation, and some even went to jail. I understood what murder and assault were, but I did not understand these other crimes. I asked the parents what these offenses were. I could tell that my question embarrassed them, and their explanations were vague and filled with hemming and hawing. What I did learn at the age of eight was that at least sometimes I needed a source of knowledge other than the mother and father. So, when there was an arrest for rape reported in the paper, I looked up the definition in a dictionary and I learned that rape was “unlawful carnal knowledge.” That did nothing to further my understanding.

          In the local Sheboygan police reports, it seemed that people were being arrested for such offenses on a weekly basis. And, indeed, A Wall Street Journal article in 1968 reported that in 1967 in my hometown “there were thirty-five arrests for adultery, eleven for fornication, twenty-seven for lewd and lascivious cohabitation.” Elizabeth H. Pleck, in her book Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation After the Sexual Revolution, says that the local paper, the Sheboygan Press, published with pride the entire WSJ article, and the town took honor in being the cohabitation arrest capital of the United States in the 1970s. (Not Just Roommates can be found on Google books.) The cohabitation law was repealed in 1983, but it was enforced as late as 1978.

          I believe that the fornication law, too, was repealed, and in any event, such laws are unconstitutional under Lawrence. I have read that the Wisconsin adultery law, although now not enforceable, is still on the books as a felony, and probably other states also retain such a law, too. If Lawrence is overruled, those laws can again be enforced. Of course, there will be nothing like full enforcement of the laws against adultery or fornication. Our court and jail systems could not handle the cases even, perhaps especially, in the South where divorce rates are higher than in much of the North.

We can, however, expect that there will be pockets around the country where the laws will sometimes be enforced. Back in the day the Sheboygan police chief said that most of the arrests for sexual offenses resulted from neighbor’s complaints. The arrests, however, also clearly comported with his personal sense of morality. Offended neighbors are still with us as are enraged spouses or ex-spouses, and in some places, they will clamor for arrests and prosecutions. And religious zealotry is certainly with us. After all, while the Bible does not mention abortion, it does condemn adultery and fornication. We can expect that some police chiefs and sheriffs will hear the call from what they think is God (as well as the call of publicity and political ambition), and they will do what they claim is His will.

Whither School Vouchers?

         The Supreme Court this week held that a Maine school funding scheme violated the Constitution. Maine has some rural school districts that lack a secondary school. The Maine law allowed those districts to sign contracts with nearby public schools for the education of their high school students or to pay tuition for the students at private schools as long as the private schools were not sectarian. (A conservative organization misleadingly characterized the Maine law in this way: “Maine passed a law that banned families from sending their children to religious schools.”)

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority of six, said that states are not required to support religious education, but if they subsidize any private schools, they may not discriminate against religious ones: “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”

One of the schools at issue in the case, Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, says it expects its teachers “to integrate biblical principles with their teaching in every subject” and teaches students “to spread the word of Christianity.” The other, Bangor Christian Schools, says it seeks to develop “within each student a Christian worldview and Christian philosophy of life.” In his dissent, Justice Breyer wrote that both schools “have admissions policies that allow them to deny enrollment to students based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and religion, and both schools require their teachers to be born-again Christians.”

The decision was not a surprise. Under the Roberts court, claims from religious groups have been upheld at a rate higher than any time in the last seventy years. The Court’s split was also expected with the six conservative justices, all Catholics, in the majority.

The debate is going on as to whether this ruling promotes the constitutional right of the free exercise of religion or is an erosion of the constitutional wall between church and state, as the dissent maintained. (Often lost in the distinction as to whether a claim extends freedom of religion or whether the claim violates separation of church and state is that the anti-establishment clause was placed in the Constitution to promote religious freedom.) But the decision raises other issues that should be discussed.

A wing of conservatism advocates for the broad use of school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality. Many of those seeking a religious education today support vouchers.

Because the voucher can be used at any private school including sectarian ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but the use of vouchers gives parents control over the state money, and is, thereby, an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not, therefore, violate the federal Constitution.

The recent Court decision is another step in favor of vouchers. Some conservatives, however, want us to go still further. They would like the end of public schools as we now know them and go to an all-voucher system. If increasing numbers of children are separated into religious silos or segregated by gender identity, sexual orientation or any other sociological grouping, the fracturing of America is exacerbated. Would the benefits of vouchers outweigh this cost to American cohesion? That is something we should be discussing.

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

While cod stocks may now be plentiful in Icelandic waters, Iceland experienced a precipitous decline from over-harvesting of another important fish. A museum in the north of Iceland taught me about the Herring Girls. In mid-20th century Iceland, the herring run lasted a month or two, and women from the south would come for that time to help process the fish. They stayed in bunkhouses, one of which is preserved as part of the museum, with tiny beds built into the wall only a few feet from each other. “Nice” pairs of shoes and dresses were neatly stowed as if their owners were about to come back, ready for the Saturday night dances that were held.

I am surprised that anyone had the energy for frivolity. The women filled barrels with layers of fish with salt strewn over each layer. The first rows required bending from the waist to ground level with each row slightly higher. There had to have been a constant strain on the back, but the piece-work pay was good, for the herring industry was profitable. Our guide’s mother had been a Herring Girl, and remembered it fondly as a time of hard work, yes, but those Saturday night dances had, apparently, been worth it.

In the 1960s, about half of Iceland’s export income came from herring, but a decade before, the herring catch had dwindled. Instead of seeing this as a warning sign, herring fishing, aided by new technologies, increased. Then in 1969, the herring did not return to Iceland; they had been over-exploited. Neither the herring industry nor the towns that relied on it have returned to the glory days. There is a lesson here.

          Just about everywhere I could see another traditional mainstay of the Icelandic economy. Almost every field had sheep—usually ewes with two lambs, which, of course, were always cute, especially when the lambs bounded about as if they were on springs. Lamb was regularly on the menu, and every shop from roadside rest stops, to souvenir shops, to upscale stores had woolen sweaters for sale. I resisted buying any because I did not like the styles; they were enormously expensive; they were too heavy for indoor wear in modern America; and I already own an Irish fisherman’s sweater for cool autumn days when I attack fallen leaves.

Living a sheep’s life

          Every drive outside of a city or town also passed fields with horses, not as numerous as sheep, but a presence nonetheless. They are all of one breed—the Icelandic horse. The strain goes back a thousand years or more, although seventy percent of the stock were wiped out in the 1783 volcanic eruption. (The volcano afterwards was given the name Laki.) The breed has remained pure because Iceland forbids the importation of horses, and even if an Icelandic horse is sold abroad—there are heavy populations of the breed in Northern Europe and America–it cannot be brought back to the island. There are only one-way tickets for the animals.

          These long-lived horses come in many, many colors—our guide said 400 but another source said 100. Perhaps this counts as diversity in Iceland. The animals are known for their small size, but when we went to a horse breeding and training center, our guide cautioned us against calling them “ponies.” Icelandic horses are also known for having five gaits, unlike the usual three—walk, trot, and canter or gallop. Although it was demonstrated, I did not understand the uniqueness of the fourth gait. I gather that the gait is like a walk, but the horses can do it at much faster speeds up to the equivalent of a canter. Although training can improve this locomotion, the gait is natural to the horses present from birth.

          The fifth gait is pacing, where the legs on each side of the animal move together. The pacers I have seen in America have been pulling sulkies with a driver, but the Icelandic horses were ridden—and I gather raced with riders on their backs. The pacing horses we saw with a rider zipping along on the backstretch were quite beautiful.

Iceland Horses Grazing
Icelandic horse

We also saw cattle in fields, but besides the arctic fox, there are no other mammals native to Iceland—no elk, caribou, reindeer, moose, or bear. (On occasion a polar bear stranded on an ice floe finds itself in Iceland, and apparently, because it will not survive, it is shot.) Early settlers were not hunters.

The island, however, is also known for whales in its waters, which we did not see, and for puffins. Accompanied by beautiful blue skies and calm waters, we took a boat into the Greenland Sea (near the Arctic circle) to see an island where puffins nest in holes and tunnels. (It was cold on the water, and the crew provided us with full body suits against the frigid winds. Besides being warm, the suits, we were told, would inflate should we be unceremoniously thrown into the water.) Puffins come to Iceland in the summer, but they winter somewhere on the ocean. Little is known about their life at sea. They mate for life, we were told, but if the male does not find its mate at breeding time, it might take up with another female. However, if the first mate shows up, the male returns to the original partner. In what I am sure is a well-worn Icelandic joke, the sad look of a puffin comes from the male apologizing to the first partner. (I thought, however, that the sad expression perhaps came from mating for life.) Although some think the population is declining, puffins are eaten. However, some restaurants proudly proclaim that they will not offer the bird. I wanted to try it but could not find it on a menu.

Puffin nest

The boat, berthed in Husavik, had a crew of three. The captain, with whom I did not speak, was Icelandic. I asked Sophia whether she was from the island. She replied, “Do I look like an Icelander?” After a glance at her slightly dark complexion, I replied, “No.” She said that she was born and raised in Argentina and was a marine biologist. During the winter when the boat did not operate, she lived in the Canary Islands (which she pronounced can-uh-ree). When asked what she did there, Sophia said, “Surf.”

The third member of the crew was the exquisitely handsome, 6’2” Christian. With his perfectly trimmed beard and his stylishly unrimmed glasses, he looked to have been type-cast by Hollywood for the role—no, of course, I was not jealous. In fact, Christian was a German economist who spent his winters at home in Bremen. He said that as a kid he had been fascinated by whales, and while our group was going to see puffins, the boat often went further into the open seas for whale watching. He said that combining a hobby with a job was great. 

The Puffin Crew

(to be continued)

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued_

Iceland may not have much industry, but it does have tourism.  Pre-Covid, the country had 2.2 million visitors and this year it expects 1.5 million. Remember: this is a country with a population of only 370,000. At least by my restaurant experiences, many of those serving all those tourists come from eastern Europe. I met people from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, and Ukraine. Many planned to be in the country only for a season, but some had been in Iceland for years. This may be changing Iceland. The first settlers came to the island in 874 (there were no indigenous peoples), and Celts and Scandinavians populated the land. Iceland’s isolation led to a homogeneous population where almost any two Icelanders going back several generations could find that they had common ancestors. That might now change.  Two decades ago, only two percent of the country were not “Icelanders.” Now it is up to fifteen percent.

Before tourism, the main drivers of the Icelandic economy were fishing and sheep, with a few cattle thrown in. Fishing, of course, has been a treacherous life, and most of the Icelandic books I have read record deaths of fisherman. It has also been an economically precarious life as fishing stocks have waned or moved and as factory ships have taken over. World War II, however, was good for Icelandic fishing. Most of the British fishing fleet was converted to military uses, and Icelandic fisherman supplied the UK with fish during the war.

WWII was good for Iceland in other ways. At the beginning of the war, Iceland, while having some autonomy, was under Danish rule, but when Germany occupied Denmark, the British, concerned about Iceland’s strategic position in the North Atlantic and worried it would fall under Axis domination, “invaded” the island. (Iceland did not have a military and did nothing to resist the British occupation.) After a year, the American military replaced the Brits in occupying the county. The Americans constructed bases, airfields, and housing and paid local workers in dollars. The American military built new roads that helped unify the island and made the transport of goods for locals easier than it had ever been. Perhaps taking advantage of Denmark’s travails during the war, Iceland wrested complete independence in 1944. As Mark Kurlansky writes in Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Iceland, as a result of World War II, moved from a fifteenth century colonial society to a modern country. Today, even though it still does not have a military, Iceland is a member of NATO, which means that other NATO countries take turns defending the island. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and several conversations with Icelanders indicated that the populace is sharply divided on whether it should be.

I got an idea of the primitive Icelandic life in the twentieth century from Glaumber, a museum preserving a farmhouse mostly made of turf and driftwood. It is a complex of separate one-room buildings united by a central passageway, and the museum’s brochure says that “this style of turf construction was universal in rural areas of Iceland up until 1910-1930.” Even on a sunny day with long daylight, the rooms were dank and dark, and when inhabited, probably smoky. The house we visited was upscale for the time with multiple rooms for various daily activities. A more typical picture of Icelandic crofter homes is presented in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People.



Another view of Glaumber

After WWII other nations resumed fishing near Iceland, and the country realized that fish supplies were dwindling. In 1822, international law proclaimed that a country’s boundaries extended three miles into the seas bordering the country. However, in 1945, the United States proclaimed it had exclusive rights to the minerals in the continental shelf off its shores. A few years later, Iceland extended the three-mile territorial limit to four miles. In 1958, the country extended it to twelve miles and then to fifty in 1972.  and then three years later to two hundred miles, a territorial limit most countries now maintain.

A man who owned several fishing boats told me that the supply of cod off Iceland’s shores is now bountiful both because of the 200-mile limit and because of quotas enforced by the country. He said that poaching was not a severe problem because drones had made it much easier to spot any law breakers.

We visited this man’s salt cod operation, which he proudly told us was the only such cod plant left in Iceland using traditional hand methods. The cod are dried and preserved with Portuguese sea salt. Most of the finished product is exported as bacalao back to Portugal and other Mediterranean countries. The heads are shipped to Nigeria for use in a local soup. The guts are ground up and used as fertilizer. The salt is used twice, and then transformed into salt licks for grazing sheep and cattle. Nothing is thrown away.

Salt cod in the making
The shark’s head

At this place I got to try one of Iceland’s (in)famous foods. On occasion, the cod fishermen catch one of the huge sharks that live in the deep waters around Iceland. The fish cannot survive being brought to the surface, and the law requires that the sharks be used and not thrown back to die. Without going into the unseemly details of why, the shark meat is, in essence, fermented. What we were offered looked like little cubes of tofu. To say that it did not taste appetizing would be an understatement; to say that it was awful would also be an understatement. However, the owner passed out cards with his signature to those who stomached it, and I am now a member of The Rotten Shark Club.

Liquor has an illogical history in Iceland: Although hard stuff was readily available, beer was banned in Iceland until 1986. (The guide opined, “Many Icelandic rules make no sense.”) She claimed that Icelanders are now sophisticated drinkers, apparently because they drink wine. We also learned about Brennivin, an aquavit, another famous Icelandic foodstuff. The name translates to burnt or burning wine. Some said it was flavored with cumin, but I think it has caraway. Just as I met no Icelander who confessed to eating the shark, none said that they drank or even liked Brennevin. I tried it. The first time, the restaurant server said that the bartender expressed admiration for my courage in ordering it. The server remained to watch incredulously as our party drank it. Perhaps it says something about me that I should not reveal, but it was far from the worst thing I have ever drunk—grappas are way worse. My usual tourist practice is to buy a local alcohol at the duty-free store on the way home. This invariably makes its way to the back of the liquor cabinet after one drink has been consumed. This time, however, an unopened bottle of Brennivin has taken residence in the freezer. Will we ever drink it???

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

That Icelanders are obsessed with volcanoes is perfectly understandable because their land has so many of them. They were mentioned over and over by our guide. It is telling that in the recent, very good novel, Miss Iceland, by Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, each time the main character (named Hekla after a volcano) talks to her father, he discusses volcanoes and the likelihood of another eruption that he can watch.

Iceland has given the world many things: fish, meat, and wool; music, literature, and mystery series; movies and television shows; a famous chess match and an important summit. But perhaps its most infamous contribution has been volcanic schmutz. A volcano erupted in 2010 spewing ash into the atmosphere which spread over parts of Europe causing the shutdown of airplane traffic. The big one, however, was in 1783, when a volcano erupted for eight months pouring lava out of 135 fissures and craters that covered about 1,000 square miles. The eruption spewed a huge amount of ash into the air, ash that contained fluorine, poisoning animals, fields, and the ocean. A resulting famine killed a fifth of the Icelandic population.

The ash got into the upper atmosphere, absorbing sunlight and moisture, and changed the world’s climate. For the next several years, the Northern Hemisphere experienced ruinous droughts, exceptionally cold winters, and disastrous floods. The winter average temperatures in the eastern United States were seven degrees Fahrenheit colder than the subsequent two-century averages. Food shortages were widespread, including in France, perhaps promoting the French Revolution a half decade later. 

I did not see an active volcano, but the results of past eruptions are omnipresent—lava flows, lava rocks, and basalt can be seen on just about any drive.

The countryside

Hikes to and around volcanic craters were part of our trip as was a famous black sand beach of pulverized lava. At the black sand beach, we were repeatedly warned not to get close to the water for periodically a sudden large wave was possible, and similar ones have washed people out to sea. Signs at the beach reiterated the guide’s words saying that the beach had “sneaker waves.” The beach’s fame extends beyond Iceland. A photo shoot was going on there with people dressed in fantastical costumes that maybe were period pieces, but of no period I could identify. I asked one of the people involved in the activity what was going on and was told that they were Germans shooting a travel documentary. I still couldn’t make sense of it, and it seems highly unlikely that I will ever see the finished product.

Black sand beach
Photo shoot at the black sand beach

Iceland also has geysers that I assume are somehow connected to the volcanic activity (I’ve already admitted to my limited geological expertise). One puts to shame Yellowstone’s Old Faithful where I had to wait an hour for the spouting. The Icelandic one shoots up once–even twice–every two to four minutes. Quite a sight, but it made me a little sad as I was reminded of my earlier sex life.

Almost everywhere on the island are rock formations where, with a little imagination, you can see giant faces and little hideaways. It makes it easy to understand why Icelandic myth is filled with stories about trolls who turn to stone if they are caught out in daylight.

See any trolls or hideaways?

The geology that produces volcanoes also produces geothermal pools and other sources of natural hot water. We visited a geothermal plant where that water is used to drive turbines to generate electricity. The plant employees were proud of a pioneering effort to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, pump it down to the geothermal pools where it turns into calcite. In short, they’re turning CO2 into stone!

The geothermal hot water is also used to heat homes some 60+ miles away in Reykjavik. Then the still-warm water drains under streets and sidewalks to melt snow and ice. Iceland’s abundant streams and waterfalls are also used to generate electricity; not surprisingly, then, electricity is inexpensive. This has led to an incongruous industry: Even though it does not have bauxite and does not have much industry depending on the metal, Iceland is a leader in aluminum smelting, which requires a significant amount of electricity and abundant water. It was done in a narrow, non-descript building hundreds of yards long outside Reykjavik.

Not all Icelanders are pleased with the power lines and the industrial uses of the electricity. At least that is what is indicated by the excellent Icelandic movie, Woman at War (made in conjunction with Ukraine), in which a 49-year-old choir director with expert command of bow and arrow, sabotages power lines, including ones to that self-same aluminum smelting plant.

(to be continued)

Independent People on an Iceland Journey

          Iceland is that island on my map that is a little to the right of Greenland, a bit further to the left of Norway, and on a northwest diagonal from the Faroe Islands. (Until recently, I was not sure whether Iceland was east or west of Greenland, and I was unaware of the Faroes.) Two facts I heard over and over on my trip to Iceland is that it is located in the North Atlantic and that it is small, both physically and in population.

          Apparently because Americans (I am in this group) cannot readily understand land mass numbers—Iceland comprises 102,775 square kilometers, that is, 39,682 square miles—small countries are often compared to the size of some U.S. state. When I was in Israel, the comparison was to New Jersey, which surely was the foundation for a joke. The analogy I heard for Iceland was Ohio, which comprises 116,096 square kilometers.

          Americans also seem to want the physical size of a place given in driving terms. Iceland’s Route 1, known as the Ring Road, mostly circles the island, and it is 821 miles in length. The Ring Road was finished only in 1974; before that many parts of the country were effectively isolated from each other. It is now paved and in good shape. Considering how hard the winters and springs are supposed to be, I was surprised to see no potholes. Except in some cities where it is wider and for some one-lane bridges and tunnels, it has two lanes, and the speed limit is the equivalent of 55 mph. You can do the arithmetic to figure out how long it would take to drive the whole thing.

          The population of places in my experience is just given as a number without any American comparison. Iceland has about 370,000 inhabitants, but let’s give some U.S. numbers. Ohio has nearly 12 million people, and the greater Columbus area has over 2 million residents. Wyoming has the smallest population of the American states, and it has 576,000 residents (and it still gets two Senators.)

          Just the name Iceland implies a harsh climate, and that topic seems to play a role in every one of the eight or nine books I have read set in or about the country. While Iceland does have prominent glaciers, the climate’s harshness, on the one hand, is overstated. For example, in Reykjavik, which is in the southwest corner of the Island, the average high and low temperatures in January are 35 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. In Akureyri, the largest town in the north, they are 34 and 22 degrees. Much of the northern tier of the United States is colder. Where I grew up the average temperatures in January are 30 and 15 degrees, and Sheboygan is hardly the coldest place in the continental United States Iceland’s snowfall is also not spectacularly high compared to many places in the United States. Reykjavik averages 20 inches of snow in January, while Buffalo, New York, averages 27 inches. Even so, stories about towns isolated by snows are a common feature of Icelandic books. Snowblind, the first book in an excellent mystery story series by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates) is an example. I am guessing the isolation caused by snow results partly from the climate’s harshness but also from the sparsely settled landscape. Plowing the 800 miles of the Ring Road must take a bit of time.

          On the other hand, Iceland does not get very warm during the summer with average highs and lows in Reykjavik of 58 and 48 degrees in July. And on the third hand, Iceland, I am assured, feels colder than other places because of regular high winds. Icelanders seldom carry umbrellas because, I was told, the rain comes sideways, not vertically

          Iceland’s geology is another dominant topic. As I have confessed before, I have a block when it comes to learning geology, but I think I am doing better, partly because I went to a good Icelandic museum on volcanoes with outstanding interactive displays.

If I got this right, the distinctive geology has to do with tableware displays. Iceland is at the conjunction of two things I think are called textile dishes, although the one on the European side might be called the Teutonic plate. For some reason I don’t fully grasp, the table is slowly drifting apart, a centimeter or two each year. Perhaps it is because of the frequent earthquakes (100 a year). Or perhaps the earthquakes are caused by the drifting plates. Whatever. It must be for the same reason that the pictures on my wall regularly go out of skew.

You might think that the moving dishes and plates would cause them to fall off the table and smash into pieces, as no doubt—don’t pretend otherwise—has happened in your home. But no, the drifting allows stuff to come up from below, as if it were a dog in the cellar that darts through the opening when the door is opened. Apparently this dog comes up from the center of the earth, which only superheroes, Jules Verne, and trolls (there are many trolls in Iceland) have ever seen. That stuff I think is Magnum Bars, which I learned about on a trip to Turkey. A good treat, but then again, it may not be Magnum Bars since the stuff that’s oozing to the surface because of jiggling plates (perhaps they are spinning on rods like those frantic entertainers on the Ed Sullivan Show) is hot, not just warm, but hot, hot, hot, seriously hot. And when this hot stuff escapes to Iceland’s surface all sorts of things happen—most dramatically and significantly, volcanoes.

Volcanic eruptions are not one in a hundred-year events in Iceland. A volcano erupted without warning on an island just off the “mainland” in 1973. Luckily, the fishing fleet was in the harbor and safely evacuated 5,300 people. Seawater was sprayed onto the advancing lava flow to stop it from destroying the harbor. Another volcano did its thing in 2011, and yet another one erupted in 2014 for 180 days, which spewed large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the air, making it hard for many Icelanders to breathe. In 2021, a volcano near Reykjavik erupted attracting hundreds of thousands who hiked to watch it. In short, these eruptions happen with disturbing regularity.

(to be continued)

Guns and Insurrection

Tucker Carlson proclaimed that January 6, 2022, was not an insurrection because insurrectionists must be carrying guns. Apparently there is no reason to limit yourself to making up facts. Might as well create your own language and create your own definitions as well.

Two of my most easily accessible dictionaries define insurrection almost identically: “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority”; “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government.” A third, however, does mention weapons and defines an insurrection as “an act of rising in arms or open resistance against civil or established authority.” But that “or” bears notice. An insurrection can be armed, but open resistance, with or without guns, against civil authority is an insurrection. Let’s be clear: January 6 was an insurrection. Aldous Huxley had it right: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Underlying Carlson’s inanity, however, is an important observation. The January 6 insurrectionists were not openly armed, and it is here that more attention and respect should be paid to the gun safety laws in the District of Columbia. In the nation’s capital, firearms must be licensed and registered. Concealed carry requires a special license. Assault weapons are illegal. Extended magazines are illegal. Neither long guns nor handguns may be openly carried.

No doubt January 6 insurrectionists were aware of these restrictions. If they had openly carried guns as they went to hear Trump’s rants and to the Capitol, they could have expected that they would have been stopped by the police long before the Capitol was invaded. If they had openly carried their firearms, they might not have been able to commit their insurrection.

Imagine, however, if the law had allowed them to move about Washington openly carrying the weapons as they could have in many places in the United States. What do you think would have happened that day? What might the death toll have been?

In considering the events of January 6, we should be considering that the gun safety laws of Washington in all likelihood prevented deaths. In short, gun safety laws matter.

It is expected, however, that shortly the Supreme Court will render a decision creating a new right for people to carry guns into public spaces. The District of Columbia will no longer have its gun safety laws that prevented the open carrying of firearms. If that prediction turns out to be right, what will the next attempt to overthrow an election be like?

Gun Violence/Gun Safety (concluded)

          Even if we knew more about the warning signs for shootings, authorities can only take action if they are legally authorized to do so. That is where red flag laws (they go by different names in different places) come into play. These provisions allow police, family members, and others to petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from people whose behavior and statements indicate they present a danger to others or themselves. Although opinion polls indicate strong support for such laws, only about a dozen states have them. Perhaps surprisingly, Florida is one of them. Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has opposed such laws as an infringement of the Second Amendment, although I am aware of no court agreeing with them.

In a sensible world–unlike the U.S.–all would be trying to figure out the best possible red flag laws. The details of such provisions do matter, such as the standard of proof and the duration of the firearms’ removal. We should be studying the red flag laws that exist to see what insights they offer for future or amended laws, and we would also be seeing what we can learn from orders of protection in domestic disputes, which bear many similarities to red flag laws.

          Studies have shown that red flag laws have a positive effect on gun violence especially when it comes to suicides, but this aspect of the laws is important. The largest number of deaths by guns is not from mass shootings, other homicides, accidents, and certainly not from self-defense; they are from suicides. Red flag laws do not prevent all suicides or even most of them. Nevertheless, we should understand that no single reform can be expected to have a huge effect. Instead, we need many reforms each bringing an incremental decline in gun violence.

          Red flag laws highlight how much more we need to know about gun violence and gun safety. We are far behind where we could be in our knowledge because of the Dickey Amendment. A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control published in the early 1990s found that having a gun in the home was correlated with an increased risk of homicide. Those conclusions, of course, undermined the NRA message and the conclusion of the Supreme Court that guns are needed for protection and the defense of liberty. In response to that study, the NRA pushed what became known as the Dickey Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1996, it stated that CDC funds available for “injury prevention and control” could not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” Of course, while the offending study may have led reasonable people to think about gun control, the study did not advocate it. Even so, Congress not only passed the Dickey Amendment, it also reduced the CDC budget by the exact amount that the guns-in-the-home study had cost. The message became clear: no studies of guns by federal agencies if the agencies did not want their budgets slashed by Congress. (The Dickey Amendment was expanded to other government funding agencies in 2012.) However, in 2018, Congress accepted the interpretation of the Dickey Amendment by a Health and Human Services secretary; it voted to allow the government to fund and conduct research into gun violence that does not specifically advocate for gun control. The government now funds some of that research, but only at modest levels. Of course, in a sensible government, this research would have a high priority. The first defense of weak minds is to remain ignorant, and that has been the official stance of our government about gun violence. Perhaps that can be changed, but I am willing to bet few conservatives will stand against ignorance.

          Many of our politicians have lived in fear of the NRA. For example, the Colorado legislature a while ago passed gun safety measures. The NRA went to work and got recall elections against some of the supporters of the legislation. Stories like that scare politicians about the consequences of opposing the NRA. Even if the power of the NRA is waning because of its internal problems, many politicians pledge fealty to the Second Amendment and are concerned that they could lose in a primary to someone who is even more opposed to gun safety.

          The fear of that power needs to be broken if we are ever to advance towards sensible gun measures. Here’s my suggestion: Gun safety organizations should identify five or six legislative districts in each state that might be swing districts where the incumbent unthinkingly follows the NRA line. Time, money, and effort should be concentrated by the reformers on these relatively small number of elections. Gun safety advocates would not have to win all these elections to have an impact. If thirty or forty state legislative incumbents around the country lost their positions at least partly because they were allied with the NRA, the NRA would start to look less invincible. Only when legislators begin to think that they could lose their seats because of their opposition to gun safety measures supported by most American will the NRA’s hold on this country start to weaken.

          Mass shootings are (generally mistakenly) seen as an opportunity for gun safety reform, but there are other possibilities. As I have been working on this post, a man was arrested near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was exercising what many would see as his Second Amendment right to carry a pistol, but when he saw federal marshals outside the Justice’s house, he called a Maryland county emergency number and said that he was having suicidal thoughts, planned to kill a Justice, and had a firearm in his suitcase. While he was still on the phone, the police arrived and arrested him.

          This is, of course, akin to a red flag situation and highlights the need for such laws.

          Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said about the incident: “I call on leaders in both parties in Washington to strongly condemn these actions. It is vital to our constitutional system that the justices be able to carry out their duties without fear of violence against them and their families.”

          Of course, but it also should be vital to our society that schoolchildren, worshippers, shoppers, subway riders–all of us–be able to go about our lives without fear of violence against ourselves or our families. Condemning such potential violence is easy. Taking steps to try to prevent more of it seems to be beyond the ability of our elected representatives.

Gun Violence/Gun Safety

          The term “gun violence” misleads. There is not a single violence problem; there are several. Gun violence includes mass shootings, but the term should also refer to suicide by firearms, which takes more lives than homicides in this country. Urban shootings are also part of the violence as are family killings. It is important to recognize the different problems because the motivations for them vary. Important, too, to understand that different firearms are involved in the different settings. Because there are different problems, there can be no one solution or even one palliative for “gun violence.” We can, however, hope to have reforms that serve to decrease violence in a particular area. With enough incremental reforms a significant dent can be made in our national shame.

          A discussion of gun violence should recognize that there is a constitutional right “to keep and bear arms.”  The goal for those wishing to decrease gun violence should be to make it more likely guns are used safely rather than to take guns away from responsible people. A recent column by Nicholas Kristoff offers many sensible proposals. Opinion | These Gun Reforms Could Save 15,000 Lives. We Can Achieve Them. – The New York Times ( None of these possibilities is “the solution” to gun violence—there is no such thing. However, incremental improvements in gun safety can add up to a real difference. Increasing the age to buy assault rifles will not by itself make a huge difference in gun violence, but it may lessen gun deaths and injuries a little. Requiring all who buy guns to have background checks will not make a huge difference, but perhaps things will improve somewhat. Better  reporting of felony and domestic violence convictions will not make a huge difference, but it might help some. Limiting the size of magazines will not make a large difference, but perhaps some lives will be saved. If we make enough little changes, we might end up strides ahead of where we are now.

          Here’s my suggestion for an incremental improvement: Make it a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated. Of course, carrying a gun is not the same as using it, but even carrying one while drunk should be prohibited because the decision whether to use a carried firearm should not be made when a person is intoxicated. The consequences should be similar to drunken driving. Perhaps a first conviction would be a misdemeanor, but just as driving licenses are suspended for a period for a DUI, the right to possess guns would be suspended for a period, and all guns owned by the offender placed in police custody during that time. A second conviction would be a felony, and the person could no longer possess guns. . . and might even go to jail.

          Frequently after a car mishap, the driver gets tested for intoxication. The same should happen after gun accidents. Each year at least a few people are hurt or killed in hunting accidents when there has been too much drinking, and perhaps that problem can be lessened.

          Those who favor the status quo on gun violence often proclaim that new gun safety measures will not accomplish anything. Sometimes this is an act of misdirection. They might say, for example, that age restrictions on the purchase of an AR-15 will do little about urban gun violence because assault weapons are hardly ever the firearms used on city streets. The response should be–once again–that there is no single solution to gun violence, but that the different components of gun violence must be addressed in different ways to make incremental increases in safety in all the areas.

          Gun safety advocates need to shape the debate on the effectiveness of reform. Part of it might be mockery. Those of us who regularly read The Onion are familiar with its headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where It Regularly Happens.” But more data-driven responses should also be regularly presented, such as was done in the New York Times recently. The study indicated that up to a third of mass shootings might not have happened or could have been less deadly if simple reforms had been in place—such as universal background checks, no extended magazines, and no sale of guns, or at least assault weapons, to those under twenty-one. None of these would have removed guns from responsible people.

          A few days after a mass shooting, a story often appears telling us about the “warning signs” exhibited by the shooter missed by the “authorities” implying that the shooting could have, or perhaps should have, been prevented. In considering the “warning signs,” however, there is a hindsight bias. We know that the shooter has slaughtered many people, and that makes the missed warning signs seem especially egregious. But we need to evaluate “warning signs” before the violence, not after. Many people engage in the behavior that are called warning signs after a mass shooting and almost none of them become murderers. . We need to find the predicters of future gun violence. How often are the signs accurate? How often do they produce false positives? What are the responses that lessen the possibility of future violence? How often are such warning signs reported to law enforcement or other agencies? What resources does it take to respond? Where do the resources come from? What responses will politicians legally authorize? We need to know more.

(concluded June 10)