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28 June 2007 @ 12:26 pm
Iceland: Þingvellir and Þingvallavatn  
The predicted high in Tucson today is around 109F/43C. Clearly, a good day for hanging laundry.

I find that after two weeks of observing another landscape, my own stands out in sharp relief as well, the habit of observing still there. The bright moon, the bright glow of sunset clouds, the warm night air. My home is an enchanted place, too.

June 11

(Photos here.)

Our last trip to Iceland, five years ago, we got around the island almost entirely by bus. We enjoyed travelling by bus, and we'd hoped to do that again this time, but as we looked at the places we wanted to go, we realized that wasn't quite going to work.

So Monday morning, we packed up our backpacks, and took the local city bus down to the Reykjavík airport to pick up our car. A new car, as it turns out, with only 94 km on it. Given all the miles we planned to put on it, and the unpaved roads we planned to drive, we secretly wondered at the wisdom of giving us this vehicle, but said nothing. Later, we would realize that of course Icelanders know a rental car will be driving dusty, gravelly roads and pick up a bit of dirt--the only way to avoid doing so would have been to stay in Reykjavík.

We headed for the ring road (Iceland's main road, which circles the island, then turned off toward Þingvellir and (Lake) Þingvallavatn. We had our choice of campsites--several near the visitor's center, and one right one the lake. We went for the one right on the lake, of course, and pitched our tent. The lake--Iceland's largest lake--stretched out before us, and a grassy, mossy heath slowly rose and fell all around. Dark gray and black volcanic hills edged much of the horizon, their upper slopes still white with snow. Across the lake, what looked like clouds rose from a gray hill--only as the day went on and the clouds cleared, it became clear that it wasn't clouds, but steam we looked at, rising from beneath the earth's crust.

It's not uncommon, in Iceland, to be driving along and see steam rising from some random spot in the ground, actually. And steam and clouds do look a lot alike.

Only what clouds there were that day cleared off by mid afternoon, leaving us with a startling deep blue cloudless sky that turned the lake deep blue as well. Not the weather we were expecting--but we were camping, so we were hardly going to complain.

Truly, this was one of the loveliest spots I've camped ever. And we were the only tent there.

It was hard to pull away, but after a peanut butter and jelly lunch, we headed up the road toward Þingvellir.

Þingvellir is interesting for two reasons. One is that for hundreds of years, since 930, it was the site of Iceland's Alþing, the oldest parliament in the world--and as such, also the site of numerous saga age events and battles. The other is that it's located in a rift valley, along the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and European plates meet--meaning that the earth is, literally, pulling apart beneath your feet there, by an average of 2 cm per year.

It's also one of the few places in the world I'd ever stood--during my first visit to Iceland--and known, really known, that I stood in a place of power. And--maybe because of that power--it's the place where I wrote the opening of the novel I'm working on now.

The geology is the first thing one notices at Þingvellir. One walks along paths between walls of blocky gray rock, and one can almost see how those walls of rock must have once fit together. There's a consistent pattern here--a vertical rock wall to the west, a slumped rock wall a few feet away to the east--slumped because it fell away at an angle. The rifting doesn't just happen in one place; rather, it's a pattern that repeats, over and over, throughout the area. Standing out on the plain, you can look off into the distance, and see ridge upon ridge of those gray rock walls.

The rifting also doesn't only happen on a large scale, either. Looking at the ground beneath my feet, in places there were small cracks, and large ones. There were gorges and cracks of all sizes, really, from those large enough to walk through to those only as wide as my finger. Water runs through some of the cracks, much of it from the Öxará [River].

One very much gets the sense, here, that the land is pulling apart. Stand at Þingvellir long enough, and you can't help but understand that geology, that the restless motion of the earth, is real.

As for the Alþing, one can see one of the sights where the parliament's law rock might have been. Most of the package tours seem to spend time only there. The tourists listen with glazed looks to a canned history speech, make appreciative sounds as they look down into a single gorge and listen to a canned geology speech, and in a half hour, they're gone.

Which means they also don't see the remains of the old booths from the Alþing. These were pointed out to us by the park guide, Kristín, who gave us a brief tour of the grounds when we first arrived. Many of them look like simple depressions in the ground, but those depressions are actually the remains of sunken floors and low turf walls, which would be covered over by the various families who owned them when the Alþing met each year, like a sort of turf platform tent.

This was our first introduction to the ruins of turf structures, actually. There's a rise or fall in the land, overgrown with grass, and it seems almost natural--until you realize it doesn't quite fit with the surrounding land. If you don't know what to look for, you can walk past turf ruins and have no idea what you've seen, because they blend back into the land from which they were built.

I also asked our tour guide what she thought of Hallgerður (of the bowstring incident), a question I would irregularly ask others throughout the trip. She hesitated, then told me Hallgerður was a "great woman," like other women in the sagas, and gave me an Icelandic word for that that I don't remember. (hildigunnur? theloa? Do either of you have any idea what word this might be?) I got the sense she meant great not in the sense of good or virtuous, but in the sense of formidable--formidable in a larger than life sort of way--but I'm not entirely sure about that, either.

Needless to say, we spent far more than a half hour at Þingvellir, lingering and exploring for hours after our short tour.

As for the power I felt at the place last time--I didn't feel it in quite so powerful away this time as last. But I did feel a sort of stomach clenching uneasiness as a walked over the solid--the ultimately unstable--earth.

But only to the south. When I walked north, around to Öxaráfoss [Waterfall] (and beyond where the Alþing met), I felt something else--a sort of lightness and joy. If the land has power there, it has many sorts of power. I watched water send shock waves of spray into the air, took my shoes off and splashed around, listened as a visitor sat playing a small drum and singing in a language I didn't understand, the waterfall too loud for me to make out what language it was.

South of the waterfall, we also visited Drekkingarhylur, the drowning pool, where women convicted of capital crimes were killed, and the southern edge of the pool looked, as it reflected the light, just a little like blood. (Women sentenced to death were drowned; men were beheaded; sorcerers were burned regardless of gender--until the 19th century, when Iceland abolished capital punishment entirely.)

That evening we discovered the fuel for our camp stove didn't fit said stove, so had a meal of lake-caught trout, vegetables, and small potatoes (ubiquitous in Iceland) at the local hotel restaurant instead. Then we returned to our tent at the edge of said lake.

I lay back and looked up at the perfect blue sky, felt the green springy earth beneath my back. I sat leaning against what might have been the ruins of another booth. [But which we later learned were actually the ruins of a farmhouse.] I sat by the lake, too, watched the black-capped arctic terns hover over the water, wings flapping, making neat little head-first dives into the water when they found something they wanted to eat. The sound of bird calls was everywhere. The night sun cast a bright glittering path over the water.

A few picnickers arrived for dinner and left. Fishers arrived and stayed, silently wading out into the lake, taking advantage of the extended northern twilight.

But other than those fishers, there was no one there but us.
 
 
 
Jam: danaus plexiglas var. monkeywitzjamiam on June 28th, 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
Larry's showing a little of the old 5 o'clock shadow, there.

this is my favorite picture so far.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 07:56 pm (UTC)
Given the long days, I think it's an 8 o'clock shadow in Iceland. ;-)

It was a lovely, lovely campsite. Five years ago, someone told me he did some of the best camping of his life there, and I can see why. (His saying so of course made me want to camp there, too!)
Jam: danaus plexiglas var. monkeywitzjamiam on June 28th, 2007 07:59 pm (UTC)
It's all big and empty.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
Not many trees, once you get outside of Reykjavík and the reforestation projects there. (We later walked through the botanical gardens in Reykjavík, and seeing trees branching overhead felt very, very strange after a week and a half outside of the city.)

The sense of space there is, in some ways, not unlike that in the Sonoran desert--except, of course, that the land itself is very very different.
some guy named Larry: grinlnhammer on June 28th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)
Shaving's not exactly a priority, when you're camping. I think I managed to get smooth-chinned three times, the whole trip.

---L.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
Isn't not having to shave one of the perks of camping? :-)
Loup Noirloupnoir on June 28th, 2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
It's also one of the few places in the world I'd ever stood--during my first visit to Iceland--and known, really known, that I stood in a place of power. And--maybe because of that power--it's the place where I wrote the opening of the novel I'm working on now.

This sent a shiver of pure delight through me. When you're ready to share, I volunteer to be a first reader for you.

Places of true power are rare. The hill of Dalriada in Scotland chilled me and a humble barn cum church in France filled me with peace. When you open yourself to such places and take in their wealth, either madness or creativity, which can be one and the same, take hold.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 07:59 pm (UTC)
I think Þingvellir was where I learned to open myself to such places. My first visit--didn't change my life in any big way, but it did work a subtle change, nonetheless.

Cahokia Mounds, in Illinois (which I visited long before Iceland, actually) is another place that felt like a place of power--those two places are kind of linked in my mind, as the two places I've felt that power most strongly.
probably pining for the fjords: éghildigunnur on June 28th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
Do she use the word skörungur or kvenskörungur? You come close to the meaning of it but if we want to get down to pure dictionary definitions, then it would be something like capable and vigorous. (Skörungur is also the Icelandic a poker - for a fireplace).
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC)
Kvenskörungur sounds close, yes. It was a word I got the impression was considered to apply to many of the saga women.

She kind of held out her arms in front of her, almost as if to say she was a large (larger than life?) woman, not physically, but in terms of her presence in the world.
Ástatheloa on June 29th, 2007 12:19 am (UTC)
Kvenskörungur var my first impulse as well. She was that if anything.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 29th, 2007 12:31 am (UTC)
That does sound like it could be what I remember hearing.

So what's your opinion of Hallgerður? (If you're willing to answer--no obligation, of course!)

(What's been interesting to me is, men and women do in fact seem to have different sorts of answers to this question, at least based on my very limited sampling.)
al_zorraal_zorra on June 28th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
The photos are spectacular. Thank you for posting them.

Looking foreward to more.

Love, C.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC)
Glad you're enjoying them! :-)
Angela L. Foxazang on June 28th, 2007 10:37 pm (UTC)
Sounds so wonderful, thank you for sharing.
The pics are glorious! I really enjoyed them, thanks!
I see you chose flicker. I know that you can make notations in flicker and people can comment on your pics too.
The digital scrapbooking I was talking about was making layouts that look like traditional paper scrapbook pages, but they are done all digitally. Then you can print them out on photo paper and put them into a scrapbook. But if you've looked through the site I sent you, you've already seen that. If you go to the gallery, you can see examples of digi scrapping.
Neat trip!
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 28th, 2007 11:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think I was looking for more of an organizer than a scrapbook, I realized--as it is, it's going to take me a long time to organize all the pictures! :-)
Angela L. Foxazang on June 28th, 2007 11:45 pm (UTC)
I just use my windows picture folder to organize my photos. But, I have Adobe Photoshop Elements, and I think there is an organizer in that too. I love that program. It's about $80, but sometimes Costco give a $20 off coupon for it. When they offer one again, I'm upgrading to version 5.
nugirlontheblok on June 29th, 2007 12:35 am (UTC)
Lovely pics- looks like quite an enchanted place :)
littlebirdblue on June 29th, 2007 05:37 am (UTC)
I'll add to the chorus; 'lovely photos, Janni...'

But seriously.
alfreda89alfreda89 on June 29th, 2007 06:35 am (UTC)
Of course,
I double-check the stuff on the saga first, to make sure I've read it, before looking at the pics! It seems very magical to me -- reminds me of my first visit to a place of basalt, and learning about gabbro and granite, and how they all fit together.

Friends leave for Yellowstone at dawn, and I envy them -- I love the springs there!
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 29th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Of course,
Yellowstone is nifty. (And creepy--sometimes the geothermal activity eats away at the pavement; sometimes trees die in random places because things shift and soil that was once at low enough a temperature to grow in isn't anymore.)

And the Grand Tetons are amozing.
alfreda89alfreda89 on June 30th, 2007 04:59 am (UTC)
Re: Of course,
And the Grand Tetons are amozing.

Stunning.

And you have new, cool icons!
(Deleted comment)
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Öxaráfossjanni on June 29th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
Já.