Mount Hekla is due to erupt any day now. Actually, the Icelandic volcano is supposed to erupt every 10 years, and hasn’t since 2000. If you’re vaguely recalling the Icelandic eruption that shut down European flights in 2010, that was Eyjafjallajokull, a glacier located on the Southern shores of the country. The aftermath of the eruption left many travelers stranded, but more importantly, forced the farmers affected by the destruction to start from scratch. Faced with months of work, the farmers revised their previous setup to create an even more effective system, preparing themselves for the next event. Moreover, they didn’t waste time dwelling on the bleak ash clouds or the stress on their families. They began fixing what they could, and moving on when it was necessary. Ironically, the outstanding amount of ash and lava rejuvenated the soil, resulting in an extraordinary harvest.
This past May, I spent two weeks in Iceland, assisting a college study abroad group. Our first week was spent in the capital city, Reykjavík, while the second week, which focused on the country’s geology, was spent on the southern shores. Towards the end of our trip, a guide drove us down a long, remote road, eventually stopping at a small pull off. To our right was Mount Hekla, “breathing” as the locals call it. It stuck out immediately, covered in ice, against its surrounding mountains of brown and green. Our guide, Þorar, explained that our location was as close as we could be to Hekla, and we were rather far. Warning signs had recently been installed, explaining that travelers were not permitted to be any closer. He also added, in that dark brand of Icelandic humor, that anything could happen at that moment. The present never felt so real, and while I probably should have been filled with a sense of dread and worry, I couldn’t help but marvel at the symbolic creature I was so close to.
As humans, we sometimes fall into the pattern of believing we are invincible— it’s easy to forget that a volcano could change our flight plans at the drop of a hat. Spending time in Iceland forces the mind to acknowledge these possibilities. I was having my Ishmael moment, faced head on with the acceptance of my environment holding power over us completely. Many of our excursions were perpetually educational, as every natural attraction linked back to the ever changing environment. Understanding the power that lies beneath Hekla and her fellow volcanoes is crucial. Within the study abroad group, the sense of calm was humbling, as we savored the peaceful manner of Hekla. I am typically an anxious person, but being physically close to the possibility of destruction taught me the importance of the present.
Iceland is known for its beauty, but underneath the mossy green hues and towering mountains lies the Atlantic Ridge. In turn, the country is slowly spreading apart, adding another layer of reality to the country’s culture. Icelandmag recently reported, “The rate of spreading along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge averages about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) per year, or 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) in a million years.” Which really means, the Iceland I have visited will not be the same Iceland my grandchildren will (hopefully) visit.
Realizing my own ability to function calmly in the active country, I noticed the constant ease that the Icelanders display. Unless our group inquired about the possibility of an eruption, locals never mentioned it. Icelanders have an admirable respect for their country, and children go through school learning about the volcanoes and geology of their home. Stefan, the operations manager at Midgard Base Camp, shed some light on the realistic approach the Icelanders use: “The eruption is usually not the problem, it’s more about the consequences. Ash and lava is not a problem. But some of the volcanoes (Katla for example) is covered with a thick layer of ice (500 meters) which can cause a big flooding. So there are evacuation plans in place for all the houses, farms and villages involved … So yeah, we do focus on what is happening right now, not worrying about problems that might arise, but still being ready for everything coming up.”
Of course, I don’t believe that my anxiety is completely gone. In fact, it became very central on the flight back from Iceland, when we hit a bit of turbulence. However, my experience in the country allowed me the opportunity to step back from my day to day fears, and placed me in the forefront of a separate culture’s much more pertinent fears. Examining their continual push forward, and the appreciation of their current blessings, was a blessing to observe. The Icelanders have a powerful, two word saying that I continually remind myself of: “þetta reddast,” or “everything will be okay.”
Photo by Milan Nykodym, CC BY-SA 2.0