Thursday, 19 December 2013

Iceland and Imagination

Iceland and Imagination

A glimpse of the aurora borealis. Kirkjufell, Iceland. 2013.

Gleðileg jól og gleðilegt nýtt ár!

In the spirit of this season of ice, miracles and storytelling, I'd like to share some of the magic I found in Iceland this autumn.

The eery photograph above was a bit of a miracle in itself. It was taken in the middle of the night on the Snæfellsnes Penninsular, western Iceland. I left my camera on it's tripod, set the time lapse shutter and stayed inside, afraid of the dark for the first time in years. I have digitally adjusted the exposure here so it might be hard to imagine the kind of darkness I'm talking about, but it was the darkest night I had ever seen. I didn't see the photo until I was back in Geneva, sorting through my files.

I think sometimes we seek out what scares us, consciously or unconsciously, to see if the fear is too intense or something we can work through. This photograph stands as a beautiful reminder to me that if I'd stayed outside that night, I might have seen the glowing green embers of the aurora borealis. Perhaps it taught me this too: that if we can be a bit braver when faced with the unknown there might be gifts waiting for us.

Southern Iceland. 2013.

It had been a while since I'd traveled alone to a new place but when my boss gave me an unprecedented two weeks off it felt like time for an adventure. I set my mind to travel destinations. I knew I wanted to see autumn colours so thought of Canada, Japan, the Yellow Mountains of China, but in the end it was Iceland that won me over: an island where legends of trolls and elves grow alongside volcanoes and glaciers.

Reykjavik. Iceland, 2013.

I spent one night in Reykjavik, the small capital city, before hiring a car from the cheapest car rental company I could find, SADcars. The car they gave me was a bit of an old banger, the speedometer stopped working for a while and at one point I had to be rescued from a ditch by two Russian ladies in a snow storm, but overall it was smooth sailing. I recommend them if you're heading to Iceland any time soon and looking for a cheap way to get around the island. 

As I drove away from the capital, it soon became clear why Iceland had inspired imaginations over the centuries. There was a powerful rawness to the island that made me wonder what was at work beneath it all, geologically and spiritually. 

Everyone I spoke to in Iceland seemed very at home with the folklore and legends of the island. There seemed to be a solid kind of respect, or at least consideration, for the supernatural amidst the natural. Moreover, the legends and myths seemed to me to serve a very practical function too. For example, the trolls that lived in caves behind waterfalls seemed like a very clever way to keep kids from wandering into slippery, dangerous crevices. 

Here the famous Troll Woman of Troll Woman's Gorge was said to have hid from bells ringing in a nearby town.

Legend has it that these rocks at Vik, on the southernmost tip of Iceland, were once trolls who did not return to their cave before daybreak. As beautiful as they look in this photo, set back from black sand beaches, these rocks also sit on a coastline of dangerous tides and undercurrents. These shores have endangered swimmers and sailors alike throughout history. Best avoided.

Dangers aside, some things were simply left to the imagination. Perhaps the most magical things I saw in Iceland were these faces in the rocks by the falls, watching the water cascade down the hillside. Can you see them? There are three. There is one here in the foreground, in profile, on the side of this outcrop of rock. Now look to the left of the waterfall. Look for noses!

Faces in the falls, Skogarfoss. Iceland, 2013.

It was hard not to wonder how strange holes had appeared at the top of mountain ridges.

Or question what made the mountains glow so ethereally at dawn.

In general, the light in the skies at dusk and dawn in southern Iceland was incredible. It felt as though the sky wanted to throw up every colour possible before giving up for the night.

Vik, southern Iceland. 2013.

If the skies weren't filled with strange light, they were filled daily with wild geese migrating in incredible V formations.

Wild Geese, Iceland. 2013.

These geese reminded me of Mary Oliver's great poem, 'Wild Geese'. You can read the whole poem here if you like. Her line 'the world offers itself to your imagination' has always struck a chord with me.

the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The world does offer itself to our imaginations, every day, but most days there's not enough time to notice it doing so. Life and work don't often allow such a luxury. I made a deal with myself when I left Geneva for Iceland: I promised myself I'd let my imagination roam free. As I packed for the trip, I realized that up to that moment I had written creatively almost every day for just over twenty months. I had been offering my imagination to my work non-stop for almost two years. My brain ached a bit just thinking about it. 

I often think of what one of my favourite authors, Amitav Ghosh says in this interview at Untitled Books:

"For me, home is my desk," says Amitav Ghosh, pouring himself Earl Grey tea from an elegant silver pot. "I go to my desk at about nine in the morning and I write till mid-afternoon. I mean it's the only thing I do - I go to my desk and work. Writing is home for me."

Cups of tea (served from a slightly less elegant and slightly less silver pot) and a writing desk have formed a sort of home in my life too. 

With any kind of writing there is a homing process: a grounding, a rooting, a planting of thought. I've realized recently that writing is a home I can carry with me wherever I go, a proverbial home-writing desk I can set up anywhere. This was a great realization, especially as I've worked away from my home country for two years now. But when I left my writing desk for Iceland, I really needed to leave it behind, just as we sometimes need to leave our homes for a while, to see them with fresh eyes and a new perspective. 

Investing in some new camera lenses and letting the world offer itself to my imagination seemed like the perfect way to do this.

A Tale of Two Crows

One morning I woke up and climbed the fell behind the cabin I was staying in on Kirkjufell to look out over the Atlantic to the west, the snow-topped volcanoes to the south, and the fjords to the east. 

Looking west towards the Atlantic. The cabin I was staying at is just visible, the red roof by the lake. 

One of the best things about Iceland in autumn is that the sun rises so late, you don't have to wake early to catch the sunrise. The sun was just rising and the peaks opposite me were tipped with a pink glow as I reached the summit of Kirkjufell. I was completely alone, except for two black crows. The crows flew across the sky and circled back to the fell where I sat.

Later that day I set off to a small hill called Helgafell, where local legend has it that if you visit the grave of an old witch woman called Helga, you can climb the fell and make three wishes. You mustn't look back or talk to anyone until you reach the summit, where you must speak your wishes to the east and never tell a soul what there were. So I found the church, I climbed the hill and I made my wishes. 
It was so windy, I had to shout them, but moments after I had, two black crows appeared from nowhere, rising gently in the buffeting wind, like messengers carrying my wishes away. 

The next day, over one hundred kilometres away, I saw two more black crows taking off and crossing the road in front of me.

I was curious and looked into what black crows symbolize in the spiritual world. They are often associated with bad omens and decay, but actually they have been somewhat misunderstood. There is an old rhyme, 'one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy' and I also found out that crows mate for life; they represent partnership. Another interpretation saw the crow as a sign of awakening to a magical world. The crow acts as a messenger, reminding us to be present, to wake up, to open our minds. I liked this interpretation best. 

More than anything, I liked how I had taken the time to notice what the world was offering my imagination. These days I smile every time I see a crow. I'm wondering how my wishes are getting on. 

Jon the Icelander

Jon, the owner of the farm I found on airbnb in southern Iceland, was very aware of the hold imagination had on people in the more rural parts of his country. With a population of around 300, 000 people in a country of just over 100, 000 square kilometres, humans can be few and far between. Halldór Laxness, the famous Icelandic author wrote about the fierce independence of the Icelandic people in his somewhat gruelling novel, Independent People, or Sjálfstætt fólk as it is called in Icelandic. It was a good insight into the historical island mentality, hardened by harsh weather, frightening unknowns beyond the front door and a need to be independent. Though Laxness wrote Sjálfstætt fólk in 1934, a sense of that resilience is still tangible now in 2013, especially following the country's economic crisis.

Jon said that in the quiet and space of the Icelandic countryside, imagination ran wild. He told me that there were certain places and stones his grandparents had taught him to respect as a child. He told stories about an undefined spirit world that lay just beneath the surface of every day life, encouraged by the silence and stillness of the nature surrounding the small pockets of civilization on the island. One day he had been farming up in the hills and had felt the need to search for something. He didn't know what he was looking for, only felt the desire to find it, and after a while he came across a stone in which was carved a woman's name, dated to the turn of the twentieth century.

Jon's valley, near Vik, southern Iceland. 2013.

When I told Jon I was a writer, he told me his grandfather was the poet Tómas Guðmundsson, othewise known as the Reykjavik Poet. He had gone to school with Laxness and there is a statue of him in Iceland's capital, sitting on a bench, watching the world go by. You can see him here, and read a bit about Iceland's literary culture in this BBC article, Iceland: where 1 in 10 people will publish a book.

I couldn't believe my luck. Of all the places I could have found to stay in southern Iceland, I had unknowingly chosen the farm of a poet. 

Jon's Farm

Talking to Jon was so interesting. He made me realize how little I had ever had to fear from my natural surroundings. In his lifetime he had seen two volcanoes erupt and cause devastation to his surrounding area. His family lives in the shadow of a dormant volcano and he knows that there may come a day when their farm and their lives will be endangered.
This didn't seem to worry him too much though. Instead he spoke with patience and respect, as though the land around him was young and growing, stretching itself like an adolescent lion, learning it's strength. It was quite remarkable. 

On my second night with Jon and another guest, Izzy from Canada, we stayed up and waited to see the lights. 'I think they will come tonight,' he said, nodding and glancing at the darkness outside. Sadly they didn't come, but there was half a moon, and stars so bright they seemed to swell in the darkness.

The moon. Iceland, 2013.

Jon's land backed away from the ocean, up towards an abandoned cave in which Izzy and I found strange holes where hearths might once have been and a gorge filled with silently swooping arctic terns.

Izzy watching arctic terns.

Izzy had a great imagination, and as we shared a few moments together in southern Iceland she helped me remember how important it is to be open when meeting new people. That way strangers can become friends. 

There were friends in the rocks on Jon's land too. Can you see him? He's wearing a hat.

An Icy Land

I had always tried to imagine what Iceland looked like. It's name precedes it, but nothing could have prepared me for my first view of the island as the plane flew over from Copenhagen. A snow-capped volcano sat beside an enormous glacier which filtered into green rivers heading down to a coastline of black beach. Behind this, a brilliant white massif of glacial ice backed into the clouds. 

I decided early on that I couldn't go all the way to Iceland without seeing as much ice as possible so when I had the chance, I drove 150km east from Jon's farm to Jökulsárlón, where bright blue icebergs break away from glaciers and head down towards the sea. 

It was the first time I had ever seen icebergs and I watched them for hours. It's such a pleasure to share them here.

When they reached the sea, the icebergs scattered along the black sand beaches like abandoned ships, sometimes taking incredible forms.

Jökulsárlón, Icleand. 2013.

Between Jökulsárlón and Vik, glaciers crept down from snowy massifs to the level of the road. I could walk to them and stand right in front of them.

The rivers that weren't frozen were pouring into incredible waterfalls, or foss as they are called in Icelandic. Here is the magnificent Gullfoss.

Gullfoss. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland. 2013.

Between bright green lava fields and mountains there were bleached white grass plains, where the cleanest sheep I have ever seen grazed.

Curly kindred spirit. Iceland, 2013.

It's hard to imagine how a landscape can change so much within the space of fifty killometres, but as bright green mossy lava fields transformed into autumnal grasslands and then into snowy peaks, it did.


Bless is the Icelandic word for goodbye. I've heard the summer is incredible in Iceland, so I hope to go back one day. Apparently between June and August the sun never stops shining and temperatures are warm enough to camp out beneath the clear night skies. Also the migratory animals would be there, the puffins and the whales. 

I will always look at that glimpse of the aurora borealis caught by my camera and remember a country that so effortlessly offered itself to my imagination. If you can visit once in your lifetime, I wish you a beautiful trip. 

But most of all, I hope you allow the world to offer itself to your imagination at this festive time and wish you joy and peace this coming new year.

Sunrise. Iceland, 2013.


  1. You are such a dream, Helen! Wonderful photos and great stories x

  2. Fantastic. You share Iceland with us all so effectively through your stunning photographs and beautiful, well-chosen words. I'm so pleased you were able to really connect with your imagination there, and hopefully this magical place will continue to inspire you, both in Real Life and in your creative endeavours. xx