Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Faraway Nearby

Last June, on my way to Iceland for the 17th time, I read a luminous essay, "Summer in the Far North," in the magazine Mother Jones. It began, "One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds."

The writer, Rebecca Solnit, loved the birds, especially the arctic terns: "The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting." She wove a story out of these birds, who migrate from the Arctic to the Antarctic each year, living their entire lives in light.

She contrasted them to herself, finding she could not live without darkness--of which there is none, naturally, in Iceland in the summertime. Fleeing the midnight sun, Solnit found darkness in an art museum, in an installation by a young Icelandic artist, "a zigzag route of Sheetrock" that allowed in only slivers of light. Inside "Path" by Elín Hansdóttir--essentially a box inside the box of the building--Solnit could riff on "empathy." Her essay ends: "Few if any of us will travel like arctic terns in endless light, but in the dark we find ourselves and each other, if we reach out, if we keep going, if we listen, if we go deeper."

I was intrigued. Solnit was so evocative writing about Iceland's birds, I wondered what she'd say about the "strangers." I clicked on the link, "Buy this Book," The Faraway Nearby, from which the essay was excerpted. It arrived while I was in Iceland and sat on my "to read" shelf for several months, as I began writing a new book myself, one inspired by that light-filled trip to Iceland (#17) last June, a book that brought me back to Iceland for trip #18 in dark and gray November.

In early December, missing Iceland, I opened Solnit's book. I wanted a book about light and darkness and arctic terns and Icelanders. What I got was a book about a mother with Alzheimer's, a failed romance, a breast cancer diagnosis, fairy tales and Frankenstein, tale-telling in general, a heap of rotting apricots, Che Guevara, the Marquis de Sade, Peter Freuchen, Buddhism...

A reviewer for the New York Times (see, whom I did not consult until after I'd finished The Faraway Nearby and was still wondering what it was "about," explains that "Creating links between seemingly disparate ideas is Solnit's gift, her stock in trade. It's what gives her writing its eccentricity, its spirit and frenetic energy. This worked well in her popular 2005 book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which explored all that the unknown had to offer." The reviewer implies that it does not work so well in The Faraway Nearby. I'm not so sure. That heap of rotting apricots was quite thought-provoking. I liked the "wild mash-ups," as the reviewer named them, of, for example, Narnia and the Chinese artist Wu Daozi and Easter Island and the Road Runner cartoons.

What disappointed me was that Rebecca Solnit never really went to Iceland. Sure, she resided on the island for a time. But her "Iceland" is not my Iceland. She didn't meet any Icelanders.

Solnit was the first international writer-in-residence at an art museum in Stykkishólmur called the Library of Water. She writes:

I wandered around my temporary home on this island shaped like a heart, the volatile ice-covered heart that occasionally beat, with lava, boiling water, and steam in its veins. The farthest point I could reach on foot was Helgafell, the sugarloaf hill around which stories were wrapped like clouds, and where Gudrun Osvifursdottir was buried a thousand years before, the proud woman at the center of the Laxdaela Saga and all its slaughter and loss.

Once a farmer who spoke only Icelandic gave me a ride back from Helgafell in a rain; and cashiers spoke brusquely to me about money in the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit den that was the chain supermarket; and there was a librarian with some responsibility for the Library of Water who provided practical aid every now and again. Otherwise no one spoke to me because Iceland was not good at strangers ...

Helgafell, as I've written before on this blog, is my "thin place." See

In my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color, I described how a visit to Helgafell had inspired me to write; an excerpt is here:

I can guess who the "farmer who spoke only Icelandic" might be who gave Solnit a ride, since I have been friends with the farmer at Helgafell (who speaks only Icelandic) for 27 years. It's something he would do. If she had tried a few words of Icelandic on him--even the few words she includes here in her book, "Gudrun Osvifursdottir" and "Laxdaela Saga"--he would have tried to speak with her. I know, because I did that and he spoke with me.

I walked up to the door at Helgafell in 1986, knocked and said, "Snorri Godi, here?" I was greeted with a warm handshake and invited in for coffee. My husband waved his binoculars and said, "Hrafn" (Raven). Through some combination of English, Icelandic, and hand-waving, he conveyed to the family that had clustered around us that he had found a raven's nest on the side of the hill. Turns out the mother had been looking for that nest. After coffee and cakes, we took a field trip to see it. We were invited to stay for dinner (fresh trout from their lake) and to set up our tent in the yard. The family called up the local English teacher to come translate.

I decided right then to learn Icelandic so that I could speak to this remarkable family. But they are not the only Icelanders I've met who are "good at strangers."

A few days later, I got off a ferry in the driving rain and was struggling into my rainsuit when a car stopped and a stranger approached me. She knew a little English. "You look cold," she said. "Would you like coffee?" She motioned for us to follow the full car to a yellow house and, instead of birdwatching in the rain, we spent the afternoon warm and snug and well-fed, "talking" about birds with another large, extended family who spoke little or no English.

In 1992, I took the same ferry to the same island and knocked on the door of the yellow house. Our hostess was not there--turns out she shared this summerhouse with 13 siblings--but we were welcomed in and fed, regardless. That afternoon being sunny, a young nephew (who did speak English) offered to take us out in his small boat to see a colony of guillemots that nested on a nearby islet.

I have been to Iceland, as I said, 18 times--the 19th trip is already scheduled. I have never met a cold Icelander, an Icelander "not good at strangers." What I have met are the warmest and most hospitable people I can imagine. People who will not accept a gift without giving one in return. People who have piled gifts upon me--of food, of comfort, of stories, of adventures--that I can never repay except, I hope, by writing about them and the larger gifts Icelanders over the centuries have given to the world.

According to the New York Times, Rebecca Solnit's book is "loosely about storytelling." It's too bad she didn't discover the best and most influential storytellers in the world, the medieval Icelanders like Snorri Sturluson who gave us Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas.

In Song of the Vikings, my biography of Snorri, I list some writers Iceland has inspired:

Thomas Gray, William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Henrik Ibsen, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Alice Munro, Ivan Doig, Michael Chabon, and Neil Gaiman.

Through Tolkien, Snorri has inspired dozens of writers of fantasy, including Douglas Adams, Lloyd Alexander, Poul Anderson, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Lester del Rey, J.V. Jones, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, and J.K. Rowling.

These writers are just a beginning. There are many, many more--every day, I find more--Rebecca Solnit among them.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer (on my 19th trip), check out the tours at

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of our trip from Reyjavik to Akranes. We had rented a car and were almost to the 7 km tunnel when I looked at the gas gauge and shrieked at my husband, "Were on empty! Don't you dare go into that tunnel!" We couldn't remember seeing a gas station since leaving Reyjavik. We did, however, see a lonely looking farmhouse down a winding drive. My husband wondered if the farmer had a gas can? Anyway, we drove to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. A man who couldn't speak English answered and recognized the word "Canada". He called for his daughter or granddaughter. She translated for us. She told us to follow the farmer's truck back 5 km to the nearest gas station. We did. The farmer kept going, supposedly taking the opportunity to run some errands. Of course, when we got to the gas station my husband began putting regular fuel in the rental car instead of diesel! Thankfully, he corrected that before damaging the engine! Anyway, we never got to thank the farmer, something we hope to do on our next visit:) We found everyone, strangers and relatives, to be kind and generous and helpful.