Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fiske Collection at Cornell

Earlier this week the president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, traveled to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to present the Order of the Falcon, one of Iceland's highest honors, to a librarian.

Why? The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is one of the three largest collections of books on Icelandic literature and civilization in the world (the other two are in Reykjavik and Copenhagen), and its librarian, Patrick Stevens, has been very active not only in preserving the collection and making it accessible, but also in greatly increasing it.

Cornell's first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske, was a friend of Iceland. Upon his death in 1904 he bequeathed the university a collection of books now valued at over $30 million. Since then, the Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size. It contains the largest selection of books in America by modern Icelandic authors and claims to be "unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world."

That doesn't sound like an exaggeration to me. As a writer who specializes in Viking culture, Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry, and the Norse voyages to America, the Fiske Collection is the library of my dreams. Some of its books date back to the 1500s. Others were published this year.

Patrick Stevens (right) receives the Order of the Falcon.
I first visited the Fiske Collection in November 1989, 12 years before my first book came out. At the time I was employed as a science writer for Penn State University, and I had gone to Cornell to attend a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The speakers at these meetings are hand-picked for their skill at making the latest scientific discoveries both relevant and exciting--and I'm ashamed to say I remember none of it at all. What I do remember is contacting librarian P.M. Mitchell in advance of my visit and asking if I might take a look at some of the books in the Icelandic collection. I was working on a historical novel and was particularly interested, I told him, in old accounts of people traveling by horseback. I arranged to meet him on the first day of the conference, a Sunday.

It hadn't occurred to me that the Fiske Collection would be closed on a Sunday. Asking directions at the library information desk, I was redirected down a darkened corridor toward an open door from which spilled a pool of yellow light. Stepping inside, apologies on my lips, I was greeted warmly by an elderly gentleman--I want to dress him in a cardigan sweater and give him a pipe, but I think I'm confusing him with a famous portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was that kind of fellow. He was just making tea, would I like some?

He had several stacks of books on his desk for me, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould (1863) to Six Weeks in the Saddle by S.E. Waller (1874) to Routes Over the Highlands by Daniel Bruun (1907). Now these books are available over the Internet, scanned by Google Books, but in 1989 they were very rare. As I paged through them, wondering where even to begin, Mitchell handed me a mug of tea--and a key. "I'll just leave you to it," he said. The key opened both the library building and his office. I could use his desk, after hours, as long as the conference lasted. "And help yourself to the tea."

And so began several long, long nights poring over musty old traveler's tales and taking notes (on a yellow legal pad, in pencil), some of which informed my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (2001) and others of which ended up in my most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2012). (The historical novel I'd been working on was never published.)

Willard Fiske
If I could go back in time, I'd love to meet Willard Fiske. We have a lot in common. According to "The Passionate Collector," an exhibition Patrick Stevens and his colleagues put on in 2005 and preserved online, Fiske's "fascination with Norse myth" inspired him to sail to Copenhagen in 1850, when he was only 19. He studied Danish and Icelandic--and began collecting Icelandic books. Soon he moved on to the University of Uppsala, where he learned Swedish well enough to give lectures on American and English literature. He had hoped to sail on to Iceland in 1852, but things didn't work out and he would not make it to the island whose literature he loved until 1879.

Fiske was not only a gifted linguist, he was a writer, supporting his studies by working as a journalist. Returning home, he embarked on a career marked by his passion for the written word--and his inability to keep still. He was assistant librarian at the Astor Library in New York. He founded a magazine, The American Chess Monthly. He became general secretary of the American Geographical Society, then left for Vienna in 1861 as an attache. In 1863, he became an editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal. He tried to run a bookstore, returned to journalism as the managing editor of the Hartford Courant, then gave it all up to travel again, this time through Europe and the Middle East.

In 1868, Fiske joined Cornell University (founded in 1865) as its first librarian. He also took charge of what we'd now call the university's PR office, its alumni office, and even its university press. He taught a journalism course and served, as well, as Professor of North European Languages, offering classes in Icelandic, Swedish, German--and even Persian.

According to "The Passionate Collector," "In July 1879, Willard Fiske was finally able to travel to Iceland." He landed at Húsavík in the north and went by horseback to Reykjavík. "Along the way, he absorbed the fantastic landscape, with its waterfalls and rugged fells." He met several friends, including the poet Matthías Jochumsson. Jón Sigurðsson himself, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement, wrote him a letter of introduction, which remains in the Fiske Collection.

A year later in Berlin, Fiske married Jenny McGraw, a young heiress Fiske knew from Ithaca, who was touring Europe in search of a cure for her tuberculosis; tragically, she died just after the married couple returned home in 1881. Fiske used the millions he inherited to buy more books, many of them about Iceland. He also endowed the Reykjavík Chess Club, founded the Icelandic chess magazing Í Uppnámi, and donated chess sets and books to the inhabitants of the island of Grimsey, whose story had impressed him when he was in Iceland (though he hadn’t visited Grimsey itself). He also bought a villa in Italy, where he spent the last two decades of his life.

Fiske playing chess in Italy c. 1900.
When Fiske died he was working on volume two of his history, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature. It was never published, but I've consulted volume one quite heavily while writing my current book, The Ivory Vikings, which argues that the world famous Lewis chessmen were carved in Iceland by a woman artist around the year 1200. I didn't have to visit the Fiske Icelandic Collection to read Fiske’s book—it’s now available on the Internet—but librarian Patrick Stevens graciously searched the archives to answer the many questions I emailed him. The technology may have changed, but the Fiske Icelandic Collection remains the library of my dreams. I'm proud to say it contains every one of my own books about Iceland.

To learn more about the Fiske Icelandic Collection, a good place to start is the website of Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Links from that page explain how to search the Cornell Library online for its Icelandic holdings, including books, letters, journals, and photographs, many of which can also be viewed online.

Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ayla's Dream Is to Study the Art of Riding in Iceland

When I first met Ayla Green, she was trying to dissolve into the back of a sofa. A beautiful 16-year-old with long blonde hair, she looked distinctly out of place in the guesthouse at Staðarhús in western Iceland last June: The person closest to her in age was her aunt, Laura Benson.

Laura had arrived that morning from California to teach a group of 60-year-old Americans (and one in her 30s) how to ride an Icelandic horse as part of the America2Iceland tour I was leading. Ayla had come along to help--and to get to know Iceland better.

She sat on the sofa, as we all chatted, and fiddled with her hair or fiddled with her phone, or maybe she was reading a book--I admit, I paid her very little mind.

Throughout the week, while our tour group took their riding lessons, she was put to work cleaning stalls or exercising young horses. Once she had to babysit. Other than "Good Morning," I don't think she and I exchanged two words.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

Then, one morning, as our excited group of beginners was heading out for their first-ever Icelandic trail ride, our hostess, Linda, flagged down Laura and Ayla. Laura waved me over. A pair of German tourists, also staying at the guesthouse, had booked a horseback ride for that morning and Linda had just realized, watching Laura about to disappear down the drive, that she had no one who could lead them. (Linda herself is a horse trainer, but had to watch the children that day.)

The Germans said they were good riders. They could not reschedule: They had to catch a plane. Could Ayla babysit? Laura had a better idea: Why not let Ayla lead the ride? She didn't know the trail--but I did. We agreed. I'd show them the way, but Ayla would be in charge of making sure the Germans had a safe and pleasant ride.

Ayla and I led our horses back to the barn, where the two Germans were waiting. Somehow, on the short way there, she was transformed from a shy teenager in the shadow of her aunt into a confident and confidence-inspiring riding instructor herself.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

She took the two horses Linda had suggested out of their stalls and helped the Germans groom them and properly tack them up. She asked polite questions to assess their riding skill (something that many tourists exaggerate). These two, we learned, were experts--they owned a riding stable in Germany and had competed on Icelandic horses. Still, Ayla left nothing to chance, but had them warm up their horses in the indoor arena while she watched to make sure horse and rider were well matched.

They were, and we headed down the trail. Ayla had not been intending on leading a tour group. She was riding a young horse with very little training--and a lot of spirit--who tended to spook at just about everything. Ayla didn't let that bother her. She kept her horse even with mine (a very solid trekking horse), every now and then drifting back to check that our guests were enjoying themselves. It soon was apparent that I was the least experienced rider of the group (though I've owned and ridden Icelandic horses since before Ayla was born).

The road beside the river at Stadarhus.

We rode along the stream on a narrow track, passing our beginners' group on their way back, then waded the stream to pick up a gravel road that serviced some summerhouses. We stopped briefly to rest the horses in a grassy glade surrounded by birch thickets, the snow-streaked mountains brushing the sky all around us. Then we went back by a different path, crossing the stream again just above a waterfall. Once back on the riding track, heading home, we picked up speed and had an exhilarating run to the barn, still riding two-by-two.

When I said goodbye to Ayla Green after that week at Staðarhús, I knew I'd met an exceptional young horsewoman--and one I'd be hearing more about in the small world of Icelandic horses in the U.S. So I was happy to learn recently that Ayla has decided to pursue her dream of "building a life around this wonderful breed."

Through the website GoFundMe, she is raising money so that she can afford to attend Hólar University, Iceland's premier school for equestrian science, beginning in the fall of 2015. "This university specializes in the training of the Icelandic horse," she explains. "Hólar is also one of the most respected schools where one can learn horsemanship with Icelandic horses."

What she has failed to add is that her aunt, Laura Benson, was the first American to graduate from Hólar with a B.S. degree.

If you ride Icelandic horses and hope to see the breed flourish in North America, as I do, I hope you'll join me in adding a few dollars to Ayla's fundraising campaign. She's not offering T-shirts or coffee mugs (this isn't Kickstarter), but if you're lucky, you'll meet her in Iceland and she'll take you for a ride.

Share Ayla's dream at

Photos of Ayla by Heidi Benson

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

America2Iceland's 2015 Trekking Bootcamp

In late July, with the help of America2Iceland--and you, if you're game--I'm going to recreate my favorite scene from my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse.

Be prepared to ride fast and far, to get tired and probably wet, and to have an adventure you'll never forget riding on the silvery sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull, or "Snow Mountain Glacier," on Iceland's west coast.

The year before I bought my horses, I spent the summer in an abandoned house on the edge of the Longufjörur, or Long Beaches trail, a 40-mile riding trail uncovered only at low tide. The route, along the south side of Snæfellsnes, has been in use since the Saga Age. It cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

"It's a dangerous path," my neighbor, Haukur of Snorrastaðir, told me, "if you don’t know the tides." But one memorable day he lent me two of his best "family" horses, Elfa and Dögun, and let me go with him and the group of riders he was leading over the sands.

At last the tide was low, I wrote in A Good Horse Has No Color:

We opened the paddock gate and let the swirl of color resolve itself into free-running horses. First after them went Haukur on Bjartur, the cream-colored gelding he always rode. His hand horse, a black, he led at his knee, and I did my best to mimic him, riding Elfa and ponying Dögun, though I kept losing my right stirrup: with her every step Dögun banged into my heel.

We rode from the farm beside the River Kaldá on a path so deep our feet brushed the rim of the ruts and grass swished against our boot tops. The ponying got easier when the deep path emptied out onto a black-pebbled beach. I relaxed, took great drafts of the salty air, and settled in to enjoy the ride. This was living, Haukur said. This was Iceland.
We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled. We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. 

We rested the horses on a grassy hillside out of sight of a nearby farmhouse. The buzz had been growing in our ears for some time before any of the riders registered what it was (some of us were half asleep with our hats over our eyes). A plane was coming in low. It zoomed over our hillside, making us sit up and snatch at the nearest bridles. A little red and white two-seater, the craft rose and banked steeply over the sea, then turned its nose toward us and dove again. Again it turned, and now it sparked Haukur's ire. He waved his cap and hollered at it.

The other riders had mounted their horses and were circling around the spares. Again the plane passed low over us, then dipped even lower until it was skimming the mudflats. Haukur's holler suddenly turned concerned. The pilot would crash, would kill himself if he tried to land in that soft mud. Haukur thrashed his hat in the air again and began riding toward the beach. The plane lifted slightly, sailed across a wide tidal stream, and came down at last on the sandbar a quarter-mile offshore.

Haukur shook his head. There must be something wrong, he said. The pilot must be out of gas. There was no way off that sandbar, and the tide was rising. He turned and looked over his riders, all quite experienced except for me. We'll have to rescue him, he said. We'll have to swim.

Down he rode toward the stream and, without hesitating, urged his two horses in. The water rose above his thighs. The horses lifted their heads and bared their teeth, all but their heads and necks underwater. The loose horses and the other riders followed, but my hand horse balked and Elfa skittered farther down the shore before I could steer her in—with the result that she missed the sloping bank and was instantly swimming.

My boots filled up. The current pressed hard against my right leg and tugged away at my left. I lost my stirrups. The spare horse I was ponying began swimming with the stream, dragging her rein around behind my back. Elfa began turning seaward as well, her swimming a strange rolling motion. I began to panic.

Rationally I knew that what we were doing was quite ordinary. Horses have long been called "the bridges of Iceland," and Icelanders still will not go out of their way to stay dry crossing a bit of a brook. The English painter Samuel Waller wrote of a day in 1874 when he crossed 40 streams. He warned, "The great thing to beware of is looking at the water. You lose your head at once if you do so, as the eddies swirl around you so rapidly." If you should become unseated, he advised, "strike out for the bank at once and leave the animals to take care of themselves. To be engulfed with a horse in the water is a very complicated piece of business."

And I had two horses. It occurred to me suddenly that I was not "used to horses" at all.

I quickly took inventory and concluded I was hardly a rider. Rather than standing "firm in the stirrups," as Waller suggested, I had no stirrups. My hand horse was tipping my balance awry with her rein tight behind my back. Determined at all costs to stay on, I had cocked my feet up to lessen the drag on my water-filled boots and was clenching my knees, my hands in a death-grip on the reins.

In spite of all this, Elfa was swimming steadily, her ears back, but otherwise not noticeably upset that we weren't gaining the shore. Suddenly I knew what to do. Keeping firm hold of my hand horse, I dropped Elfa's rein, grabbed onto her mane, and relaxed. Immediately, as if I'd called out in a language we both understood, Elfa's head swung toward shore. My hand horse fell behind and swam nicely along after us. Soon we had sand under our hooves. Elfa kicked up and we came splashing out onto the beach in a fine smooth tolt. We charged over to where the other horses waited and I gratefully slid off.
My first thought was to empty out my boots. Someone handed me a beer. I chugged it down, standing on one foot, holding two fidgeting wet horses and a boot full of water. Slowly I made out the tale. The pilot was the boyfriend of one of our riders and had flown out to treat her to a cold drink.

Hardly had the absurdity of the situation sunk in when I realized the riders were remounting. The plane's engine was being revved up. Someone grabbed my empty bottle and I was up and off, Elfa stretching out behind Haukur's Bjartur in the incredible gait called the flying pace—fast enough that my hand horse had to gallop to keep up, yet still Bjartur outdistanced us. We eased back into a canter and let the loose horses catch us, while our little beer-plane scooted by overhead, waggled its wings, and disappeared….

Never would I have imagined that, 17 years later, I would be leading riding tours in Iceland myself. But in 2013 I started doing so for America2Iceland, which is owned in part by the riding instructor and horse trainer Guðmar Pétursson and based at his farm of Staðarhús in the west of Iceland.

Photo by Rebecca Bing for America2Iceland
In 2015 Guðmar and I will be recreating the beach ride I wrote about in A Good Horse Has No Color, riding on the sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull on the America2Iceland Trekking Bootcamp Tour, July 27 to August 2.

There’s only room for 12 riders, so sign up soon if you want to come with me. Look here for more information:
Note that I cannot guarantee there will be a plane to deliver beer to us on the sands, as there was in the book. But I can guarantee a memorable ride.

(Don't ride? Then take a look at my other America2Iceland tour, "Song of the Vikings," here:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sheep-Shearing Day at Hestholl Icelandics

The hardest part of Sheep-Shearing Day seemed to be getting the halters on. A sheep halter is not like a horse halter--at least, not like any horse halter I'm used to. There were no buckles, no obvious browbands.

The sheep halters were a noose of bright nylon rope that, looped and twisted correctly, gave you a secure grip on an obstreperous ewe but--twisted incorrectly--let her easily escape to scramble into the yard and glare at us with her yellow eyes while Jill enjoined the youngsters not to scream and not to chase her and a few sheep-savvy helpers made a loose ring behind her and urged her gently back toward the rest of her flock, penned in the open barn, where the professional sheep-shearer stood waiting in the middle of a bright green tarp. The escapee sauntered within his reach, was deftly snagged by one horn and up-ended to sit on her bottom between the shearer's knees--at which the ewe immediately relaxed and let him get on with the task of stripping her of her heavy fleece.

It was Sheep-Shearing Day, after all. The local 4H Club was there to help, though I only noticed one club member who was much help at all: She was an expert at toenail trimming. Most of us had come to Jill Merkel's Hestholl Icelandics in Richmond, VT, to take photos or otherwise gawk at the sheep, which gawked back at us.

The sheep were Icelandic sheep: black and white and brown and spotted. Some had horns, some were hornless, and some just had little nubs. Some were cooperative: They'd hop up onto a metal grooming stand and set their heads onto the headrest; they wouldn't fuss even when you tightened the noose that kept them there and systematically picked up each foot to trim their nails. Others fought back. They despised the stand--or were frightened of it. They refused to keep still, even when tied, jerking their legs as hard as they could to make Jill or young Eva, with the nail clippers, let go--though they didn't. They just waited out the jerking and squirming and then went on with the task.

Sheer off the wool, trim the nails, check the color of the membrane around the eyes (a way to see if the animal has worms), administer wormer, if required, dribble some insecticide along each spine to defeat the fleas, then on to the next sheep.

The shearing seemed to be the quickest step. It took the shearer about five minutes per sheep, using electric clippers. He finished 32 sheep in about four hours, and half the time he seemed to be standing there with a shorn sheep at the end of its rope and saying calmly, "Somebody take this sheep. Where's the next one?"

As soon as I arrived, having never helped with a sheep-shearing before, I was handed a sheep. It did not like me. It spun and kicked and squirmed and did all it could to get off that rope. Thankfully, the sheep-shearer knew how to halter a sheep and this one did not get loose.

My friend Linda, also new to sheep-shearing, first got the task of taking before and after photos. The "before" sheep were handsome and stout; the "after" sheep were lumpy here and skinny there, altogether awkward-looking beasts.

Later Linda got the more appealing task of stuffing the wool into sacks, each neatly labeled with the ewe's name. "The wool is still warm when you pick it up," she mused, "like a sweater someone has just slipped off."

Soon it will be spun and knitted into a sweater once again, and the ewe will grow a new fleece, to be shorn off next spring.

Visit Hestholl Icelandics online here: