This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Text by Nick Woodin Photos by Eden Batki
nick woodin and eden batki
illustrations by paul osenbaugh design by kelly hofschneider published by aquadanick press, ausable forks, ny
I went to Iceland in 1967. I was twenty-five. For many reasons, including my relationship with my parents and the war in Vietnam, The United States in the late nineteen-sixties had become too much for me and I wanted to leave it for a time. My Fulbright got me a leave of absence from my Army Reserve Unit. So I left. Iceland was a new world, without connections. During a lonely Christmas in London, I began a little memoir. In the first winter after I returned home in 1969 I finished it. I sent it out here and there but no one was interested, so I went on to other things. But I didn’t forget the manuscript and when I took it up again recently, the shape and smudges of the first, typed page brought me back to a familiar world. Thirty-five years later the daughter of a friend brought her cousin to visit. The young women were curious, outgoing and charming; perfect guests, they enjoyed cooking. At some point during their stay, Eden, apropos of nothing, blurted out,” I’d love to go to Iceland!” Eden is a photographer who lives in Los Angeles. Some weeks after they left, we received a yellow box with two photos, one of my wife and one of me. I was a bit shocked at how good they were. I had recently inherited some money. After a few weeks I wrote Eden back and asked her if she really wanted to go to Iceland. So she and Sara went. I paid. They went for ten cold days in mid-March. Like all northern areas, Iceland has warmed considerably in the last thirty years, but mid-March on an island in the North Atlantic can be grim. I think Eden was a bit shocked at the weather (she said her shoes were inadequate) but Sara, who lives in Chicago, was not surprised. They looked, drove, ate, drank. They had adventures. March is not the tourist season in Iceland. One evening they showed up at a hostel in the country and were met at the door by a group of young men in their underwear; all of them started shouting the same word in a sibilant eastern tongue. (Sara says it was, “Whores! Whores!”)The women retreated to the very expensive hotel next door (closed for the season and owned by the same family). The owners took pity on them and gave them a room for the night in return for helping with the laundry. When I got Eden’s photos, I didn’t know what to do. She had exposed two hundred rolls of film. I had known she couldn’t illustrate my trip and had always thought her photos would be tangential to what I saw. For several months, off and on, I played with what amounted to a expensive, if entertaining game of Scrabble. Slowly I realized I had two trips, mine and theirs. They intersect at certain points: in the landscape, some street scenes, the photos of ptarmigan habitat. So that’s the story of this book.
IN SEPTEMBER 1967 I WENT TO ICELAND on a Fulbright Scholarship to study gyrfalcons. The reasons for my acceptance still escape me. The project I proposed (an investigation of population cycles in ptarmigan) happened to be what the Museum of Natural History in Reykjavik was studying at the time. Ptarmigan are a northern grouse whose populations in Iceland show a ten-year cycle of abundance, documented in shipments of hunted birds to Denmark. Many populations of northern animals show such cycles, and islands, with their simplified ecosystems, are a good place to study them. Of the four recommendations required for the Fulbright, only those from an instructor in German, a professor of chemistry, and a professor of botany had been sent. My zoology professor said the proposition didn’t sound real. She knew my qualifications best and was probably right. However, I was accepted. After my acceptance, my advisor in Iceland, Finnur Gudmundsson, wrote to suggest that I concentrate on the gyrfalcon, which is the chief predator of the ptarmigan in Iceland. I knew something about birds. I knew Finnur’s name from from his appearance in Roger Tory Peterson and James Fishers’ Wild America. So I decided to go: why not? Iceland would be a good place to wait out the war. At least until the US Army found me; ??? more heroic ??? I had nothing better to do. I left in early October from Idlewild Airport (it changed its name to John F. Kennedy Airport after Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred while I was in Iceland). I arrived at the airport much too
early. Outside it was hot, with a heavy smell of kerosene. Planes at that time were still jettisoning their excess fuel into the air before landing. The sidewalks beside the terminal had a yellow glare in the late afternoon light. The plane was scheduled to leave at ten-thirty in the evening but didn’t take off until early the next day. The stewardesses were my age and drinks with dinner were free (including afterdinner brandy) and I soon fell asleep. I awoke some hours later. For an indeterminate period we slid through a gap between two layers of clouds whose eastern cracks were lined with rose, which slowly turned to gold. Later we began to glimpse the sea. The winds below must have been considerable, for its dull surface was dotted with white breakers, utterly motionless from our height, which I first mistook for icebergs. A ship appeared and slowly vanished. At dawn we had been served breakfast. Toward noon you could feel the plane, in delicate intervals, begin to descend. One imagines, I imagined, Iceland as a tiny place, a dot, a speck, in the North Atlantic. We burst out of the clouds into sea haze and sunshine, with in the distance a low cut-violet mountain. A plain in russets and browns stretched away to its base and then vanished in distant outlines, peaks, and glacial glows toward the east. We circled, the vision was replace by the slow rotation of a bar of sunlight across the speckled window, and then by an olive flat coasting nearer and nearer, until one could make out the smaller tidal channels and stones, a chain-link fence slid by, and we landed. Upon my arrival in Reykjavik, I was lodged in one of the University of Iceland’s two student residences. The buildings faced each other across a grassy slope, with the main University building lower down and in between. The feeling of peace I had those first few days has never left me. My room contained a bed, a desk, a desk chair, and an easy chair in a corner. A hard sofa converted to a bed. A narrow entryway, separated from both room and outside corridor by doors, held a washbasin and closet. The backyard, with two leaning clothespoles, ended in a double row of birches atop a bank, with a part of the city beyond. At night a streetlamp next to the yard’s corner picked out a silent and homey circle of fence, birch, and angled dirt road. Yet every morning the first week I woke up headachy with dread, wideawake to a blue or gray sky, a cool room, and the roar of a bus on a nearby street carrying people to work. I encountered virtually no-one, the language was incomprehensible, and except for occasional footsteps in the hall, followed by the slam of a door and perfect silence, the dormitory appeared empty. Water bubbled in the radiators. Quite ordinary acts turned out to be feats of planning genius: having acquired a box of cornflakes, one still needs a bowl, milk, and spoon. I was not able to locate the Museum of Natural History, despite searches occupying several windy and cloudy afternoons, all suspiciously similar now in my memory, but on one of them I came to a peeling building in the middle of a muddy lot, with above its door a plaque depicting a white falcon on a blue background (the
symbol of the telephone and telegraph monopoly)— and after a block to a bakery, and then to a milk shop, luck was with me that day—and on the others all to the same place, no mater how I approached it, a huge hole in the ground, site according to a billboard of a new police station. Finally my advisor phoned me (the dormitory had a public phone but I had not been able to figure out the telephone directory: people are listed by first name in Iceland), and told me that the Museum was in the building across the street from the hole. It had two entrances, and the one on that street was temporarily closed. When I woke up the second Monday, my fear was gone, never to return. I had been there exactly one week. Esya, the local mountain greeted you through the front door as a low gray massif under a soft blue sky—nothing like it would become in November, when in the late, endless dawns it had a dusky, violet glow, with masses of snowy clouds in the hollow of its humped ridge, and sunlight slowly reddening its lower slopes, while after a wet night, gift of a delesquescent moss, those same slopes would flash a vivid, evanescent green. But now it was still early in the fall. One warm afternoon in my second week I stepped outside to find a small brown falcon hovering over the door, four feet above my head, as a sparrow-like bird dived under the steps, and the falcon’s tail showed its dark bars against the pale sky. In a moment another appeared, but the pipit had gone. I saw the two falcons several times over the next month, perching like pigeons on the front of the University building, or diving at some chittering, dipping redpoll, a straggler from a flock which fed in the birches, before they disappeared, flying over several hundreds of miles of ocean, to some warmer (or more fruitful) place for the winter.
october 25: Mornings I write, but almost every afternoon I go to the Museum, which occupies the second floor of a building a mile or so out from the center of town. I time my arrival downtown so I can spend ten minutes in a bookshop on the main street among the smells of paper, overcoats, and glue before catching a bus from the central turnaround nearby. The concrete pavement of the square is set out with three benches and a clock tower of aqua glass, the glass covered on three sides (one is bare) with advertisements for ‘Opal,’ a chewy sweet. Yellow and green city buses pant beside the curb. The boom of a ship in the harbor sticks up above a row of sheds. In front is a grassy hill. When we have ground up over the hill and are in a sense almost there, and gathering speed with a rattle, I see a traffic sign consisting of a triangle with a central exclamation point, the shape of which exactly mimics the gable of a house that projects out into the sidewalk beyond it, concealing an intersection just ahead —a scene I always associate with a cold bus, a gray sky, a slight afternoon depression. I try to arrive by three, as at three-thirty coffee is served for the staff. On my second visit I had been presented with a room, newly cleaned, which Finnur and I soon furnished with a table from the geology library and two chairs. The thoughtfulness behind these preparations, of which I was professionally so undeserving ((I had no experience in field biology), spiced the sense of guilt which was, at least in the beginning, the chief reason for my regular attendance at the Museum. In the room I compiled a card file of literature about gyrfalcons, collected maps, and made plans for my field study in the spring. I tried twice to spend my mornings there, but as so much scientific work bored me, and as an appearance at afternoon coffee seemed to satisfy any doubts about the seriousness of my scientific activities, I stopped that effort. After a week or ten days I leaned out the window and pulled a string to close a vent, part of a small evacuating hood, which had made the place, once the door was closed, rather chilly. We drink coffee about a table which is always short one chair (mine): it must be fetched from the geology department next door. The heads of the departments of biology and geology, who share a rotating directorship, sit at opposite ends of the table, with their subordinates and associates grouped around them. The middle section is occuppied on one side by a moss specialist and a botanist (two separate people), and on the other by the two secretaries, who make and pour the coffee. Under the half-raised blinds, pale gray houses stride up the street. The chief geologist, a radical socialist and song writer (known for wearing a red cap on his expeditions to the Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in
Iceland), and the moss specialist, a somewhat lugubrious communist, skim the political news of the afternoon daily, a left-leaning Daily News. (My arrival had rated a frontpage picture and feature story). After everyone has been poured a second cup, a sequence of events occurs which I never fathomed: the taxidermist, who sits opposite me at the biological end, offers the chief geologist a cigarette from a newly opened pack, which offer is accepted. The geologist comments on the price, and after removing one, tosses them back. At this point the botanist (whose chair has been up to now empty) arrives and appropriates the newspaper, from which he reads aloud the more amusing parts, while the moss specialist, eyes averted, lights up one of his own cigarettes and rests his temples on his fingertips over his coffee-cup. Amid a dead silence, one of the secretaries, a woman with thick glasses and a warm smile, with whom I have become friends, asks me a question in English. We occasionally have visitors. In October a lanky Dutch student with a copper beard spent three days in a closet off the entrance sorting out a backpack of botanical specimens into tiny manila envelopes. He spoke halting Icelandic, had walked across the island, and left the coffee table a pouch of excellent tobacco. Then one late autumn day Finnur introduced himself with Germanized surname to a visiting volcanologist. In January came a party of botanists from North Carolina, of whom my only sight was a snapshot view of an upturned face with an upturned nose and distant smile of one of them lacing up his boots in a room full of equipment. After coffee I return to my books and sunset. Occasionally Finnur takes me into his office for a chat. It is difficult to find out anything definite about conditions in the north (afterwards I realized why). A blonde woman in the building’s opposite wing, whose windows were framed by a set of olive-green drapes, switched off her light and left at four fifty-five, by when the ragged western clouds would have changed from rose-pink to dirty gray. Soon afterwards I left. Along a straight street, the lights outline a topographical questionmark which ends at the glass tower in the central square. One’s dominant impressions are dusk, damp, and hurrying crowd. A faint greenish mist hangs over the bay against the dusky mountains. A bus roars by on the street. In the windy dark downtown I pass a restaurant whose windows are blotched with steam, skirt a square, and come out near a little lake, along whose shore I continue up. In a pool of open water on the far side, through the orange shadow of a school, swims a silent crowd of ducks, geese, and gulls. My sidewalk rises
toward the campus, which is situated on the outskirts of the city, near a small airfield. I pass a home for unwed mothers whose yard in the morning is full of sturdy, noisy children and young women in sweaters. In a yard, the branches of a rowan end along a white gable, mute testimony to the winds. As I wait to cross the last street, a gap in the low clouds reveals a pale streak of yellow, such colors in these long twilights, amid the polished aqua glow.
october 30: I have been more or less taken on as a fieldworker by another
biologist in the study, Arthur Gardarsson. The study constitutes Arthur’s doctoral dissertation. While he and I were marking birches at Herdisavik this morning (birch catkins are a winter food of ptarmigan), we looked up once to a call to see two dark birds, primaries spread for an instant against the gray sky, looping up under the cliffs that stand above the lava plain on this side of the Reykjanes peninsula. Arthur said they were fieldfares, some Scandinavian populations of which migrate west along a line of latitude in the autumn to winter near the Gulf Stream on this barren coast. It was a cold day, alternately still and with a leaping October wind, and we returned hurriedly to our painting and catkin-counting, which, what with laying out transects both on the scree slope (where birches are lost to rock-slides) and on the plain below, took us two hours more. The sun shone occasionally on the flat sea to the south, now and then dissolving in ripples a trawler that was slowly creeping along the edge of the plain until, when much closer, it vanished under its lip. About two-thirty we left for another study area over a one-lane dirt road, through whose loose gravel slopes of black lava showed like elephants’ backs. Every so often a break in the cliffs would be marked by a low cascade of rock and gray moss, old lava falls from the center of the peninsula. Some of the roadside was fenced and a few of the fenceposts were topped with grassy cones. The cones had been built up from dust and the droppings of perching birds, mostly ptarmigan, which used the posts for display in the spring. Among the clumps of yellow grasses one could make out a few of the woody curls, speckled with cream, of the previous sesaon’s inhabitants. Perhaps because of the fertility of these perching posts, their grasses tend to be cultivated—hayfield—ones. We passed a small house of corrugated iron where the sea bent in, skirted the end of a large lake, and found ourselves on a straight road leading to the height of a much more extensive and fertile plain, sunlit for a moment now, with fencedoff fields and hollows in gray and russet.
Two women were picking crowberries on a slope and further along a man in a blue cap (husband? brother?) was sitting in a dusty Landrover smoking a pipe. In the distance the gentle curve of a shield volcano appeared and slowly vanished. Soon there appeared another line of cliffs, but with grassy taluses, along the lower slopes of which were spaced the white houses of farms and then a group of larger buildings, a boarding school for girls. We turned off on a dirt track that went up along a small river. Where we stopped to stretch our legs, three gray and white ducks dove in a backwater, whose current was like black silk. The windows of a summer house shone through the birches on the opposite bank. Outside the jeep it was cold and muddy. Further upstream was a hydroelectric station. Beyond a bare slope of houses and power poles, we caught for an instant, just before it disappeared over that bare hill, what might have been the butterfy flash of a gyrfalcon. Rounding the hill, we came in sight of Lake Thingvellir, the river’s source. It was now too late to do any work and we planned simply to return to Reykjavik by a road from the head of the Lake, a shorter route than retracing our tracks. As we approached the shore, a fine mist began to settle in, so that looking out, you saw a headland dropping down and the motionless water, when, with a turn of the road, headland and horizon vanished, a black rock appeared, and for one luminous moment you could not tell where water ended and sky began. This particular headland remained in sight for perhaps a quarter of an hour and as I was to see it many times again it has impressed itself on my mind: bare and rocky, with a peculiar concavity just below its peak—of a size and shape which exactly fits in my mind’s eye the tightly pressed ball of my thumb.
november 3: If one takes a line straight south from Herdisavik, that flat sea with its mists and glints of sunlight extends all the way to the Antarctic. What I also cannot get used to is the tracing by the noon sun of slight swells and irregularities in the turf outside my window, the uncertain beginnings of the frost hummocks characteristic of an Arctic meadow. Technically speaking, Iceland is still in the Low Arctic Region, which extends from Latitude sixty to seventy degrees north. Above seventy degrees north begins the High Arctic, which goes to the Pole. Reykjavik, at sixty-five and a half degrees north is two degrees or about one hundred and sixty-eight miles south of the Arctic Circle. Thanks to the presence of the Gulf Stream the city has what is known as an oceanic climate, which while characterized by much wind, damp, and rain, is relatively
mild. However we are twelve hundred miles north of my birthplace in northern New York. The hill slopes have frost hummocks eighteen inches high and two feet across and in a flat bed of gravel by the edge of a lava flow, on which sparkles a dark hump of moss, and where a twig of blueberry pokes up next to a stone, one can make out the dim irregular polygons characteristic of such ground throughout the Arctic.
november 5: Today Arthur and I reach Thingvellir in time to mark birches.
There is some urgency in our efforts. Birch catkins form a major part of the ptarmigans’ winter diet. In March, when food supplies are low, ptarmigan have been observed eating not only catkins (the future birch seeds), but also leaf buds and short pieces of terminal wood (much less nutritious food). Birch woods are limited in extent in Iceland. If, through over-browsing, a large autumn population of ptarmigan were to limit the next year’s supply of catkins and buds, starvation (and a fall in the population) might result: eating branch tips might be a sign of starvation. Population cycles might then be related to over-exploitation of the food supply. Now the birds are still mostly in the hills but with the first heavy snowfall they will come down into the areas where we are working. After marking the birches we drive on a dirt track around the side of the mountain and up a narrow cut in the hills in an attempt to see some ptarmigan. As we descend a rise there opens ahead through the scrub a flat plain. Against the mountain at its far end is a hill like a dome, on whose sides and rounded top Arthur says people once sat to watch horseraces on the plain itself. The domed hill is sacred, and the last races were hundreds of years ago when the Icelandic chieftains sat as a lawmaking body beside the lake at Thingvellir. The plain is now divided by a fence and the surrounding hills have eroded, great mats of the remaining turf lying on the rough gravel slopes, the effect of a thousand years of grazing sheep, wind, and water on light volcanic soils. While the landscape is far from untouched, the almost palpably clear sky, which is just now beginning to leak a little starlight, the cold air that seeps like oil down the steep slopes, the utter still in this pink and brown evening, must have remained quite unchanged.
of our own. Last year he had observed an apparent separation of the birds into groups that were likely to survive the winter and groups that were not. These flocks tended to keep to separate places. We had however to wait for snow to bring the ptarmigan, now in their white winter plumage, down from the high plateau. Thus it was two weeks later that we set off in a rose and blue dawn in which one’s breath smoked, the ground rang underfoot, and the lawn behind Arthur’s apartment building was gray with frost, which by noon would retreat to the building’s shadow, under which it would reform as the day moved on. On the map our evening’s hotel occupied a hollow next to a stream along the gravel road that led to the north, on that high neck of land that, dividing the watersheds of the north and south coasts, connects the quacking, crested head of Iceland’s western fjords with her fat duck’s body. The glow of the sea was reflected on the dash as we circled Reykjavik’s bay and then wound around the head of a deep fjord. Our route that day was heraldic with the various mountains we passed. I have a photo of one vanilla range, taken from a riverbank with the arched bridge we had just crossed out of the picture on the left. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. Before us is the gray river, full of the whoosh and click of ice cakes, then a misty upstream valley, a long white ridge, and the range itself, with a fistful of golden rays thrust out from behind one bent peak, the whole cut and twisted in four different modes before slipping into a cobalt and glittering sea. A faint, fresh scent of salt and sulfur, as well as a refrigerator chill, enveloped us. The day turned quickly into a cold lavender evening, and after several more miles we turned off the main road onto a dirt track that, slightly raised above the fields on either side, headed straight inland where, over a succession of drainage ditches, each with its receding row of dirt cones, the horizon was dissolving in white hills and clouds. Arthur didn’t quite know the way. Once we ended up at a ranch-style house with a car in the front yard and the roar of a stream in the middle distance; then in a pasture where a large owl flew up in our headlights as we turned to retrace our route back to that triangle of snow in a hollow of thick scrub where the road had last branched. ***
november 11-16: One evening after dinner Arthur and I discussed a trip to
the north to check on the hunters’ bags of ptarmigan and to do some collecting Now, two and a half years afterwards, I cannot reconcile my memories of our
trip with a reconstructed voyage in mapland, either on the mauve and yellow sheet furnished by the Shell Oil Company, on which a bisected country occupies both sides of a single foldout, or on the more detailed reproduction in nine sheets, of the Geographical Institute of the Danish government, in which the former’s thick red roads, dotted with bright Shell stations, are replaced by slim strands of various thicknesses and symbolic significance, and its crude colors by five delicately differentiated pastels. I can identify the final stretch of road before the farm, marked off in alternate bars of red and gray on sheet number five, which runs beneath a conical mountain up to the edge of the central plateau. The plateau, which is uninhabited, extends from there to the heads of the valleys along the north coast and in a western direction to our hotel. It is a good autumn ptarmigan ground and Arthur wanted to check the bags of a market hunter who boarded at this farm in season. The road crept down a bare slope to end abruptly at a barn wall. Though the lights were on in the farmhouse, nobody seemed to be home. Eventually we located a teenager who accepted a cigarette from Arthur’s pack and took us to see the ptarmigan. Unfortunately the farm women were in Reykjavik for the day, so we wouldn’t get our coffee. The ptarmigan are shot in large numbers for the market. They were strung up from the beams of a low room behind the stalls in the sheep barn, in what I found was more or less standard fashion: a slip-knot at one end of a short cord is put around the necks or feet of five birds and pulled tight, the same arrangement carried out at the other end, and the whole hung over a nail and left to age. The hunter had shot most of those we saw, which at this time amounted to about three hundred birds. The boy soon excused himself (He was having dinner at a farm up the road) and we spent about an hour aging and sexing the catch. Yellowish shots of various unimportant things -- two gas pumps and mud, a roadsign, a tendril of smoke reflected in a rainspotted windshield—would complete a film version of the next two hours. In movieland it is easier to stifle time and jump, say, from that reflection of match and patting thumb, to (scenes along the same road) a rainy afternoon with moss on a cindery bank, or a distant mountain in moonlight and mist. We stopped once for coffee and about eight crossed a river and bounced up a driveway to our hotel. The temperature had risen considerably in the past hour, and gusts of wind shook the jeep, and as we stopped, emptied a puddle in the headlights. No guests were staying at the hotel this evening and we found our landlady standing on a table
in the dining room washing the ceiling. She was a rather shy, but amusing woman much taller than her husband. and she gave us coffee at a table next to a sort of dutch-door opening into the kitchen while our dinner warmed up. The hotel smelled like heat, drying wool, and soap. It served as a lunch stop for buses between the north and south and also put up ptarmigan hunters and hikers. The roar of an electric generator hung over it like a blanket. The manager’s sister was a sculptor and the marble head of a woman (face upturned, with vulnerable throat) stood on the landing of the staircase in the hall, four steps down from a pair of boots set toe-to -toe on a radiator. While we had our coffee the manager joined us in socks and sweater to talk with Arthur about the ptarmigan shooting. He was also a hunter, a short, somewhat dreamy man with thick glasses, who came from the south of Iceland, where (as Arthur said)under the glacier the hills are green. I soon lost track of the conversation and concentrated on the “coffee,” which was my first in an Icelandic restaurant. It is usually served with three cakes: a yellow torte with a red jam filling, only half the height of one’s thumb; a doughnut fried in a twist; and a dry butter cake with raisins and citron. Occasionally one comes across a cold, sweet raisin pancake, the size of one’s palm and having a faint flavor of the lamb fat in which they were fried, which was served hot with sugar the evening before; or a very light, thin pancake, also cold but in this case scented with butter, which one wraps around a cylinder of whipped cream, sugar, or jam. I find a mild sense of loss, both poignant and terribly mortal, in the evocation of these tastes. Thus I remember with especial pleasure and pain several other dishes, two from Sunday afternoon coffee at Myvatn (from the farmhouse where I would spend the coming spring) and one from dinner at a friend’s: the first was a tall, fluffy combination of pastry, shaved chocolate, and whipped cream; the second a moist, fruit-filled cake with a tender apricot meringue; and the last a soup in two colors (whose warm shades, swept into concentric spirals in four fragile bowls decorated with blue and yellow flowers, I could without hesitation point out on a color chart) and three distinct flavors—butter, tomato, and cream. At the same time I cannot recall the taste of the boiled char at Myvatn, which we ate five times a week all spring and whose pink or white flesh (the species contained two gastronomic varieties), topped with bits of butter, floats with photographic clarity before me—as well as the hole in the ice, the green nylon nets, and the raw wind over the frozen lake from which we had taken the fish the evening before. But their taste has vanished.
After dinner, Arthur, the manager, and two other hunters, who had arrived after us, had a long disscussion, which about eleven adjourned from the dining room to a map in the hall, an opportunity I took to loosen my stiff smile and retreat up the stairs to my room. Each day, after the first hour or two, my comprehension of the language seemed to get less and less. The room contained a square window, which banged during the night, a three-piped radiator, now cold, in whose interstices I hopefully stuffed my socks to dry, a table, and a painted box bed. *** The next morning we breakfasted under a light bulb in the company of our reflections in the dining room window, but by the time we were done, and Arthur had had a smoke, a gray gloom had replaced them. Without the wind, which had blown hard all night, it was strangely quiet. Mist rose from the river in the hollow against the hill and the mud of the parking lot glistened now and then in an opal glow through the low clouds to the east. On the square of tiled floor inside the front entrance, separated from the hall by a sill, half an inch of water had collected from the night’s storm. Arthur couldn’t decide where to go. We were dependent on the snow, which was rapidly melting, to keep ptarmigan in the area. On such a day they might be anywhere. I think it was because the river, which we had to wade to go east, had not yet risen much, which it would certainly do if the thaw continued, that Arthur decided to go in that direction. We parked the jeep beside the road on a flat above a falls and set off angling upstream toward a series of low hills, which had first seemed merely another undulation in the flat, a bar of paler gray splotched with black against the dull gray sky. On a rise the recent tracks of several ptarmigan wound in and out on the thin snow under a circle of boulders. We managed to ford the river with dry feet. On the far side Arthur shot the day’s first ptarmigan. I was too startled to shoot, whereupon the blood on the snow, the circling flutter of the dying bird, the whistling side-slip of the remaining pair around the corner of the hill, concluded a scene which I had in a sense first come across in a photo in a large book of my father’s, bound in forest green cloth and printed on a glossy paper which has since vanished from such books. In the photo two ptarmigan are perched in tandem on a snow slope, against which they stand out in white on white silhouette, their visible-
ness increased by their strong shadows. The curve of the Colorado slope stands out against a clear sky, while the shadow of the photographer’s head, camera next to nose, appears at lower left. We had almost walked over our three. Arthur slipped the ptarmigan into a waxed paper bag on which he noted the hour, the date, the spot, and the bird’s age and sex, and slipped the bag into his rucksack. Three streams broke through the hills in small gorges to form this fork of the river. We split up: I was to follow the stream on the edge of which Arthur had shot the ptarmigan up to the plateau, while he would cut across a small divide to the north and follow up the next. We would meet back here for lunch. I soon met with more ptarmigan. The gorge had given way to a pale hollow, which I ascended first along one side, then along the other. The stream was more or less covered with thin ice. If I could, I would substitute for my prose a photo in that large book, showing the shallow, snowy valley, tan stones poking up, a dark oval of open water in the brook, and the five ptarmigan, a slightly different tone from the snow, heads stretched back, caught in different poses, with the first one I had seen still leaning forward where it had stopped in the short, chicken-like run that had caught my eye. My gun felt ten feet long. When a few seconds later they rose into the gusty wind coming down the valley, they seemed much larger, closer, whiter. They sailed up the valley with an occasional wing beat and flip of a black-edged tail. I was so nervous about collecting my share of the fifty birds we needed from that area (the minimum statistically significant sample, according to Arthur) that I never thought of shooting: nerves are the enemy of the wingshooter, as they are of any sport. I followed these birds up and flushed three out of range and then one at the edge of the valley which cut back by me to disappear in the rising wind over the upland. Making a circle in that direction I found nothing and, disgusted with myself, returned to the valley, which soon terminated in a hollow with a little pond. To the east, over a succession of ridges, a cloud bank was fading in damp blotches of cream and turquoise, while behind me, from the west, was approaching a second, whose leading edge was marked by two strong white lines. The wind was now quite strong. To perhaps eight feet off the ground the air was hazy with fine blowing snow, blurring the view, though the sky overhead was quite clear. Arthur had told me to make a circle over the plateau, and so I struck out to the east for a long ridge with a sort of break in it part way along, of which however, after crossing a few more hollows, I soon lost sight. A marginal diagram
in another childhood book showed the tracks of two elk hunters lost in the woods in a snowstorm: it formed a gradually tightening spiral, so that when they were found by a search party two days and forty miles later they were less than a mile from where they had started, but as far as they were concerned, they might have been anywhere. After about twenty minutes I realized I was not quite where I expected to be and began adjusting my direction to what seemed this or that familiarity in the landscape. Topping a ridge, whose right slope had at first appeared familiar, I saw a hollow and a pond, but it wasn’t right, and in the depression over the next ridge I crossed my own tracks. Panic and disbelief (the tracks perfectly fit my boots) were followed by a moment of enforced calm. It was too late to retrace my tracks. The storm was now almost overhead and the haze of blowing snow would fill up my tracks before I had ever untangled them. Further, I had realized for some time that a mountain we had passed the day before had kept persistently to the east, rather than the southwest, which was where it belonged on the map, so I tentatively abandoned my sense of direction, placed the gray peak a little south of west and headed straight west toward the car. After about fifteen minutes I was approaching a height with a little bank of turf at its crest, somehow familiar to eye and knee, but so was everything now, and beside it were three bootprints, and below a frozen pond, a set of tracks, and the reverse curves about a frozen stream that marked the beginning of my valley. Downstream the wind was blowing great hunks of snow off the tops of the rocks into the gorge, which supposedly fills completely with snow during the winter. Arthur hadn’t got any birds either, and after eating and collecting some vegetation samples (the other reason for coming here), we forded the river, this time getting our feet wet, and trudged in the gloom back across the messy, thawing flat, whose fading light, drizzle, and wind, now somewhat lower, reminded me of an upstate New York spring, except for a certain fresh emptiness in this Arctic air and the early hour of the dusk. *** The next day it was raining. Arthur did not appear until eleven and I spent the morning reading and on the toilet. I had been eating a great deal lately and drinking an unreasonable amount of coffee. About noon we set off for a drive up the pass. We passed a blue Volvo parked beside the road, and when we
stopped on the height of land to put on chains, Arthur said he heard a shot over on the mountain. We continued for some miles down the other side of the divide, than took a side road to where a rectangular building that looked like a school stood next to a stream. The black bay under purple clouds a hundred yards to the north was part of the Arctic Ocean. Rain splashed in puddles on the lawn, and Arthur came running back to the jeep, after an unsuccessful attempt to phone another of his study areas in the northwest. We spent the afternoon poking around near the road. On the flat top of a ridge Arthur found the remains of a raven, then a ptarmigan wing and a fox scat. He began trying to unravel the connections (if any) among them, while a cloud dragged its tail over the next ridge to the north, compressed and almost dissolved in a gust, and I, having broken through some snow into water up to my waist, sat on a stone, wrung out my socks, transferred wallet and shells into a coat pocket, and wiped my numb hands on my wet pants. We were standing near the jeep sometime later when the Volvo passed us with a swish and a brief view of two shotguns over the seat, and the backs of two heads through the mud-spattered window. When we finally came in sight of the hotel, the Volvo was pulled up in the yard and we learned inside that the two hunters had shot sixty ptarmigan on the lower slopes of the pass. Their luck was our luck: we got to age and sex the birds and knew where they had been killed. *** When we got up the next morning the hotel was silent. The hunters had spent a rather rowdy evening. Downstairs a light bulb burned over the bowls on our formica table, whose box of cornflakes and pitcher of milk (now warm) had been set out the night before. Arthur said it seemed to have snowed a little. It was cold and the windshield of the jeep kept fogging up, so we drove with the windows down. It was still dark. We had some trouble deciding where to park. We wanted to be even with the northern end of a small lake on top of the divide, which we had to skirt to reach the mountain. It is never that dark with snow on the ground and once the jeep lights were out and we had got our packs together and were loading our guns we could make out the dark shimmer of the willows at the head of the lake below us. A ptarmigan called across the valley, and then again. The second time one couldn’t tell its direction. Part way across the flat we had to circle several slushy ponds where a brook
ran down into the lake. We could hear the rush and tinkle of water further up and soon came to a snowbridge, milky and gleaming from the night’s freeze, over the stream, which was now blocking our way. We didn’t dare cross it, and continued on until we came to a place where the water flowed for a moment in the open among black stones. Ice lobes shone in the current. Down in the gully the snow came to our waists. Arthur shot the day’s first ptarmigan. We had heard them coming and waited and then there were three right over our heads beating away in different directions and I shot twice at one cutting up the gray hill while Arthur dropped one going away. We were still down in the gully, next to an enormous boulder, and Arthur’s bird, which had dropped on an open patch of snow was easy to find. It was a juvenile female with a full crop. (Ptarmigan in the autumn tend to segregate into flocks separated by sex and age. A full crop meant the bird had already fed.) Ptarmigan were now calling all around us. Each of us taking one bank, we continued up to where the gully ended in a terrace. The slope of the mountain was interrupted with these terraces, which were virtually unvegetated and looked almost man-made. This one was covered with a skin of wind-blown snow, interrupted by the gray glaze of frozen puddles and piles of rocks. Miniature drifts had formed against pebbles sticking up from the frozen mud, and across a pocket-sized depression beyond wandered the tracks of a ptarmigan. Following along and listening I eventually made it out calling among some rocks. It disappeared among the stones, then reappeared in a gap, head bobbing rapidly back and forth, then ran again. As I approached, it ran out of the rocks and began to cluck. It ran and clucked again, then again, when I fired, and it dropped. As I ran up pushing in a shell, I heard a shot to my right followed by a boom of wings overhead, and eight or ten ptarmigan circled out of range down the terrace, then slipped along the slope at a slant below me, soon fading out of sight against the dim loom of the lake below. Arthur had killed a single from the flock. I went down to follow the birds up while he explored further along the terrace in order to hold our position on the slope against the arrival of other hunters. I couldn’t find those birds. By the time I made it back up the mountain it was ten o’clock and full daylight. Arthur had disappeared. Three other hunters had arrived. The Icelandic method of shooting ptarmigan, which comes from a long tradition of market hunting, consists of taking a potshot into a sitting flock, marking down where the remaining birds settle, stuffing the downed
birds into one’s gamebag, and galloping after the survivors. Because the birds are so hard to see against the snow, this is not as simple as it sounds. At any rate, with four people performing this activity in a small area, the air was full of flying singles, at which I could not resist shooting. While, relaxed, any reasonable wingshot could have collected a pile of birds, I as the field biologist missed everything. The ultimate humiliation came when a sitting bird I was about to annex vanished when I fired at a pair that flipped over my head while I was raising my gun. I then tried to sneak up on a number of individual birds but in the dead white light was never sure whether I was near enough and ended up flushing them, shooting, and then not being sure where they had gone. Birds were getting scarcer, and I realized I had drifted away from the group, when seven heads resolved out of the gray blur of a slope, framed between a snowdrift and a stone. I stepped closer and closer. I raised my gun, hesitated. Afterwards I realized I had been within twenty yards. With a thunder of wings they disappeared down the hill. Following along in their direction, I found nothing for a long time. It began to snow. When well down the mountain I finally found a few isolated birds and began making a regular circuit along the slope in a determined effort to collect them. One incident remains in my mind. I had flushed several birds and, not shooting, marked where they had gone. The falling snow had prevented me from seeing how far they had flown and after the first hundred yards or so the suspense became great. I paused again and again, until with a certain slow rush, as when you finally pick out the last cat in the pink and green oak in one of those trick pictures in the Sunday newspapers, the pieces fell into place: there was the outline, head back, its feathers slightly pink against the snow, of a ptarmigan perched on the side of a hummock, and raising my gun I slowly saw its companion hunched down in the hummocks to the left, beyond a bit of frozen moss, resisted the temptation to shoot between them, aimed at the more exposed bird and fired, whereupon the camera stopped, the extra flew away, and I walked over to pick up the dead bird. In this way I shot four or five ptarmigan. About two o’clock the snow stopped and soon afterward Arthur appeared striding down the slope. He had walked around the mountain to the south, then got worried about me because of the snow and returned. He had left his pack up on the mountain. It was now almost clear and I followed him back up the slope to a narrow terrace with several tall vertical stones on its edge, where we ate a late lunch.
I wanted to return to my spot, but Arthur, who was going to walk over to the northern slopes, wanted me to try further up. We had between us seventeen ptarmigan. As the weather cleared, the birds became very wild and during a long circuit up the mountain I couldn’t manage to get near enough to shoot. Toward dusk I pursued a flock high up. The storm had faded away and the sun disappeared behind a slope in a flush of pink, which, coloring the snow, made the ptarmigan almost impossible to see. I had put up this flock three times when finally, having marked their flight exactly, I made a long circle to come down on them from above, the only approach that would give me a clear view, along the course of a frozen brook that emptied into a little marshy pond. When within bare range I squatted down and waited. For several minutes I could make out nothing except the glazed pond, snowy hummocks, still grass. I rose and took a step forward, a bird ran, and they all flew, tipping down the hill before I got off a shot. That was the last chance of the day. Part of me felt utterly defeated: the bitter taste of unmet expectations. But we already had our fifty birds. To kill ptarmigan one has to overcome a certain identification with them. The birds flocking for winter were part of the whole wild day, of the clouds sailing over the nearby peak, the cold glow of the sky. (So were we hunting them.) As I started downhill I could see Arthur moving below me, and partway up the opposite slope the line of plowed snow that marked the road, over which, only part of its roof showing, I made out our jeep. We stayed two more days. My best and worst moments as a hunter came late one afternoon on a hillside covered with scrub birch where I killed three ptarmigan I wasn’t able to find. Tracks wound everywhere and the birds were rising close in. It was like shooting ruffed grouse at home. I had killed a single and was going to pick it up when I downed one of a pair that rose after a larger group, missed a passing shot through a gap in the branches, then killed one of another pair that came by over my head. I thought I had marked all three carefully, but in the gloom under the birches I couldn’t find any of them. Half an hour later in the near-dark I killed one I only heard and then, following some sixth sense (I hadn’t known whether I had hit it, but thought I had heard it fall), walked over and picked it up. What turned out to be the last day dawned red and clear, and at ten o’clock the frost hummocks on the edge of a little plateau above the river still glittered slightly pink in the bright sun. We spent the morning up on the divide but did-
n’t see much. A haze covered the slopes and sea to the north. By the time we returned to the hotel for lunch, the temperature had risen fifteen degrees, the wind was booming, and it would soon be raining hard. Further down the valley, moss glittered on soaked earth, water exited in bursts of spray from culverts, and a line of telephone poles marched single file over a tan and white slope angling away from the road. We passed the hillside with the birch scrub and soon reached a farm and post station at the head of a fjord on the south coast. The unstuccoed concrete buildings, streaked with rain, reminded me of the poet’s house at Herdisavik. He had lived much of his life as a businessman abroad, writing poems of Reykjavik, the sea, northern winter nights. When he returned, he had built a small, one-story house of corrugated iron painted white, with a white iron roof. Situated on the narrow lava plain between the line of cliffs and the sea, it had had a magnificent garden gate: two great drift logs that had been cut off and set in the ground. A round cap of moss grew on top of each and with time they had leaned slightly together, though still holding on to the lava slabs of the wall, so that entering, you had, just barely, to twist your shoulders.
november 20: Late in the morning I go out and pick over the books in the
United States Information Service Library, whose location (an Icelander told me) was recently changed from a working-class neighborhood, where people visited it on their lunch hours to read the papers, to splendid isolation on the ground floor of the new hotel I can see from my dorm window. A wet wind is blowing and later I go to a coffee shop downtown, located above a bookstore (Icelanders read more than the people of any other western country), where I read a three day old Herald Tribune and stare at the green metal gable of the Post Office building across the street. In the evening I, the other American in Gardur, and an English girl we take in tow walk into the old town to attend a weekly function of the embassy community, a double feature shown in the residence of the Marines. There we get slightly drunk and I slip into Susan’s purse a needed glass, which someone had already removed from the hotel I had visited that morning. When we leave, the night seems so silent, black and still: a red dot glows from the spire of a church in the distance, there is no wind. Descending a hill we cross the bridge at the bottom of the lake. Ice gleams in a bluish line between the asphalt road and the curb. After partly ascending the
opposite hill, on Susan’s dare we climb the gates to the cemetery (Susan has the most trouble), and race each other along the paths, then try walking along the narrow walls of the graves (Susan was the best). Coming on an open gate on the other side, we return on a sidewalk along the lower edge, on which the sound of the basaltic sand crushed underfoot, on a still or gusty midnight, echoes with a metallic ping off the iron walls and garden gates of the houses, startling the late and solitary walker himself who produces the noise. By the time we make it back to Gardur, the wind is blowing hard again, rattling through the open window on its hook my bare white door.
november 30: This evening we all walk up to the concert. It is a weekly occasion: foreign students are granted passes to one of the series of the Reykjavik Symphony. In addition to the usual crowd we have Freyja, who has borrowed a pass from a German student who didn’t want to go. A capricious wind is blowing and two ducks, caught in the upthrust cone of a streetlight, seem to flutter like great brown moths, a visual impression contradicted by the whistle of their wings overhead. Freyja is small, quiet and blonde. By the time we reach the high ground near the Hotel Saga the group has split up, the wind has doubled in force, and Freyja and I hold onto each other crying out and laughing as we slide along the edge of the road, skirting the mud, headlights, and smoking exhaust of the parking lot.
the river before the town and we pull up on the main street—a vista of gray light on snow, with a field on one side and the buildings of the town on the other. Following the bus driver’s finger, I head down a street along the river. The houses are large and two-story, made of concrete, each with its birches and rowan in the yard. A church stands beside a pond, on which a number of children skate through a reflected gleam of green and rose. Through the branches of a birch one can see the round glow of one of their smaller member’s crimson trousers. With a sweet, sharp note a snow bunting bounds over an approaching wall and I see the sign of the street I am looking for. Her house is on the corner. Opening the iron gate I look back across the plain to see, much closer than I had expected, like a gigantic black step against the gray sky, a massive black mountain. I slowly realize I have seen it, from another side, two or three times before. Inside it is warm and she is glad to see me. Her mother sets out a magnificent tea and her father and I toast the still young year in peppermint schnapps.
january 1: I go to England to visit relatives for christmas and return about
midnight on the 31st to Reykjavik. I offer my floor to two Englishmen my age who have come on the plane for the winter’s fishing, and after the light is out they go to sleep immediately, but I can’t. It is a wet, windy night and the geese that spend the night on the soccer field behind Gardur keep honking and chattering, the open window bangs in the wind, and the smell of rain fills the little room, before I finally fall asleep.
january 2: Today with the dormitory still empty from the Christmas vacation,
I take a bus to Selfoss to visit Freyja. Though it is early afternoon, the sun has set and the sky is streaked with pink. The bus driver plays sentimental tunes on the radio that match the changing colors of the sky and it seems a long time before we come down off the high moor to the plains near the sea. In a pasture clumps of yellow grass show through the snow. A miniature suspension bridge crosses
january 18: This morning I go out to Seltjarnarnes (Seal Point), which forms the tip of the peninsula on which Reykjavik is built. After a walk downtown, preceded by a rush, so as to be there early enough (ten past eleven, it’s dark until nine) I catch a bus from the central square. It is a cold day. Despite the clear, almost aqua sky, the buildings and vacant lots of the city are in tones of gray. The next to last bus stop is oppsite an open window in a house wall, from which someone sells hot dogs. Beyond, we pass a fish freezing factory, several new concrete houses, and a low old one, built of wood (probably recycled packing lumber) and tar paper. At the top of the hill is a school and a metal shelter where the bus turns around. A footpath leads down to a large house facing the sea. Retreating back down the road a bit, I make my way along a pasture fence through the snow to the beach. In front of me, an offshore reef is marked by the dip and sway of water and dark strands of surfacing weed. Eiders are diving along its outer edge, the white breasts of the drakes slightly reddened when they catch the sun. On a rocky spit several oystercatchers scream and yip as they pick over the mats of olive Fucus. Across the silver and aqua bay the stacks of the cement factory in Akranes and a long row of pastel houses float in the wet glow, with on one side four cottony mountains and on the other a dim bluish chain which is finally cut off by the hill to my left. From the top of the hill on a clear winter’s day one can
see the shadow of the massive cone, faintly pink, of the glacial peak in which the chain (and the island) end a hundred miles away. Something slides past the edge of my vision as the level of riot rises among the oystercatchers, and by the time I have my binoculars out, a gyrfalcon is suspended over the beach, then turns, beats his wings twice, and in thirty seconds has vanished in a long glide over the bay towards Esya, half visible under a cap of cloud, easily outdistancing two awkward and loose-jointed ravens which flap up from further down the beach in pursuit. The ravens row slowly back into sight, now croaking and joking, one sticking out a stiff wing and flipping over on its back. A wave breaks in a long curl on the reef, the noon whistle blows downtown. It is damp, cold, lovely, and lonely. Past the schoolhouse yard, where grass shows through the snow, the road forks, one fork leading out to the point itself with its lighthouse and the other across the peninsula. I take the latter, which leads me along a hollow between two low hills. Further on I come to a housing development, then a blue glitter of sea, and a long yellow slope leading down to a fresh-water pond. Mallards quack in the grass beside the pond and from a cobalt bay between two black points come plaintive snatches of song from a long-tailed, old-squaw duck who is diving there with two companions. I walk over to the adjacent beach, off which an unknown duck is swimming slowly past a file of chunky eiders into a pool of obsidian and rose. Water from the pond trickles steadily down the shingle while in front of me a silhouette of cones and rugged slopes slowly disappears in mist, leaving only a dark line over the water. A gull walks down a glistening sewer outlet into the green and violet, cold and brimming glow. The sun has set but it will be light for several more hours. I am suddenly cold through and head for home. Back along the peninsula the streets keep curving out and out along the sea. Here and there on the beach side of the road are groups of fishing shacks, each with its two or three boats, and a pair of rusty rails leading down into the water. When near the Hotel Saga I turn away from the glow and make my way along a snowy street past the familiar bakery, then a grocery store with a pyramid of oranges in the window, and a bus stop, at the corner of a wide street. At last back in the warm kitchen of Gardur I take off my boots and have a mug of tea. The sky out the window is streaked with green which will fade after a while to a deep aqua. Inside it is almost dark. My toes are warming up as I hear the second pot of water come to a boil.
january 23: Returning to Gardur from town, I see the sun reflected in its
opaque, sea-green windows, the color I suppose an effect of the spray that is often in the air of this narrow peninsula. A tremendous wind is blowing but it is not very cold. To an occasional noise from the geese behind the building, I fall asleep in my chair.
february 14: I have a photograph of the little lake in downtown Reykjavik taken on a February day when the other American student and I were on our way to take the ferry to Akranes, a town across the bay, for the afternoon. It was a still day. Under a pale sky the row of buildings along the end of the lake is reflected without a ripple in the brimming blue water. The ferry ride took about an hour. I, who was brought up several hundred miles from the sea, find remarkable each time the tension of a ship underway, driven by the angle of its compass needle and the vibration of the engines. It was beginning to cloud over, with a coppery light on the rippled sea to the south, while a mile or so away the passing shoreline was marked off by small white houses, each a mile or more from its neighbor, on its rectangle of yellow field. We skirted the mouth of a black fjord and soon after changed course to point directly towards a tower on what seemed to be the outskirts of the town. The town grew taller and taller as we approached. Two main streets led at an angle from the sloping entrance to the harbor. We chose one and for lack of anything better to do went in search of the tower. The town was spotlessly clean. The streets and houses were made of concrete: Akranes is the site of the only cement plant in Iceland. The cementitious material comes from deposits of sea-shells on the ocean bed. Fish hung drying from the balconies of the houses. The two streets met at the end of the city in a sort of turnaround with a row of shops and parking spaces, and a gas station. Beyond were fields and a gravel road. Heading back, we took a side street toward where we thought the tower should be and soon came to another outskirts with unfinished apartment buildings on both sides of a muddy road. We could now see the tower in the distance. Al stopped at a bakery to buy some cakes. The tower turned out not to be part of a church, but a square, redbrick structure with an oak door in its base. It was set in a walled rectangle of turf whose yellowing grass was spotted with the crimson rosettes of last year’s dandelions. Al, who could read more Icelandic than I (I was the only foreign student who
was not studying Icelandic), said the tower was a memorial to seamen. The door was locked and no one seemed to be there, so after inspecting it from the outside we left. It turned out to be further than we realized back to town. The sky was turning an inky blue over the slope of a nearby mountain. A man in faded work clothes passed us on a bicycle with a “good evening” in Icelandic. One could hear voices from a white house just visible along the mountain’s base, a dog (dogs are rare in Iceland) barked in the distance toward town, the rutted road smelled of mud, and it was very peaceful and still. We got back to the harbor with two hours before the next ferry and looked for a place to have coffee. Unfortunately the hotel was under repair, and a stand near the cement factory, where we were told a woman served coffee at certain hours, didn’t seem to be open. We were already well known as the two foreigners in town, and in an incident typical of Iceland, a man who spoke English stopped us to ask what we were doing and then took us to his house for coffee. He had a thirteen year old son who was interested in birds. The boy showed us the feathers and rocks in his room, which included feathers and a wing from a dead gyrfalcon he had found a month ago on the beach.
march 1–3: On March first I was scheduled to fly to Husavik, a fishing village on the north coast, and from there to make my way inland some thirty miles to a farm-hotel on the north end of Lake Myvatn (Fly Lake: named for its abundance of non-biting black flies), where it had been arranged for me to stay that spring and summer while studying the area’s gyrfalcons. The realization that I was soon to go prompted me, after my return from England, to sign up for an evening course in basic Icelandic at a commercial school downtown, an institution whose peeling hallways, rain-blotched windowpanes, and classroom methods—and even the lumpy moon in a polished night sky, threatened by a transparent arrow of greenish and yellowish drift, as wrapping my coat closer, I hurried down the street on which the school was located, to cut across at the corner—were unpleasant reminders of my educational past. That fact however should cast no reflections on the halls, windowpanes, or sky themselves, or even on that harsh and illusive language from which in a process too far along for me to sense, my own everyday tongue has developed. As it turned out, we could not leave when scheduled because of a snowstorm. The next day was one of those odd, lazy days when everything is packed and one
waits, yawning nervously, in an attempt to speed up time, with a sense of clouds, sun, and the orange flesh and taste of the smoked herring one had with tea for lunch. I called the airport every hour or so until they said they would call me. About one o’clock I became convinced we would not leave that day either, and decided to go shopping (it was a Saturday, stores would close early and be closed the next day) for the weekend. At the end of a gray, gray street, between concrete houses and piles of fluffy snow, with an occasional liquid gleam through the low clouds, were supermarket, milk shop, and fish shop, with a bakery on the corner. Back at Gardur I had another cup of tea and did something or other in my room, and what then followed (a call to the airport, the plane was leaving in twenty minutes) helped leave me (but I was already obsessive enough), in connection with the most minor leave-takings (this time we did not take off for another hour and a half), a persistent feeling of something left behind undone (door unlocked? gas on?) that persists to the present day. Our small plane’s aluminum skin had long ago lost its sheen. I walked up the aisle to a seat padded at back and bottom with heavy vinyl cushions, which enveloped me in a rush of chilly, vinyl-scented air. As we circled after take-off, we had a momentary view of the bay, with its depths in shades of green and brown, its black reefs, tawny brown islands. (A century and a half ago an Icelander had rowed out to one of those islands and killed with a stick, for a Danish collector, the last recorded great auk.) A white house on the slope of Esya rose to meet us, then began to tilt as we disappeared into rough air and mist. The clouds parted once during the next hour and a half to reveal a thread of ice in a ravine drowned in snow, the land rising ahead to some upland, when everything again disappeared. The suspense was becoming enormous when we pulled up with a roar over a black sea and slid into a hollow between two low hills, snowflakes suddenly shot past the window and slowed, and everything— hills, plane, valley—was halting, stopping, melting in a gray twilight. The door opened with a clank next to a green shed, with a jeep and a truck, headlights on, struggling up the road in the distance. The truck turned out to be the airport bus. It had seats on a raised platform behind the driver and a rear section, separated from us by a partition, for freight. We entered Husavik down a hill, stopping now and then at side streets or house doors, to let people off. The main street downtown was a single track, with snow up to the houses’ roofs. Lamplight shone on the drifts and on the little plumes of snow that sifted across the road. The airline office, final stop, was
to my relief right across the street from the large brown hotel. I soon collected my box, bag, pack, and skis into the empty lobby. I pushed open a swinging door into what turned out to be the dining room. A couple sat at a table having a coke. After some hesitation I asked them in Icelandic whether they spoke English. Both shook their heads and the girl started to laugh. Then they called the waitress, who after trying to understand me, led me into the kitchen, where a round, pleasant woman who had lived for a long time in Chicago, was making dinner. With her help I got a room for the night and lugged my belongings upstairs into the company of two beds, a sink, a desk, and a strong smell of lamb fat. Dinner was in half an hour. It was still dusky outside. The room was very hot. I had been bothered by the amount of snow on the ground: how was I going to get to Myvatn? However right now there was nothing much I could do. Putting my suitcase on one bed, I took off my sheepskin, sport jacket, and sweater, shed my boots, and sat down experimentally on the other. The key with its wooden wedge lay on the desk. I lay back for a moment with my head on my two hands and in a manner undoubtedly prescribed in some book by an English traveller fell asleep. When I awoke twenty minutes later, the windows of the room had a rich, violet glow, as happens whether at forty-three or fifty-eight degrees of latitude at the beginning of a snowy night. Outside, people were moving along the blue street, and a group of teenaged girls, with upward looks, paused under my window. I felt sweaty after my nap and rinsed myself off at the sink, then tried to open a window to change the air in the room. Placed carefully in a corner under the sink was an empty vodka bottle, its square glass like a bottle of witch hazel or some other medicine. Shortly after six, I took a seat in the dining room for dinner. The only other occupant was a small man in a flannel shirt and sweater who had the table next to the kitchen. That seemed to be the most popular place, for after his punctual occupation of it the next noon, it was taken by a group of noisy workmen in blue, who ate an enormous lunch, joked with the waitress, and had their thermos refilled with coffee. After dinner I went upstairs to plot out what I would do, but I already knew what those possibilities were, and went down to talk to the woman from Chicago, who was frying a bread which I remember being called Christmas bread but which may have been something else, for it was being made for a festival the next week. From her I learned where the oil company and milk cooperative were located, whose trucks would be my only way,
besides foot or ski, of getting to Myvatn. She didn’t think anyone would be going anywhere for some time. After talking with her and a brief turn about my room, it still being too early for evening coffee, I went out for a walk. Outside it was blowing hard. At the top of a short, steep hill, a row of houses ended in a streetlight, the top of a green picket fence, and an expanse of glazed snow. Further on was a large building with a corrugated metal door. I pushed on, breaking more or less regularly through the crust, toward where I could hear the sea. By the time I reached the top of the hill my forehead ached from the wind. Snaky, white, luminescent waves broke on the beach below. My palms, wet with spray, only made the headache worse, and as I headed back the immediate sensation of relief (I was now heading away from the wind), the tinkle of the spinning bits of crust, the tug of the gale at my back, made me start laughing. I got back across the fence and picked my way down the plowed street. Part way down the wind was much less. Between the houses a row of unblinking greenish lights lit the edge of the harbor. The next day the storm was over. It was a wet, overcast day. While I had directions for the dairy cooperative and the oil company, I still had what I suspect is a commonplace traveller’s trouble with directions in a small town, everyone knows who and what is where, and has trouble conceiving of your problem (it’s on the street two doors past Audni’s house). However the poor stranger, seeing no street signs or numbers, or finding two red houses where there should be only one, and then stopping to ask for more directions, has his problems. Luckily for me, the oil company had a large sign reading “Esso” on its wall, which was almost visible, except for the slight curve of the street, from the hotel. The concession was open, somewhat surprisingly, since it was Sunday. The manager recognized me as a passenger on yesterday’s flight. He had just returned from a vacation in Spain. Oil trucks wouldn’t be going anywhere until the roads had been cleared but this evening a snow vehicle, which had arrived two days ago by ship from Sweden, was leaving for Myvatn. He left to phone and reported that the driver was still asleep, but he would speak to him when he awakened and see to it that he picked me up. He would phone the hotel if anything changed. He spoke Icelandic and I English; we seemed to understand each other. Elated, I walked back to the hotel, a still unsuppressable bit of worry, and a window with a view of black sea and gray cloud. Finally my binoculars on a chair took me outside to where a flight of wooden steps led from the
hotel yard over a roof to the harbor. Steam rose from a chimney next to the stairs, and beside a bare landing someone had thrown down a pile of fish heads, rope ends, and glass floats, which were now frozen into the glazed curve of a drift, with everything speckled with fine snow. A thin, wet arc of pebbly beach revealed the reach of this morning’s high tide. Fishing boats were tied up along a quay out near the breakwater. A hen mallard swam in the ripples twenty feet away, a little further out a cormorant capped a piling, for an instant the clouds to the south turned silver, and when they had closed, everything seemed so much more wet, cold, and gray. Jumping a small stream, I followed a flock of purple sandpipers along the beach. Every now and then an unkempt gull, one of the two varieties into which I had divided the crowd circling the outer harbor, would sail by, convulse in a shake, or a one-footed scratch, with a resulting loss of altitude, recover, and sail on, its brief closeness aiding my attempts at identification. The sandpipers flew, regrouped, raced each other, bickered, and finally flew for good as we approached the end of the beach in a pile of brown stones. They reappeared once, a cloud of midges, over the outer wall before angling down in a far corner of the harbor. I turned back to the hotel for lunch. An hour later the kitchen window framed water, a double row of boats, and the cloud of gulls. About two I walked up to the oil company to check on my ride. Everything had been set up, said my friend, and the departure time was four o’clock. He asked if my watch was on Icelandic time, sighed, and remarked that it was better here in summer. As I left, the machine itself, a sort of red and black tank, roared down the hill opposite and disappeared up the street. I had a twinge of fear. Had I been abandoned? The kindly oil man assured me not; the guy was just joyriding. By four-fifteen I, two other passengers, and the driver were whirring down the center of a wide valley, along one side of which ran a river, with here and there on a point a farm, and in the slowly failing light, hills and valley were drenched in dimness and snow. As we proceeded inland it became colder, grayer, and more bleak, which insofar as the country was becoming wilder, which was all to my expectations. It was nearly three hours later that we let off the last passenger besides myself, in the yellow light from the headlights of a jeep, its exhaust smoking, where another road joined ours, and the whitehaired woman, who had carefully made me understand during a halt that the fellow who drove this machine did not own it (the community did), was greet-
ed by her large, pipe-smoking son or grandson, and I felt much more at home. Half an hour later I was let off in a snowy yard illuminated by a floodlight, and surrounded by three dim houses, whereupon I realized I didn’t know in which of them I belonged. I got the names of the inhabitants from the driver, who was anxious to get home. Deserted in an utter, now starry silence I finally trailed to the nearest one, at which as it turned out I stayed for the next three months, until the hotel opened for the summer and I was put there. It wasn’t until the next autumn that I learned it had originally been planned for me to stay with another family, the man of which was a guide and ornithologist. The warmth and welcome inside, where a coffee party was going on, as well as a certain familiarity with the furnishings, which one might have found anywhere, came as a reassurance and surprise.
march 4: The next morning I get up about eight, breakfast with the family, and by nine am out of the house with my binoculars and pack. From the kitchen table, covered with a blue and white checked oilcloth, one can see a box containing weather-measuring instruments on a tripod and the gray wall of the closed hotel. The snowy road leads south with houses here and there on either side. On top of a rise stands a smaller, older hotel, the center of the separate settlement of Reykjahlid (I live in Reynihlid). As I learn later, all these buildings have been constructed since the 1940s, when the first concrete houses in the area replaced turf dwellings at the farm where I am staying. The settlement behind me, I keep on south along the Lake. After rounding a hill, the road curves toward the head of a narrow bay, which is almost completely unfrozen. A pumping station for the diatomaceous earth plant squats on the point; the upper surface of the Lake bottom consists largely of the shells of diatoms (an algae). The shells are industrially useful and a plant using geothermal heat to process them is being built near the hotel. Open water in winter along the eastern side of Lake Myvatn is a result of subsurface hot springs (their heat another reason for the Lake’s biological richness; over the long term the Lake bottom is supposed to fill in about as fast as it is pumped out). During a storm, wind would cool the surface water and ice would creep nearer and nearer the shore. On the far side of the bay is a rocky hill covered with scrub birch. A mallard swims among some stones, and out near the edge of the ice are several lines of goosanders. Their heads are up and as I watch them, they take off in a rush.
The road leads over the hill, on which lava humps stand up above the birches to another settlement of several houses grouped about another open bay. Further south, where the shore again bends in along the road, the open water more or less stops. For some distance there is a series of tiny pools, every other one of which holds a single drake Barrow’s goldeneye, black and white duck in a setting of still water, wet beach, and snow. One duck silently dives and half a minute later reappears with a dropless shake, in the next pool down. I had left the road to follow the shore and after getting back to it continue on up a low shrubby hill which forms the base of a point extending a long distance out into the Lake. From a lava hump on the top I can see a frozen bay a mile or so south but no open water (one of my projects was to determine the Lake’s winter use by ducks), and as it is now after two o’clock, I decide to turn back. The large bay at Vogar with its several houses has turned a steel gray with little waves and a slight mist. I get back about four-thirty and greet my landlady, who is chatting with one of her in-laws at the garden gate: she has left me a plate of sandwiches for afternoon coffee on the kitchen table.
tle slope, birch leaves, grass, and strands of moss are scattered about the snow. It has scratched the snow away from many low-growing silvery rosettes of Dryas octopetala. The sky is still heavily overcast and the surface of the snow and the clouds to the west have a pink glow in the unnaturally early dusk.
march 5: Today is my birthday. It snows lightly most of the day.
I go out after lunch and after counting the ducks in the narrow bay, find a sort of observation post at the foot of a lava hump on the hill beyond. My backpack makes a good seat. After I have been there about fifteen minutes a ptarmigan bursts out of the scrub behind me and flies across the road, angling downhill, to put down near the hill’s bottom. Twenty minutes later, as it is snowing hard, another ptarmigan bursts out over my rock and flies high across the road, clearing the telephone wires. A large gray and white gyrfalcon is perhaps ten feet behind it. The ptarmigan twists down into the birches, I see the falcon turn, and immediately afterwards spot it perched on a branch, apparently without the ptarmigan. It remains there for about five minutes, then takes off, and just clearing the trees, begins to fly in my direction, rises to clear the wires, when I make a slight movement, it flinches, veers over my rock, and disappears. I stay put for another hour and then for the rest of the afternoon explore the birch scrub on either side of the road, in which I find signs of much use by ptarmigan. The snowfall lets up somewhat, but the sky remains overcast. I see the hunting gyrfalcon twice more. About four o’clock I leave for home. As I go down the hill, I flush a ptarmigan from under a birch beside the road, near where I saw one set down an hour before. Its tracks wind in and out on the lit-
march 6: Today the weather is colder and windy. Now and then the snow ceases for a moment, a blue hole slides open in the clouds, and sun lights the white hills to the east, or the front of an approaching squall over the Lake. I go out after breakfast. Today I am on skis, intending to make some final adjustments before setting out on trips to the eyries about the Lake. As I was having a cup of coffee under my lava cone, a Landrover wallowed by on the road with two men from the settlement, who wave and grin at me. My downhill skis are really not suitable for cross-country, but I manage to devise a suitable set of bindings and get around pretty well. Room and board are costing me slightly more per month than my Fulbright stipend, so that except for the fact that I have a couple of hundred dollars saved, I would be in financial difficulties and don’t feel I can splurge twenty dollars on a pair of those narrow skis of golden wood, made in Finland, a single one of which weighs less than a pound, for sale at the co-operative store: undoubtedly one of my more foolish decisions. After lunch I ski out to the point beyond Vogar. A gyrfalcon leaves a rock above the bay, circles along the hill, and disappears. The usual flock of goosanders, as well as a few Barrow’s goldeneyes and mallards, are swimming in the bay. The goosanders, which seem to be paired up, stay out near the edge of the ice. As I approach, they begin to fly. They appear as big as geese but with short, curved wings. In the sun their white sides look yellow against the charcoal clouds. march 11: It is snowing with a heavy wind this morning. The temperature is
twenty-four degrees. I stay in all day reading. By four-thirty the wind has dropped and the sky begins to clear. The temperature has fallen to twelve degrees by six, when I go out for a little wa;lk before dinner. With a slight, steady breeze and the white light on the snow it feels bitterly cold. The hill slopes and parts of the meadows near the Lake have been blown clear of snow. Completely out of place, over a yellow field, a fat snow bunting clucks at me from a telephone wire.
march 15: One stormy day in mid-March I find on the bookshelves in the
living room a thin volume, a coffee table book in English, on the Arctic. I feel a growing excitement at how closely its meteorological descriptions and picture-postcard photos reflect my daily surroundings. From the ridge of Dalfjall, a mountain a few miles away, on a bright noon, one’s view to the east ends in a rolling haze along the gorge of a glacial river. The riverine fog fades upwards through a rim of turquoise into a cobalt bowl, in which float a few fluffy clouds. Among the dwarf birch on the glittering plain I can make out the black trails and holes in the snow where a flock of ptarmigan spent the night. A raven croaks once in the distance, soaring over a white ridge. As I listen, I can make out the sharp click of the ptarmigan budding below me in the birches. I look at the book again one afternoon in April. I have been out all day and am lying on my bed before dinner in the tiny room off the hall I was given after my return from Reykjavik. Sun floods the window, my face burns from exposure, I am enveloped in warmth and lassitude. The night before I was reading a book by an English ornithologist of a hundred years ago, and a cold bare waste, with weeds sticking up through the thin snow, the shadow of a gable on a green and blue summer day, a sense of another time, mingle with the blue and white photos, the shiny paper, the sun-baked room.
even the ravens aren’t there. I poke around for a while and slowly make my way toward home. When I get back to the airstrip about four o’clock I hardly recognize the view: under a dark sky, the red-tipped birches, the purple mountains at the foot of the Lake, the yellow grass of a meadow near shore, all foretell spring. The surface of the airstrip is greasy with mud, which clings in lumps to my boots.
march 20: Today is bright with a strong west wind. I go on skis to Dalfjall,
which has several eyrie sites in the faces of a fault that cuts through the mountain at a slight angle until, splitting off a little hill, it disappears down into the plain. Single gyrfalcons fly over twice. About two, while I am eating lunch on a shoulder opposite the main face, I hear a noise and see the female of this pair swoop down the slope to land directly behind the male, who is perched on a dead ptarmigan on the plain below. He refuses to share the kill with her. He turns his back, calls, and mantles the prey with his wings, then flies to another perch, where he feeds for a few minutes before she, who is much bigger, tentatively approaches him again. Finally he flies up the slope toward me, perches once, then again, balancing in the gale with the dead bird, sees me, and flies north, vibrating like a string in the wind, followed by his mate. I go way down the ridge but can’t find either of them. By the time I return to the plain to look over the sign it is late afternoon. Falcon tracks and wing marks, the two black halves of a male ptarmigan’s bill, a gizzard with attached intestine, and drops of blood decorate the snow, which shines with a white light. The wind is less on the plain but it is very cold. While I collect the remains and make a sketch of the situation, I can feel my feet beginning to freeze and when I am done I take off one boot to warm the foot in my hands but they are too cold to do the job, so I put on my skis and start along the foot of the slope, which I will follow to where a road cuts over a pass to the basin of the Lake. Around the bend, two ptarmigan are budding in a patch of gray scrub and a flock comes low along the slope and dives into a ravine just beyond. A soft, gray cloud appears over the ridge and it starts to snow. I slog along. It is impossible to get lost. Here and there a branch of the dwarf birch that grows on the plain pokes out of the crust (the dwarf birches are a different species from the other birches, which may reach twelve to fifteen feet in height). Some of the tips have been budded by ptarmigan. They have even nipped at the next quarter inch of wood, which, cut almost through, still hangs from the rest of the branch. The
march 17-18: On the seventeenth the temperature remains all day at twenty-two degrees. A strong wind starts blowing at dawn and from the kitchen window at breakfast, amid the hiss and boom of the storm, one can only now and then see the hotel across the yard, or the gray box of the weather station, which is forty feet away. At six-thirty in the evening the wind stops and it is quiet all night. When I go out on the morning of the eighteenth the temperature is still in the twenties, with a slight southerly breeze. The hill between Rejkjahlid and the pumping station has been blown almost bare. The two bays are separated by new ice. After making a count of the ducks south to where open water in the Vogafloi stops, I go home for lunch. I feel like doing nothing, but after lunch take my pack and walk up to the little airstrip on the plateau behind Reynihlid to look around. The wind is blowing steadily from the southwest and the temperature has risen considerably since morning. I walk a mile over the plateau to Seljadalur, where a pair of gyrfalcons who share a valley with a pair of ravens can’t seem to decide where to nest. Water drips and blows off the cliffs and
ptarmigan population was at a peak the past autumn and may start to fall this spring. My feet gradually start to regain their feeling. Ahead of me in the falling snow I can see the slightly raised mound, with a waist-high hump in the center, of the home field and house of a former farm, on the rising ground next to the slope. The snow whirls in occasional gusts, and now thoroughly warm, I sit down on the old turf wall for a little rest before starting to ascend the hill in back in order to reach the road above in the notch, from where the way home is all either level or downhill. The snow stops about twenty minutes later and the sky behind the clouds has a steely glow. When at six-thirty I get back to Reynihlid it is still quite light. The temperature is five degrees above zero.
march 22: I often think of Freyja. I also missed the other foreign students in Reykjavik. I had kept my room in Gardur and now made plans to go to Reykjavik for a week over Easter. The evening before I left two young women came for coffee. They were visiting my landlady and except for several glances more or less ignored Snaebjorn (the husband), Piessy (the seven-year-old, who helped teach me the language, when he wasn’t burying my boots in the snow), and me, mere household males. As they left, one of them, who I had seen before working in the cooperative store, bent over a table to examine something, and the flat curve of her ski slacks made me suddenly wonder why I was making this trip. At any rate it was already arranged. The next morning I dressed in my good pair of wool pants, tucked into rubber boots, with the same shirt, sweater, and jacket under my sheepskin that I had worn when I arrived. It was a damp. misty morning. After breakfast Snaebjorn’s brother-in-law went out to start the snowmobile on which he had offered to give me a ride to the foot of the lake. There I would meet a Landrover that was going to a school in the Laxa Valley to pick up local children for the vacation. From the school I would have to make my own way to Akureyri, from where a plane left every evening for Reykjavik. When we were out in the middle of the Lake and tearing along, we hit a series of soft spots in the snow, in the last of which the machine bounced and stalled. As Audni tried to start it, it started to sink. We both jumped off and I, not knowing what to do, also started to sink. Audni managed to get the machine started, wrestled it forward until it caught, we scrambled on, the machine ground and ground, then caught and we roared off, my suitcase bouncing up
and down behind on its sled: the ice was soft here and there from hot springs in the Lake’s bottom. After a while the little conical hills at the end of the Lake slid by, then the mouth of a wide bay, and we roared up on shore, along a bank, down a road, and pulled up beside a porch, where Audni left the outlander in the company of an old man in a skullcap. I was invited into a sitting room whose greenish blinds, furniture, and scent of dust somehow matched the weather, the old man, and even the tray of bitter coffee and apricot cake a young woman brought out for us. The driver of the Landrover arrived almost immediately and I made halting conversation with the two men until everyone got down the two cups that etiquette required. We drove very slowly with another car in front of us for what seemed hours over a snowy plain. The sun came out and lit the snow and a line of bare hills under the gray sky. After about forty minutes we began to descend a slope, crossed a bridge, and continued along a river valley. Here the road had been cleared. We passed several farms. About noon we arrived at a complex of large buildings on the far bank of a stream, which comprised the school. Students in scarves and caps were standing around, or running back inside for something, cars pulled up, doors slammed, the sun shone now and then on some rowan trees by the stream, and it was quite gay. The headmaster himself, who was supervising things in classical fashion with scarf and no hat, found me a ride in a red Bronco, into whose luggage compartment we jammed my large suitcase. About one o’clock we set off with seven of us besides the driver. After we had been going about twenty minutes it started to snow. No one had travelled our road recently and it was sometimes difficult to see where it was. We went several times into the ditch but with so many people to push got right out. The students and driver were in a good mood and making plans for the vacation. The snow stopped, we skirted the shore of a frozen lake, and started up a river valley between high mountains, with the buildings of farms on the slopes far above the road. In one spot where we jumped out to push, a gulley across the little river, with what looked like juniper sticking out through the snow, ran in shadow up towards the reddish cliffs and snowfields of the peaks, the sun shone on the drifted road, a dog barked, and smoke rose from the chimney of a farmhouse up the slope, against a damp blue sky. The summer road over the mountain between us and Akureyri was blocked and we had to drive around the peninsula and then south to Akureyri, which is at the head of a fjord. Toward dusk we got on a more traveled road, very rutted
and icy. The snow was up to the car’s roof. It was a gray evening and smelled of the sea. After passing through several villages, we got to Akureyri about eight. As it turned out, I might as well not have gone to Reykjavik. Our snowstorm was a forerunner of a gale over a large part of the North Atlantic that lasted for almost a week. Most of the students were away for Easter. I spoke to Freyja over forty miles of telephone line, beneath which the roads were closed by drifting snow. Esya shone a dull violet under a bright sun and the sky looked dusty with flying spray. In the afternoon I would go down to the harbor to drink a cup of coffee in the restaurant of the seamans’ cooperative, and watch the moon rise and reflect on the green wavelets inside the harbor wall, over which from time to time spray from a high wave would fly. The harbor was crowded with freighters which had come in to wait out the storm. I was more lonely and had less to do than I had had for the past month, and was glad to go back the following Sunday to Myvatn. The storm had ended the day before. It had evidently brought warm weather to the north, since there so much snow had melted that that evening I and three others returning to Reynihlid had to take a taxi to a house on the opposite side of the fjord, into whose backyard was as far as the snow vehicle could come.
snow. In a hollow, where I stop to adjust my skis, frost crystals are settling, with a slight tinkle, through the colder air. Over a rise is the main road, with in succession, a factory for processing diatomaceous earth, a bathhouse on a hill, and a concrete block factory. The factories utilize geothermal steam, and the roar of the steam vents, when the wind is right, can be heard all along the northeast shore of the Lake. The air smells of sulfur, which five hundred years ago was exported from here to Europe. Beyond, the road curves up to a pass. A snowmobile has gone here several days ago and packed the snow. As I get higher up, I see through a gap to the north a cave of pinkish stone against the blue sky. Steam rises from patches of bare earth. The road finally evens out and enters a narrow cut among bare, stony hills where the snow is still drifted several feet deep. From its far end I will turn off toward the Dalfjall ridge. When I arrive on the height of the ridge an hour or so later, it seems too pleasant to hurry. A light wind is blowing. The plain below glitters in the sun, and to the south, toward the center of the country, the lava fields fade through a line of egg-shaped hills in an ascending, ice-blue shimmer. Another attack of spring fever: I sit down for a while before going on to the main face for lunch.
april 8: On my way to Seljadalur (the nearest eyrie) I stop for a moment out april 21: About five as I stand eating a solitary breakfast in the kitchen I keep
of breath and become suddenly conscious of the pounding of the blood in my ears, the damp smell of my woolen scarf, my burning face. I remove cap and pack and unfasten my skis. The silence when I stand up is absolute. Over the gulley’s white edge the intense sky is almost violet in the morning sun. I try to wipe the vapor off my glasses, but it, as always, ends up frozen into a field of ice droplets, which I must patiently breathe on and polish off. hearing a distant noise. It grows and fades, almost like an airplane, except that long after it should be gone, it begins to reappear. I am looking out the window over the sink, toward where a branch of the main road follows the slope of a hill. It is a dull gray morning. As I watch, a grader moves slowly into view: it is plowing out the road around the Lake.
april 25: Today I find a spot above the main cliff in Seljadalur from which to april 10: This morning after breakfast I sit in the living room to listen to the
weather report over the radio—a deliciously indolent ten minutes. After the regional forecasts, data on local conditions are reported from thirty or more stations, of which ours is one of the last. The windows of the room face south and I sit by one which is slightly open for the air. It is a blue and white spring day. The warm taste of milk, porridge and coffee return in a burp as I listen a little longer before leaving for my weekly hour and a half ski to Dalfjall. I turn off on a side road before the cooperative store. A flock of sheep has been driven along the edge, their hooves striking the dirt through the thin watch the resident gyrfalcons. The valley floor is out of sight but I have a good view of the opposite face and the receding ridgetops to the west, which are not visible from my usual position at the foot of the valley. I sit on my pack on a snowdrift, some of which I mound up to make a rest for my telescope. The sun feels hot. Below the drift is a band of damp earth, and then the frozen slope, tan with a pinkish tinge, falls in a gentle curve toward the valley. After some minutes I make out the female perched on a ledge of the opposite slope. Stiffly upright, she remains almost motionless with occasional fits of preening. After about forty minutes another falcon lands on a rock above
her, then swoops down and up to the same ledge. They perch facing each other for a long time and then slowly begin a responsive dance, whose elements are the common preening elements. It starts with the feathers of the breast and wing, proceeds to the back, the abdomen and thigh, and after several repetitions and regressions becomes a series of progresively deeper bows, until the male takes off, circles, lands and balances on her back, as she bends her head toward the ground. Usually he then flies down and out of sight around the cliff to disappear for an hour (the reason I am today up on top), but this time he lands on the ledge beside her and walks slowly back and forth while she straightens and shakes her feathers. I look away for a moment to rest my eyes and when I look back one of the birds is gone. Shortly afterward the other sails away to the north. Twenty minutes later I spot one on a ridge to the west. It must be a good half-mile away. It is soon joined by the other and they perch side by side, now and then changing position, for an hour and a half, when the female begins to preen. Copulation is followed by flight to still another perch. About four I pack up and walk along the ridge toward the mouth of the valley. The edge of a great mat of turf on the slope comes to my thigh. Most of the hillside has already washed into the valley below, where it exists as a bare, level plain, or become part of the “earth winds” that blow in summer: the result of a thousand years of grazing by sheep. A dry birch leaf is curled on a mat of wet crowberry, a little snow glistens in the sun, and the wet leaves next to the shoot of the birch smell of a northern forest in spring.
april 27: As I trudge back across the Lake from watching the gyrfalcons at
Vindbelgjarfjall this afternoon, the hotel, which I can see on the far shore, seems to remain forever at the same distance. The sun is hot in a clear sky, and the crust, which was frozen hard this morning, is now soft, so one sinks into the crumbly snow. A Landrover sets out from a farm ahead of me and goes bumping, water flying from the front wheels, over the ice toward the hazy hills to the south. Near shore, the birches have a spicy smell.
may 7: Arthur arrived two days ago with a plan. When he and Alfred (a biochemist) leave, they will drop me off near a hydroelectric station on the river that flows out of the Lake, and I will walk back up the valley, checking for gyrfalcon eyries along the way. Counting the one near the hydroelectric station,
the area along the way is reported to have four eyries. The distance from where Arthur will let me off to the first farm near the Lake is about twelve miles. That farmer drives the milk truck for the area, so I could probably stay overnight with him and in the morning catch a ride back to the hotel. The whole walk back to the hotel I calculate to be about twenty miles. We spend the last morning shooting a few ptarmigan and trying to collect their blood (difficult when they are dead), for a study Alfred is doing. By three o’clock that afternoon, when I am about to be let off, Arthur is having second thoughts and telling me to forget it and come on with them to Husavik, where I can catch a bus home. We all get out of the jeep on the far side of an iron bridge over the river. Alfred, the laboratory scientist and something of a romantic, settles down on a patch of grass with his hands clasped behind his head. Should I go? They have to leave immediately; we are late as usual. The jeep must get to Husavik to see a mechanic. I am not sure what Arthur—or I— am worried about anyway, it is light almost all night now. I decide to go. Alfred gets up and brushes the sheep dung off his tweed jacket, we all shake hands, and the two of them grind off down the rutted road toward the bridge. Only later do I understand Arthur’s fears were natural enough in a countryside peopled with the ghosts of travellers frozen to death in sudden storms. (But rarely in May.) I follow a wire fence up a steep meadow towards a tan outcrop, out of which sails a raven, croaking and gawping. It is joined by another over the river a moment later. Dandelions are in bloom along the fence, and the grass is a bright green. By the time I have scrambled to the top of the outcrop I am out of breath. Ahead I have a long steady climb before I will reach a vantage point over the valley. I go more slowly, and after about twenty minutes sidestep up a snowdrift as the gradient lessens, and stride across the brown, sticky top of the ridge to a large brown stone, where I shed pack, jacket, and sweater, and sit down to look around. To the north, several miles away, a round white mountain fell in a black drop to the sea. The soft haze into which the shining planes of water disolved, and the fluffy dead-white of the snow that covered the upper part of the mountain formed an elemental contrast (blue, white, black) with the dull moors, streaked with melting snow, that lay in between. Across the valley, in a gap between two high hills, a line of blue peaks reflected the sun. I was still not high enough to be sure of my position. One of the eyries was supposed to be to the northeast of me (the Lake was to the south), and leaving my pack behind, I
headed along the ridge towards a higher slope I could see in that direction. I had been told to look for a face that rose abruptly out of the moor. From the height I reached fifteen minutes later, I could see two possible faces, near each other, but at least an hour’s walk away to the north. Both looked unclimbable. Here I was quite a bit higher and to the south could make out with binoculars the red roof of the farmhouse at the valley’s head (a quarter mile from the Lake), set on the side of a sunny slope that rose behind it to a considerable height. I would have trouble finding my things again if I went much farther, and turning back downhill, in ten minutes I came in sight of the top, where I picked up my stuff, and headed south along the ridge toward the Lake. It was beginning to cloud over and the late afternoon air felt cold and raw. My way led along the slope and then uphill again. I soon crossed a jeep track, and though it angled somewhat away from the river, began to follow it toward what now seemed the major height between where I had first come up on the moor and the farm at the head of the valley. About five, I reached the height, perhaps three miles from where I had first started. The track ended at the top of a hill in a circle of bare soil, enclosed by large stones. Down the slope a loud whirr and cough announced the presence of a cock ptarmigan, still in its white winter plumage, the afternoon’s first, who eyed me from a patch of camoflaging snow. The moors were a dark green and brown this time of year, before new leaves appear on the birches and herbs. The vegetation consisted of mosses, mounds of dark crowberry, silvery Dryas, a low Arctic heather, and a creeping birch, still leafless. Here and there were large circles of a curly, pale lichen, once used for soup. Despite the open character of the country, the walking was not very good. The hollows often consisted of a network of frost hummocks, which it was easier to skirt, and on the higher ground the creeping birch kept one from a steady stride. For the next two or three miles I found signs of gyrfalcons. Here and there on the slopes were boulders, often on a little height or shoulder. Some had bright blotches of an orange lichen, with at their bases, a stiff wing or two yellowing breast feathers from last season’s ptarmigan. One, on a level, was surrounded by withered stalks of lady’s mantle, a fairy ring fertilized (like the lichens) by the nitrogen-rich droppings of the falcons. There was supposed to be an eyrie near the abandoned farm of Hamar, which the map located just upstream of a large birch wood. On my last circle toward the
river, I had seen the beginnings of the wood and after a while, fed up with pushing my way along the moor, and at any rate out of sight of the cliffs along the river where the eyries probably were (they had been reported by an old alcoholic and smuggler who lived nearby), I started down. After a hundred feet the vegetation became more dense and green. Farther down water seeped from a slope, and a clump of birches, their leaves just showing, stood higher than my head. I came to the side of a gully, which widened back into a sort of bowl. A bird flipped up to a branch, and through my binoculars the low sunlight shining on the scene expanded bird, valley and scrub willow all out of proportion, an illusion which only vanished upon my approach when the thrush flew down toward some rocks and I saw the outcrops stood perhaps head-high above the basin floor. Turning around I followed along the gully and soon came in sight of the river. It had been a lucky calculation, for perhaps a hundred yards upstream, on a little rise separated from the river by the black humps and birches of an old lava flow, I could see the yellow grass of a meadow. It is on a summer’s day in a northern country that one should see these meadows. Long-stemmed dandelions creep upward through the high grass, insects buzz, a birch tree shimmers on the hill, while the hint of coolness in the air, the bright sun, lend that moment a rich, almost overpowering nostalgia. Even in the spring dusk, surrounded by the constant roar of the river, one felt something of it. Last year’s heavy grass, with a dry, sweetish scent, lay flat on the acre of field that surrounded the house. Water tinkled at the bottom of a ditch near the door. The ditch was still bridged by a plank, and one could step from end to end of the building, which had probably been inhabited for several hundred years by at least two adults and their children, in four paces (the old birdwatcher had supposedly grown up there). The outer walls, which were of turf and two feet thick, reached my chest. The roof lumber, except for two posts, had been removed. A low turf wall enclosed the home field, which with labor and time had been raised two or three feet above the surrounding land, so that from the outside in some places it came up to one’s chest. I sat down away from the house on a little rise near a stone where the grass gave way to rosettes of Dryas and clumps of moss, and ate my dinner: bread, with the lower jaw of a sheep. The sour taste of the coffee from the thermos, lingering along the back of my tongue, has become symbolic for me of these Icelandic afternoons. For some time after leaving Hamar, I stayed down near the river. But the going was difficult there also, I still had a long distance to cover, and so I head-
ed once again to the higher slopes. A footbridge across the river marked the location of the next and last eyrie, so I had to stay more or less in sight of the valley. It was becoming quite dusky, and when I stopped to rest I could hear the dull pound, expanded by distance and the growing dusk, of the river. A pair of headlights wound up the road to the farm at the valley’s head, still several miles away. This time I came down off the slopes too early and had some trouble finding what I wanted. Just below the bridge itself was a pond in a sort of bowl, and I was up on the slope behind it poking around when a molted gyrfalcon feather and a series of lichen-splotched perching posts led me over the ridge into a neighboring hollow that contained several small cliffs, some yellowing ptarmigan remains, and an abandoned raven nest on a ledge that smelled of thyme. The nest had not been used by falcons this year, and I sat down on a rock on the far side of the hollow to finish my bread and coffee. I had now come about ten miles. A little waterfall splashed in the hollow, my shins ached, and a winter wren, a bird I knew from home (the Icelandic form was plumper and grayer), sang several times, a rising and dipping swell of notes, from the other side. Anyway, now I was on my way home. For a while I pushed along a sheep track, but it was just a bit too narrow to make good going and for the last time I climbed up to the slopes above the river. I had lost sight of the farm. On the heights here the ground was muddy and almost bare. Above the rising ground, the dome and long hump of Vindbelgjarfjall, the mountain at the near corner of the Lake, now quite close, were bathed in a pale gray light. When I saw the farm again it was below me on the slope, where its red iron roof made an “L.” Two trucks were pulled up in the yard. Its windows were dark, it was a long way down and almost nine o’clock at night, and while I was tempted to descend, the simplest thing seemed to be to continue on my way. Most of the rest of the way would be by road. A half hour’s walk brought me over the plateau and in sight of the Lake and a farm. As I waded a shallow stream a dog began to bark. I left my bootprints along the edge of a bare field, and crossing the corner of someone’s yard, arrived by their driveway on the road around the Lake. This section of the road was unfamiliar to me, but forty minutes walk brought me to the little hills surrounding Vindbelgjar farm, situated near the lakeshore across a marsh from the mountain. At the head of the driveway was a large sign reading “PRIVATE” (in English), an anti-birdwatcher measure. (Myvatn was popular with English and European birders in summer. I regular-
ly trespassed, threading my way around the ponds of the marsh, with their nesting grey-lag geese, to visit the eyrie at Vindbelgjarfjall). Night was falling and from a patch of open water on the Lake came a cacophony of waterbird noises: whistles, coos, trills, the whoops of swans. One doesn’t think of waterbirds as singers, but their songs have a strangely haunting quality. When the Norse god Loki took Freyja to his castle in the hills, she wouldn’t stay: she said the wailing of wolves compared poorly with the song of swans. The road turned away from the Lake and ran along a fence toward the mountain, against a blood-red sky, straight north. Trees grew along the fence, and the pasture was full of small birds, all singing, stopping when I came too near and beginning again when I had gone on. A thrush flew into a birch ahead of me and that monent, under that mountain and that red sky, with the thick grass behind, the near rustling bird, seemed again the essence of an Arctic year. A ptarmigan coughed from the scrub, a swan called, and further along a band of sheep clattered out onto the road, stopped when they saw me, and disappeared with a rush around a bend. At one o’clock, at the distance of half a mile, the yard-light behind the settlement at Reynihlid had the green and violet glare of true night. As I crossed the lava field that had flowed down from the plateau two hundred and fifty years ago to stop (as one could see) at the walls of the stone church, gulls were screeching over the Lake. The door was unlocked, the rooms had a familiar smell. My dinner had been left warming on the stove.
may 15: I leave the house at five after a cup of coffee and two of last evening’s
sweet pancakes. The pair of gyrfalcons at Dimmuborgir (a lava depression with several good faces three miles down the road) has laid and I go watch the nest almost daily. Nothing much happens: the female incubates the eggs, sometimes the male brings her prey. Most of the prey are ptarmigan. That should change in a month as the male ptarmigan lose their white winter plumage and stop displaying. A ptarmigan moor, with its rocks and lava humps dotted with displaying, very visible cock ptarmigan is essentially a supermarket for gyrfalcons. Looking out over a moor, one sees the ptarmigan and then if one keeps looking, often a silent gyrfalcon, perched in the top of a birch. After the eggs have hatched, the cocks turn brown (as the hens did a month earlier), stop displaying and become much more difficult to hunt. The gyrfalcons then turn to ducks and young gulls; at least this is Finnur’s theory (and it turned out to be
what happened). The air is raw and smells of mud as I flip last night’s rain off my bicycle saddle with my fingers. Now the roads are open I have acquired, thanks my landlady’s generosity, a new mode of transportation. The sun is already burning over the brown hills to the east but most of the plain about the lake is in shadow. Ten minutes later as I am coasting down the hill before Vogar, I am still cold and I turn off on a track into a lava field interspersed with birches that leads toward the underground hot spring where we bathe. A merlin (a small, dark falcon) flies from cone to cone and then crosses the track as I gain a little height among the blocks of red lava. The lava ends in a slope of black sand, cut by a line of dark blocks that mark the underground stream. Wisps of steam rise from the ground and three hundred yards away a ptarmigan coughs from a rock near the foot of the hills. When I head back, the same merlin crosses the road, now five feet behind a frantic gray and black wagtail (an abundant summer songbird) which escapes among some rocks. By the time I reach the turnoff to Dimmuborgir, it feels warmer. Two drake mallards are pursuing a hen high in the sun-streaked air. Rushes push up at the edge of a little pond, and a snipe booms, with spread tail, in an arc beyond the telephone wires. As I turn, my tire stirs a breath of summer dust from the road.
floats in the pale Arctic sea, which dissolves beyond a line of black cliffs and pink slopes in sunlit planes of mist.
june 7: It is a cold raw morning. Clouds hang over the northern part of the
Lake, and when the sun comes out, the horizon to the south and west has a blue glitter. After a chilly pedal, I leave my bicycle by the entrance to Dimmuborgir and start down the slope on a worn path (Dimmuborgir is a national park) from which I soon branch off towards the eyrie. My usual route leads over the raised center of the lava depression to a shelf on its far side, on which I sit across a valley from the butte on the depression’s edge which contains the eyrie. On the sides of a small pit created by the collapse of its lava top, birches are in new leaf. Several terraces make a zigzag descent to my valley. The last one, which is completely covered with crowberry, with heart-high birches in twos and threes, I cross the long way to reach a rocky gulch from whose head I can see the eyrie. To the east crouches a line of purple hills, mottled in white, like leopards, with snow that never seems to leave. A birch leaf, rubbed between one’s fingers, leaves a scent and faint stickiness that lasts all day, a few sprigs of crowberry have clusters of pink bloom, the sun shines for a moment on the ground, and it seems as if spring, a warm day when one can sit outside without moving, will never come.
june 5: I arrive in Akureyri late yesterday evening after a brief trip to Reykjavik,
where I arranged for a visit by my parents in September. The bus for Myvatn does not leave until eight o’clock the next morning. After supper in a cafeteria I go for a walk. It is a clear evening with the sky slightly suffused with pink at eleven o’clock. I am almost comfortable in shirtsleeves. A cruise ship is anchored out in the fjord and the sound of dance music drifts over the water. At the far end of a wharf, two men are working on the deck of a trawler. It isn’t that warm and I start to shiver. I get up the next morning to a cool room. Sunlight drenches the window curtains, which move slightly in the morning breeze as I wash in a basin at the foot of the bed. I get a cup of coffee from a stall and am five minutes early for the bus. We are soon ascending the slope of the mountain across the fjord in a series of long hairpins, at the end of each of which the sea and mountains exchange positions. Here and there a house stands above the road, its white walls and windows shining in the sun. New grass is beginning to cover the stones beside the road. The fjord widens further out, with pink sawtooth mountains, their tops cut off in a straight line, on either side. Several miles down a brown island
june 20: Today after lunch I go to Vindbelgjarfjall. I am quite sure the gyrfalcons there aren’t nesting. From where I leave my bike beside the road, the way leads through a birch scrub with several small irregular lakes. Today, three years later, I am certain I could not find my way through that marsh without some trouble. I sit down on a little rise below the east end of the cliffs. White clouds float over the ridge and a merlin (one of a nesting pair) makes a movement on an outcrop above me, against the dark slope. I can hear the chomp and snuffle of a small horse feeding a hundred yards away. About half an hour after I arrive the gyrfalcons appear gliding and flapping with their curious butterfly beat, midway along the slope from the east. The merlin leaves his post with a scream to dive again and again at the larger birds, who duck, flinch, and finally swoop up to land on the face some distance further down, whereupon the merlin returns, still screaming, to his post. About ten minutes later one of the gyrfalcons flies, circles twice, and disappears in a glide over the ridge, to be followed after a minute or two by the other.
Ptarmigan are less abundant this spring, which may be why several pairs of gyrfalcons about the Lake failed to breed.
august 10: As I drink my coffee at the table in the corridor off the hotel kitchen this morning, the sun that floods the little room bakes my head and neck with summery warmth. Cool air and morning voices float in through the open door. Finished, I go up to my room (in July I was given a worker’s room in the hotel) to get my pack and take it out to my bicycle, which, leaning in the shadow against the back wall of the hotel, is still damp from the night. Today, as for the last several days, I plan to look for groups of juvenile gyrfalcons. In the hollow between the two settlements grass partly hides the window in the gable of a turf barn, and when I reach the top of the rise near the co-operative store I get off my bicycle to put on a sweater. I stop near the turnoff to Dimmuborgir to poke around. From there the road leads down a slope and into an area of round hills and nearby islands, a low, rich lakeshore where moss grows among small rocks and the purple flowers of wild geraniums color an island between two pillars of tuff. On the left of a long straight stretch sand dunes approach the road over a low lava ridge. As I near the foot of the Lake, the road turns west along a fence. A dirt track goes south toward a farm on the shore of a small lake whose outlet the main road (also dirt) soon crosses on a wooden bridge. Beyond the next bend the willows and lava plates of a marsh shimmer in the sun. It is almost noon. After glassing the area I turn back to the bridge to eat lunch. Reeds grow in the miniature estuary of the stream, where next to a grassy hill it enters the Lake. In the green water a single char is rising for gnats on the surface. Now and then it almost disappears down among the weeds that rise from the bottom, toward where a tall bank of stalks glows in the thick sun. With the tiny, competitive speculative part of my mind I cast a fly to a ripple above him, while with my gaping senses I feel the warm planks under my stomach, the translucent air, the fields shining like rubies around the Arctic lake, the cool breathe of the water, the rising fish, and I feel an immense, terrible peace. I could live here forever, never speaking to a soul, never caring for anything more than the pale gleam of a stockingless thigh.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?