From country to city

I packed up early in the morning. There was plenty of daylight to see by of course, since this time of year “night” is mostly of a state of mind.

Decked out and ready for more adventuring.

I headed out on the coastal road instead of returning to the highway. A few days ago I’d scanned ahead using satellite view on my phone, and confirmed it was paved. It was a nice discovery and a lovely road; far more interesting than the main one.

Ahh, those cute flowers!

I was on it for about two hours, and that entire time I was not passed by a single car in either direction. Delightful!

Cold and spooky!
The windy, wet road ahead.
Is this the result of a hundred years of birds nesting?
Bird on the lookout.
I assume this is where the postal worker delivers the packages.
If this were in Oakland, it would be an art collective surrounded by a homeless camp.
It looked neat, but not neat enough for me to make a detour.
Cold winters can destory anything eventually.

A bird posed for me on a ruined house, so I lingered for a while, lining up a shot and chomping a handful of peanuts — the very last of my food.

The bird posed for me.

I took some video of the tundra-like volcanic landscape and the modest farmsteads, feeling glad for my layers of clothing.

“This is what it’s like to cross the interior,” I thought. “Except the interior is more barren, colder, and has far worse roads, including river crossings. So, hmm. Maybe it’s not really like this at all.” An idea was percolating in my head to diverge from the coast somewhere along my tour, but I didn’t have details yet.

There were some gravel patches but the ground was hard beneath, so the bike handled them well.  I was tempted to think it would do well on the gravel roads farther upland, but experience told me there would be deep gravel and even mud up there. My skinny tires would have trouble.

Eventually the coastal road crossed under the main highway and turned into gravel beyond it, so I switched to the highway.

Back on the main highway, headed toward the capital!

Fortunately I didn't have to go down this road.

I rolled onto the wide shoulder and started the audiobook “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed”, and skipped to the chapter about the Vikings and the colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and other areas. The cars that shot past me were a strong reminder of the forces at play here.

Iceland is the most ecologically damaged country in Europe.  It’s generally the fault of the Vikings.  During the relatively brief time they were here trying all their traditional survival methods, they deforested the island by over 80 percent.  Today, Iceland is 94 percent deforested.  Almost all the trees that remain have been behind fences that shield them from grazing animals.

What's that they say about rolling stones? Pfft.

The other major disaster has been soil erosion.  Relative to other places the vikings were familiar with, soil in Iceland dries up and blows away very quickly.  Large areas of it are accumulated volcanic ash, built up over thousands of years and then held down by plants.  The vikings ripped up the plants or burned them to make space for crops, and the soil disappeared almost before their eyes.

The parable of the three little pigs ends here.

I think of this, and then I think of being a kid back home in the politically left-leaning town of Santa Cruz, and the history I was taught where colonizers from Europe displaced and murdered the indigenous people of North America and began changing the face of the continent. I’d been told the continent was essentially a static place before Europeans arrived, and that the people before them had lived in a state of harmony with their surroundings, and their societies were egalitarian and peaceful, and they were generally disease and hardship free until colonizers came along with infections and guns and horses and corrupted and ruined everything for them.

It was a well-meaning mixture of history and mythology, designed to be an antidote – a corrective – to the patriotic nonsense that existed around me, about America somehow being destined to occupy the lands it claimed. It was meant to counter the cultural imperialism that lingers even now, driven originally by an intense racism, where the colonizers believed it was their duty to “civilize” lands being held by “primitive” people, and confine or exterminate them if they resisted. The early American story is basically naked opportunism justified by religious dogma and buttressed by ignorance, and this needs to be acknowledged. A larger part of the culture wants to pretend this history never happened, and my teachers and peers in Santa Cruz felt (and I still strongly feel) that letting America forget it is the first decisive step in letting it repeat.

But the tribes of America had not been perfect back then. They were an astonishingly diverse collection of peoples spread across a giant area of land and they were as different as they were alike, each struggling with warfare, slavery, subsistence, disease, and ecological damage on their own terms. They also did change the face of the continent long before Europeans arrived, primarily through deforestation in the east, by using fire for various purposes over a span of about 2000 years. These aspects of their history were left out of my early education, because it was trying to correct for a larger, more dangerous misconception, and to counter the absurd assumption that the indigenous Americans were “primitive.” Their ecological destruction through attempts at land management were not relevant to the case.

But I have to wonder: How much mythologizing is healthy here? If you smooth the wrinkles out of a portrait too well, it seems to me you run the risk of turning the subject into something unreal. Something that exists apart from contemporary life. You drive a wedge between the history, and the flesh-and-blood people who are the living embodiment of it today, who have practical needs and problems and need to be considered part of your own world, rather than an abstraction or an irretrievable myth. Perhaps too much mythologizing becomes an “othering” — a sort of reinforcement of a separation that in turn preserves a power imbalance.

Undoubtedly, the larger struggle has been in simply getting American culture to recognize that the native tribes have a history, full stop. That American history didn’t just start with Columbus blundering his plunder-boats across the ocean, and you can’t understand the foundations of the country without knowing what the native tribes contributed to it. But beyond that, and possibly more important for the sake of those living now, is the need to get Americans to notice that the native tribes are still here. The history – but also the exploitation, and the exclusion, and the bigotry, and the disenfranchisement – has marched on this entire time, and viewing these people through the lens of the past tends to defocus them in the present. It’s worth knowing who they are now, what they’re talking about now, what they need now.

This was all rolling around, back and forth, in my mind as I pedaled along, in the pauses between sentences as Jared Diamond outlined the grim history of Iceland. At its most abstract, what I was thinking about was a collision of mythologies, and also the use of mythology as an instrument, to humanize or dehumanize people, as the tellers felt necessary.

I began to consider the Vikings through the same lens. The modern people of Iceland have embraced even the apocryphal operatic horned helmet in honor of the Vikings. It’s on their walls, clothing, even their roadsigns. The mythology seems harmless and fun; a source of entertainment if not of a very mixed sense of pride for a population that can still trace itself almost entirely back to Viking ancestors — or at least, to the women and children the Vikings abducted from elsewhere. But, what are we celebrating here? Certainly not their stewardship of the land.

Yes, the helmet has horns. I don't know what to think of that.

Short summary: The Vikings showed up, and knowing very little about ecology and having no free time to study it, they chopped down almost every damn tree in a dozen generations. They pillaged, kidnapped, and enslaved people to drive their civilization for 300 years, then succumbed to their own mismanagement and infighting, leaving behind ruins, tiny sheep, and beleaguered fishermen, who converted to Christianity and kept on keepin’ on for hundreds of years through famine and volcanic mayhem as they were absorbed into a Nordic trading bureaucracy and mostly exploited by it.

Finally around World War I, Iceland regained independence, and so-called modern civilization quickly arrived on the heels of wartime activity. Now the island is ringed by a paved road, multiple international shipping routes, and a giant airport. In less than a hundred years, life has gotten far easier and safer for everyone, but the ecological pressure has also gotten far worse. Determined ecologists are running experiments to restore trees, and farmers are a lot more conscious of soil conditions, but the trend is still downward, and the tourism dollar is a seriously mixed blessing.

I wonder how much of the Icelandic people’s embrace of the Vikings is myth-making for tourists. Is there a similar pressure in their culture, like in modern Americans, to forget the atrocities of their ancestors? And how much more selective does all of this look, when we consider that there’s about six hundred years of history separating the end of the Vikings and the beginning of modern Icelandic society that is not factored in? Is it too boring? Too sparse to comment upon? Perhaps it’s just not currently useful in our current battles over tourism and ecology?

There is, I suppose, one inevitable outcome, if you take the long view. In time, Iceland will experience another catastrophic volcanic eruption, intense enough to drive out and blast away the humans and everything they have wrought, leaving behind a cooling hunk of re-fertilized land. The best we can do with that is detect it far enough in advance to get out of the way.

Hopefully this trip won't end up in hell!

Anyway, I poked some thoughts into my phone and pedaled along, and a bunch of hours passed. The area urbanized around me. I arrived at the hotel I’d booked online.

It was 7:00am, and there was a crowd of people with luggage standing around outside. I assumed they were either waiting for a shuttle or waiting for breakfast.  Taking a closer look, I saw all of them were rough-looking men, some smoking cigarettes one after the other.  To their credit, they scrupulously collected and disposed of each butt they stamped out on the pavement.

The lobby opened and everyone crowded inside for the free breakfast.  I talked to the clerk and he said the hotel had been full the previous night so I would have to wait for a room to be cleaned, which would probably take three hours.  “Sorry,” he said, “but maybe have some coffee or something while you wait?”  He gestured to the breakfast area.

So I filled up a plate and ate six slices of bread with a heap of tuna and a slice of cheese on each one, plus two hard-boiled eggs. It was touring metabolism, back in force.

Another free breakfast, this one much fancier than the last!

Around me I counted heads and observed that there were almost 30 men, all dressed either for work or for hiking.  Some had fancy gore-tex jackets and hiking shoes, some had overalls and toolbelts.  One table had six electricians at it – at least, judging by the tools – all glowering at their plates and chowing down.  Almost no one spoke.

I was one of them.  I ate until I felt full, then took the bike a few blocks over to the Bónus food store, which I can’t help thinking of as the “Piggly Wiggly of Iceland.”

I know that’s supposed to be an accent mark, but to my non-Icelandic eye it looks like that pig is being sliced with a razor blade.

The bakery attached to the store was already open, so I wandered inside and got some additional snacks.

It's all about the bakeries.

I hate to say it, but they look tastier than they actually are.

I spent about an hour organizing photos since my brain was too fried to work, then packed up again and went to the hotel.  The clerk walked over and handed me a key card.  “Room 433, fourth floor,” he said.

I thanked him sincerely.  Several elevator trips later, with my gear and the bike, I was safe in room 433, burrowing under the covers at 10:00 in the morning.

First step when you get into a hotel room: Close all those day-blocking curtains.

I woke up after almost 7 hours of sleep.  Took a shower, drank some water, went right back to sleep.

Two hours later I woke up again.  Finally I felt rested enough to use my brain and get some work done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *