Opinion: The road back from anywhere

Iceland is like nowhere else on earth, but the local people are trying to change that.

I travelled to Iceland in June of 2016. Crushed by depression, and about to go through a divorce that would take the better part of two years I was immediately drawn to the emptiness, the beauty, the seeming desolation. Staring out the bus window on the journey from the airport to Reykjavik I couldn’t help but notice how accurate travel writers are when they describe the view as being lunar. The vast flat planes of shattered volcanic rock stretch off to the horizon and are, to anyone not from the island, clearly something other.

Travelling that long, straight road to Reykjavik through a wasteland of stone was for me an unsettling experience, but one that lent itself perfectly as an introduction to an island that is basically unrecognisable from most of the rest of the world. Nature doesn’t seem to obey the rules here and everywhere one looks there is evidence of Iceland’s geothermal activity. The volcanoes are active and the smashed and broken land is a testament to that. Rivers that swoop in one direction can tumble down waterfalls that are stories high, only to change direction entirely as they hit a crack opened up by thunderous eruptions.

Meanwhile layered over the whole middle of the island a vast series of glaciers slowly grind down the lava rock, chewing it up and slowly depositing it like black ash on the country’s beaches.

But the really disquieting aspect was the lack of trees. Not the sheer cliffs, the towering icy glaciers, or the twisted, columns of rock from times, that in geological terms are basically yesterday. Where are the trees? Some people assume that Iceland is so wracked with volcanoes that nothing can grow, or that the weather is so cold it crushes any attempt at life, but for the thick hard grass that grows in vast patches across the black stone and the invasive Lupins that cling in meadows to land no other plant could manage. The truth is people are to blame.

When the Vikings first came to Iceland they needed wood, a lot of it. They chopped down the birch, rowan, aspen and willow trees that are estimated to have once covered 40% of the island to build tiny homes where sleeping sitting up was the norm, construct their famous boats, and feed the fires of their family homes and of blacksmiths to make metal. Trees were also chopped down to make way for sheep, as these woolly animals need grass, not leaves, and soon, because of the sheep’s constant grazing, and the people’s insatiable need for wood, the entire ecosystem changed as topsoil was washed away, leaving nothing but barren rock.

These days the forestry service is desperately trying to undo the damage that was dealt to the island all those centuries ago. Efforts are being made the restore the land where soil erosion has stripped away all of the nutrients. These endeavours started way back in 1900 when nothing grew on the island taller than a man’s hip and while mistakes have been made along the way, they are reaping rewards. These days local municipalities plant trees along the roads, farmers are given incentives to grow copses of trees on their land and large swathes of national parks have been turned over to reforestation. So successful has this been that the smell of birch is now prevalent every time you stop in a small town on a drive around the island.

In the East of the island is Hallormsstaðaskógur, a forest large enough to warrant a few hiking trails, where birch, aspen, larch, and rowan trees compete for attention with scrubby blueberry bushes and variety of mushrooms, and in the south the forest of Þórsmörk slowly takes hold in the shadow of the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. There is still a long way to go for Iceland to get back to the days of 40% tree cover, but it’s a start. Once entirely barren soil is now showing life, and if you ask Icelanders there is hope the island will recover. Some people are even planting fruit trees.

The tale of the hard work being put in by the people of that place and the slow, but the steady resurrection of its ecosystem is a reminder though that no matter how hopeless things may seem there is no situation so desperate that people can not fix it. All it takes is the will to change a bad situation and for everyone to buy-in. We should remember this as the country teeters on the brink of junk status in a world that increasingly looks like it’s being ruled by mad fascists hell-bent on reinforcing global warming. Or even when, like me, you are recovering from a life-altering trauma.

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column Iceland