Regenerating Biodiversity Is Hard Work In The Best Of Circumstances


Jon Asgeir Jonsson, who works for a private forestry association, with larch saplings in western Iceland.

It’s never easy being green, but especially millennia after deforestation. Thanks to Henry Fountain and the New York Times:

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?

GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.

The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. Continue reading

Order of the Falcon

Jason Koski/Cornell University Photography

A few weeks ago, while visiting Cornell University for two days, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, in addition to giving the talk I briefly posted about, also bestowed the Icelandic Order of the Falcon upon a librarian I know. Patrick Stevens, curator of the Fiske Icelandic Collection in the Rare and Manuscript Collection of Kroch Library at Cornell, helped me find resources while I conducted research for my honors thesis in history.

Always friendly and offering helpful advice when I came in every day in the summer of 2013 to look at old texts in the RMC reading room, Patrick also read a couple drafts of my work toward the end of my writing process. Continue reading

Icelandic Hell-broth

Krafla, Iceland. Photo © Land & Colors

In the Middle Ages, Iceland’s Mount Hekla was commonly thought of as a mouth of Hell, from whence one could hear the cries of the damned and even see their spirits haunting the peak — if the raging flames of hellfire weren’t blocking your view, that is. A few hundred years later, describing imagery as infernal or unearthly was still popular in travel accounts, as we saw in the case Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s thoughts on Námarskarð. Given the image above and those from the mud pits in the linked post, it really isn’t too surprising, especially after you consider that to reach these chthonic scenes the travelers had been riding ponies over a “tortuous and wretched” landscape of lava.

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Icelandic Writings

The two first edition volumes of Captain Richard F. Burton’s “Ultima Thule; or, a Summer in Iceland,” 1875. Photo by Bauman Rare Books.

I’ve mentioned before that throughout the literature from the 18th and 19th centuries in Iceland I’ve found a conflict between traditional and modern conceptions of the land’s nature, but I want to clarify that this was likely not limited to a simple farmer-or-scientist dichotomy. My aim is to more closely examine any relationships between the writings of Icelanders and Europeans that were meant for a European audience (in the case of the former this involves contemporary translations) and tease out the nuances between them. I believe these scientists, travelers and explorers from various cultures sought the same thrill of setting foot on ground that had never been touched by “civilized” man before; they traveled untrodden lands whose exploration allowed them to feel a sense of discovery and lonely grandiosity while experiencing wilderness; and in some cases they desired the satisfaction of improving scientific knowledge of a natural area.

When I talk about looking at ‘writings’, I mean primary sources like Continue reading

Mapping Iceland

In my last post on the subject I mentioned that portions of Iceland on contemporary maps all the way up to the early 20th century remained blank. The main culprit for explorers, travelers, and cartographers was the great glacial region of Vatnajökull, at 3,139 sq. mi (8,130 sq. km) the largest glacier in Europe, and now a national park in southeast Iceland. Terrible snowstorms, heavy rains, unreliable ice, and poor local knowledge of the frigid plateau contributed to the failure of multiple expeditions by many men into the interior of the “Glacier of Rivers,” and during the late 1800s it became clear that there was frequent volcanic activity in the area as well.

1906 geological map by Icelandic geographer/geologist Þorvaldur Thoroddsen, who is credited with being the first to map the interior of the Icelandic Highlands in 1901, which is when this map was first published. The different colors represent different compositions of the island, such as basalt, liparite, volcanic ash, etc.

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Exploring Iceland

The head of Skorradalsvatn. Collodion print ca. 1900 by Frederick W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson at the Fiske Icelandic Collection of Cornell University.

Þórsmörk. Head of Krossárdalur. Collodion print ca. 1900 by Frederick W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson at the Fiske Icelandic Collection of Cornell University.

It was mentioned a week or two ago that Iceland is in the air. For me, Iceland is on my mind, in my laptop, hidden throughout the Cornell libraries, and scattered about my room. After a couple essays for an environmental history course last year and some preliminary research for finding an honors thesis topic in the history major, I discovered that, thanks primarily to Cornell University’s first librarian, we have one of the largest collections of Icelandic material in the world. Since one of my projects for the environmental history class had shown me that Iceland was an interesting place to examine more closely, I did some more research and found the topic of European travel there during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries engaging enough to choose as an honors thesis subject.

One of the places in Europe with the most spaces left blank by cartographers through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Iceland’s inner regions were not fully mapped until 1901. Continue reading