Wednesday, May 30, 2012


When I was making the life list I put "See a reindeer in Iceland" on there sort of offhandedly, because it seems like reindeer are a thing that happen in the northplaces and I vaguely remembered reading once about someone taking a reindeer sleigh ride. So it seemed like reindeer should be everywhere. It didn't really occur to me at the time that Iceland, being an island and all, probably wouldn't have much in the way of native animal life and that large mammals would probably have been brought there by someone.

It took three tries for the reindeer in Iceland to stick, with a herd finally making it through the winter in the mid-1800's, and not a single person while I was there seemed to care about them at all. Perhaps that's the difference between East Iceland and West Iceland, but the reindeer weren't even among the list of animals one of our tour guides recited.

It turns out that what they really love in Iceland is their horses. Their horses are built from the stock of the ones who can deal with the climate and the volcano eruptions, but they're also strangely delicate--so many years of isolation has made it so that they can withstand the inside of the earth coming out but not any sort of foreign virus. As a result, Icelandic horses aren't allowed back in the country if they leave it. Reindeer might be a symbol of the frozen north, but these compact little horses with adventure and hard luck in their past and future simultaneously, just pressed right into their bones, are so very Icelandic. And with their manes blowing in the unrelenting wind among the steaming hillsides, much more picturesque than an average reindeer.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


The ride between the airport and Reykjavik is through a surreal moonscape, all black rocks and thick green lichen. It's a landscape that lends itself to darker skies, and the way that the sky is a freshly scrubbed shade of blue makes the ground look all the stranger. These are rocks that take all the light and give none of it back.

Rift valley

Iceland is a place where the Earth shows all its seams, slowly tearing apart where the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate meet. All the way through the country the ground steams, hinting at just how close to the surface the center really is. In some places it seems as though you could look into one of those cracks and straight down to the middle. Jules Verne started the journey to the center of the Earth in Iceland, and it's obvious why.


On Sunday we took a fourteen hour ride over the south coast and back, landing at the midpoint in a lagoon where parts of the glacier break off and become icebergs. As we were leaving the lagoon our tour guide gestured offhandedly at the seawall across the street and mentioned that there was no land between where we were right then and Antarctica. No land, and an entire planet.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I'm going home tomorrow, to readjust to the time difference and hug whoever I can get my hands on. Iceland is beautiful and charming and desolate and cold in a number of different ways. I've looked at how fire and ice can shape a landscape and then destroy it and how one scrapes a life out of stone and wind, and now I am ready to go back to my own sweet life full of love and green things and sleeping volcanoes. At least until the next adventure.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I'm off to the frozen north in the morning, going to wrestle Vikings in a hot spring or whatever it is you do in Iceland. It's kind of a funny time to be leaving Seattle, since life in the last month or so has gone all romance and intrigue and upsets and reversals and unexpected shenanigans. I am sorely in need of a vacation, and I'm looking forward to making friends with a new city and some icebergs and fjords. I am restless in a way that suits a landscape of active volcanoes. As usual.

When I get back we'll talk about reindeer and puffins and cold clear air, and maybe a little bit about romance and intrigue too.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A trial by ordeal could have involved almost anything, it seems, given the right amount of invention and shame. This is what I've learned. Soil and water and plans and imagination, and what looks like guilt subject to change on a whim.

Some cultures favored the trial by poison, in which the accused would be made to eat a calabar bean. The toxins in the calabar bean work like a nerve gas, confusing the communication between nerves and muscles and rendering the accused eventually asphyxiated due to a total loss of control over the respiratory system. Some accounts say that the poison ordeal was the most accurate of them all, that the innocent would tend to swallow the bean quickly and defiantly whereas the guilty would nibble slowly at it, hoping for some outside intervention. The body reacts more completely to swallowing the whole bean, forcing the person to regurgitate it and therefore exposing them to very little of the poison; eating the bean slowly allowed the body to not notice that something wrong was happening until it was much too late.

The antidote to calabar is atropine, which can be taken from plants in the Solanaceae family, most of which are full of toxins of their own--belladonna, mandrake, Jimson weed. Poisons fighting poisons. The antidote isn't always perfect, though, and sometimes the combination of the two poisons will kill a person faster than they would on their own. The prevailing wisdom is that atropine will save a person who has taken three and a half times the fatal dose of calabar poison but will kill them quickly if four or more times the fatal dose has been taken. No account seems willing to explain how the casual observer is supposed to know the difference.

Given all of these variables, it seems to me that quickly is the only way through the ordeal. Poison or no poison. Trials of ordeal are said to have died out over the last couple of hundred years, but I'm not entirely sure that I believe that to be true, at least not here in the kingdom of metaphors.

Monday, May 07, 2012

I'm in the anxiety stage of leaving town, where it's too early to actually start packing but close enough to leaving to really want to pack. I like to be prepared for the inevitability of my plans getting derailed, which is exactly the sort of recursive thinking spiral that I find comforting if only in its familiarity. (As an added bonus, it tends to drive everyone else around me insane.) We all know that a thing I am not is patient, and the time between now and going to the airport next week is going to be excruciating. Let's just get to the adventure, already.

Because of a fire recently I got to see what a room looks like under the floorboards. I like knowing these things, the insides and underneaths and inbetweens. This I think it part of the appeal of Iceland, all of its movement and geothermal activity the underneaths and inbetweens of the planet. Like the beginning and the end of the world all at once.