There is something quite abnormal about approaching a pool of water in the earth, and seeing that it is boiling.
In this valley of hot springs a few hours from Reykjavik is the original "Geysir," which gave its name to the geothermal phenomenon of water erupting in a huge plume from a subterranean shaft and reservoir. Geysir was famous, attaining heights of as much as 170 metres -- even Napoleon came to see it -- but it now erupts infrequently. Geological research indicates that Geysir has been active for more than 10,000 years; the activity of all the geysers in this region seems to vary depending on earthquake activity.
A neighboring geyser, Strokkur, first mentioned in 1789, erupts less spectacularly, but is very reliable. While we were in this valley, it erupted four times, about every ten minutes. Even more amazing than the eruption itself is the way the pool seems to "breathe" and finally gather strength, rising in a great bubble-like curve of water, and then exploding upward in a tall plume of sulfurous steam and water. (The Wikipedia link for Strokkur, above, shows a sequence of eruption photos.)
Elsa and I watch Strokkur erupt. In the photograph below, you can see how close the path (and the people) are to the geyser.
The valley also contains pools of extraordinary color, apparently from living algae and dissolved minerals, in water that is far too hot to touch, and the gravelly soil is also colored with hues of red, ochre, and yellow; on the flanks of the pools that eject streams of water there is a slippery, hard deposit of minerals. The smell is difficult. We didn't stay very long, in this valley that reminds one of Dante's vision of hell, but is actually closer to the birthing of worlds. Iceland, one of the geologically youngest places on earth, shows us something of what the earth was like in its infancy.
I found that fact both fascinating and sobering. The landscape is extraordinary, and - to me - extremely beautiful. It can be dangerous. But most of all, it moved me profoundly.
We spend so much of our life in populated places, looking at what human beings have created, and even when we manage to find some wildness, it's often in the company of others. Most of Iceland is unpopulated, or very sparsely settled. In the astounding places we visited, we were often the only people there. There are almost no warning signs -- here a small sign mentioning not to touch the water, which was 80-100 degrees C -- a flimsy rope, no disclaimers; you and your common sense are on their own.
Cultural differences can be huge about the assumptions surrounding perceived danger. After my friend G. read my initial account of this place, he wrote me a letter about his experience visiting geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States, under the apt subject heading: "Tiptoe to the Portals of Geothermal Hell:"
"On our road trip west, August 2010, we drove through and walked around parts of Yellowstone Park, which makes an interesting contrast with your geothermal adventures in Iceland. It is a huge park with dense clusters of visitors in a handful of accessible places, and lots of remote but regulated wilderness that we, like most visitors, never approached. The thermal areas are just unlike anything we are used to. Approaching a wooded area with steam rising all around might lead you to think of the first or last stages of forest fire -- until the sulfur fumes hit you. The carefully curated thermal areas around Old Faithful are polar opposite of the "visitor beware" ethos you describe in Iceland. Boardwalks, rangers, warning signs, and wheelchair accessible ramps with numbered and annotated viewpoints give you no chance to do (or feel proud for refraining from doing) the stupid things you might otherwise be tempted to do in the vicinity of weird and smelly gurgling springs of boiling water, mud or extremophile bacterial colonies. I had thoughts, not of birthing planets, but of native Americans or early explorers coming upon such a place without the commercial buildup or grade school science projects that almost make these things trite. The ground between these steaming springs can be a shallow and fragile layer over subterranean hot and wet: fatal attractions, with a danger obvious to thinking folks. The bison like it here in the summer because the sulfur fumes keep the bugs away, and in the winter because the shallower snowpack gives better access to grazing. Once in a while, one falls into a steaming pool and can't get out."
Iceland is wilderness, but not merely a national preserve or an unspoiled stretch of beach -- it is wilderness that, in and of itself, is changing, mutating, moving, growing. There are old volcanoes, rifts, and relics of lava flows that happened long ago, but there is the constant possibility -- probability -- of new events, and the measurable drift of the tectonic plates away from each other, as the mid-Atlantic ridge rises from the sea in this northern land-that-is-still-becoming.
Who am I, I wondered, in this landscape? Not the same person, surely, as I naively was in the streets of Montreal.
-- This post is my submission to the anniversary edition of the Language/Place blog carnival, hosted this month by Dorothee Lang, on the theme of "Streets, Signs, Directions." I'll post the link as soon as it become active.