Protecting a Land of Ice and Fire: Iceland 2019
Today is Earth Day, a day meant to celebrate the planet we owe everything to and emphasize the fact that we’re increasingly damaging it. Environmental activism isn’t something new, but it is something that’s been rising to the front of newspapers and Twitter feeds recently: the Green New Deal, using reusable straws, making items out of recycled materials, cleaning up the oceans and the swamps and the plains and honestly any area that’s outside.
I try to be as environmentally friendly/conscious as possible. I love walking or riding public transportation. I reuse plastic bags and eat my lunch with Tupperware and metal cutlery. I throw out my trash and recycling and compost as efficiently and correctly as possible. I’m appalled by the ways that large companies have swept innovations like electric cars and cleaner energy to the side in favor of fossil fuels.
It wasn’t until this spring break that I realized the real damage we’re causing.
I’m from a city—my friends joke about how I hadn’t seen a tree before coming to Cornell. Although that isn’t true, it is valid to say that I wasn’t as fully aware of the impact we’re making on the planet until I left the concrete jungle. Even here in Ithaca, surrounded by beautiful forests and mountain ranges, I wasn’t entirely present in the conversation. When I visited Iceland a few weeks ago, I was greeted by the juxtaposition of natural beauty and human impact.
In honor of Earth Day, I’ve collected some of the journaling I did when in Iceland, as well as some of the photos I took when visiting. We shouldn’t strive to save the Earth just because it’s pretty—this place is our home, we should take care of it! But if this jumpstarts even one person to consider living more sustainably, that’s a win in my book.
The driver told us to put on our seatbelts and, for once, I did. The roads were smooth, the driving steady, but I still felt uneasy. Our bus shuttled us from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik through the empty flatness of rural Iceland. Everything felt quiet, desolate, yet strangely calm and soothing.
I imagined what it would be like to stand in the middle of all that absolute, still nothing. I wanted to hear the wind whooshing through the empty spaces between imaginary buildings. I wanted to see stones tossed in the air by invisible children. I wanted to grit my teeth and roll my eyes back and let out the most innate, piercing scream for nothing to hear.
In the middle of that nothing, I felt at home somehow. The road signs were unreadable, the faces unknown, and the streets unrecognizable, but something inside myself felt connected to the land in that moment. It was if there was a magnetic pull, a driving force guiding me to the barren, unforgiving, remarkable, gracious heart of Iceland.
There was a woman from our flight on this bus, one who we had moved to make room for our seats. She had been friendly in that slightly aggressive great-aunt-kind-of way, the type to pinch your cheek in greeting if you hadn’t visited in four months. On the bus, she carried her iPad like a clutch, holding its case with the bedazzled Day of the Dead skull tightly to her side as she made her way towards us.
I know she was only there to take photos of the mountains looming behind the swathes of nothing, that the head nod and smile was just a custom imported from America, but I didn’t like it. Were we friends now? Comrades of capitalism in this new land? My acceptance of her smile would make me weak, susceptible to the nothing enveloping our bus. I knew that she wouldn’t last a day out there, that the biting knives of wind and dirt would tear her and her bedazzled iPad to shreds. That thirty minute bus ride hardened my thoughts and made me want to roll out the window and run for miles.
Welcome to Iceland.
They say a journey starts with a single step, so what do they say about 22483 steps?
We wanted a hot spring—everyone and their mother (including my own) strongly suggested going to a hot spring. We wanted to take a minute away from the natural weather of overseas Ithaca and warm ourselves.
It was still only day one and a thirty five minute nap didn’t change that. I’d been in this new place for only six hours but it somehow felt like I had been there forever.
With backpacks secure, camera charged, and water bottles filled we set our course. It felt a little anticlimactic to be walking along a highway with Google Maps open on to our power-bank connected phones, but it was necessary.
We left only our footprints behind in the snow and ice surrounding open soccer fields and dog trails. We wove our way past construction workers and schoolchildren. Twenty minutes away from our destination, we found ourselves on a peninsula. With the wind whipping around our faces and our hands stuffed into our pockets, it was only our conviction that kept our feet moving forward. The wind pressed against our faces as though it were pleading for us to turn back.
We all looked at the sky in awed silence as pinpricks of light grew and stretched and danced across the sky. This was an unpromised moment, a scene we had wished for but expected nothing from. It’s one of Mother Nature’s least violent showstoppers, and we were graced with one of her finest shows in Iceland.
There’s something about being outside in Iceland that just takes your breath away. The rawness of a single road surrounded by miles and miles of glaciers, geysers, and gray stone was powerful and primal. It made e want to take a hulking bite of a giant turkey leg, tap into my carnivorous instincts.
Even before we started our tour I felt the maw of Iceland swallow us whole. The snow whipped and whistled past the drivers’ windshield, filling our vision with pure white.
Our tour guide was a hulking Icelandic man who definitely would sounds serious if he threatened you. He was clad in an all-black ensemble with a black leather vest and thin black ponytail—a Norse version of Machete, if you will.
The way he spoke of Iceland completely differed from his out side appearance. When we reached the waterfalls of Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, we were encouraged to let the spray kiss our faces and cleanse our souls and auras. At the Black Sand beaches, he thoroughly explained the makeup of hexagonal lava plates and non-organic black sand. While walking through the remains of the glacial deposits at Sólheimajökull, he told us not to take away feelings of sadness, despite seeing that the ice has receded hundreds of meters in the past decade. As we passed through the landscape of Iceland, I felt how strongly its people are tied to the land, stretching all the way back to the time of Vikings.
This sign was made by the schoolchildren near Sólheimajökull, a glacier located along the Southern Coast of Iceland. Every year, they measure the glacier and the glacial lake in front of it to learn about how their country is changing. In 2011, the glacier shrank back by 43m, then 34m in 2012, and 8m in 2013. Things were looking up! But then 2014 hits with 79m of melting, and even more recently 2018 with 110m lost.
110 meters. The length of a football field. Gone in a year.
Standing with our tour group, gazing out into the valley once filled with ancient ice and debris, it was solemn. Our tour guide told us to not be sad, but it was hard not to. I felt dismayed, disappointed in my own species and their hubris. I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more to change my lifestyle and inspire others. I felt confused as to why climate change’s existence is still a question to some people.
We take the world for granted everyday, and I’m especially guilty of this. That’s why today, on Earth Day mere months after it was declared that climate change’s effects would be irreversible by 2030, I want to start lending my voice to this movement. I want future generations to be able to appreciate the natural wonders I’ve seen, and not simply through a textbook or old photos.
There are many ways to help the planet, most of which I’m probably not aware of but a lot of which can be found with a simple google search. Here are a few that list small actions that can make a big impact. They aren’t comprehensive or fool-proof, but hopefully they’re somewhere to start: