Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The (Not) Ok Glacier

In 2014 a small glacier in the center of Iceland was found to be dead.

It was not the glacier I write about in my new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk, whose looming presence inspired wild thoughts in me, and might have lured me to my death if I were more naïve about Icelandic nature. That was Hofsjökull.

It was not my favorite glacier, the beauty who appears, unpredictably, across 75 miles of bay from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, the glacier Icelandic author Halldor Laxness called “a soul clad in air.” That glacier, Snæfellsjökull, occupies several chapters in Looking for the Hidden Folk.

The dead glacier, Ok, meaning “yoke” or “burden,” was their little brother. A white tooth on a medium-tall mountain, Ok was a landmark on an ancient road, but exceptional in Iceland only for his small size.
At his greatest, Ok’s ice covered six square miles.

Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, covers more than 3,000 square miles.

A glacier is made when snow falls faster than it melts. At 65 feet deep, the snow starts turning to ice. At a hundred feet deep, the ice begins to creep. It flows at a rate of three feet a day downhill. Its melting edge is called its mouth. When ice breaks off into the meltwater lake, the glacier is said to calve.

A glacier that does not creep or calve is dead.

Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer heard of the death of Ok in 2016. “As cultural anthropologists”--the two work at Rice University in Houston--“we could see that people were implicated in the loss of glaciers in at least two ways,” they wrote. One: Humans were hurting the planet. Two: Humans were hurting themselves, “especially in a country like Iceland whose identity is so bound up with glaciers.”

So they made a film. Then they planned a funeral.

They asked Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason to design a memorial plaque. “How do you write a eulogy,” he asked, “for a symbol of eternity?”
On August 18, 2019 a few dozen people climbed Ok. There was no path. They passed from moss to lichens to “jagged stones,” they slipped on ice and sank into icy puddles. It was a harder climb than many had expected. The wind bit. It took three hours.

They were asked to hike in silence, not looking back, as if they were hiking up Helgafell, a small hill I frequently climb in West Iceland whose name means Holy Mountain and whose legend says surmounting it silently, without looking back, will grant you three wishes.

At the top of Ok, the hikers read out the glacier’s death certificate. Cause of death? “Excessive heat” and “humans.” They affixed the bronze plaque to a rock; addressed to the future, it says, “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Then they began to sing.

The funeral, Howe and Boyer wrote in Anthropology News, “was a media event covered in nearly every country in the world.” The story of Ok “seems to have humanized climate change for a lot of people. It put a face and a name to an abstract problem.”

In 1992 I attended a lecture by Gillian Overing, then an English professor at Wake Forest University, during the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In Iceland, Overing noted, the center is the margin. Geography is inside-out. People settle on the temperate edges of the island, while its interior is a glacial desert, cold, inhospitable, and not even crossable most of the year. “What kind of self,” she mused, “might these places reflect?” What kind of self has wilderness at its heart?

That question, that concept, in large part, inspired my book Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth.
But now, with the death of Ok, a new question arises: What happens to the self when the wilderness in its heart is dead?

“Help us,” wrote Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, in The New York Times, “keep the ice in Iceland.”

We no longer even know how to talk about nature, writes George Monbiot in The Guardian. We use terms that are “cold and alienating,” like reserve. “Think of what we mean when we use that word about a person,” he says. The word environment “creates no pictures in the mind.” Calling plants or animals “resources” or “stocks” implies “they belong to us and their role is to serve us.” Language has power, Monbiot reminds us. “Those who name it own it,” he argues, concluding: “We need new words.”

Or, perhaps, a new look at some very old ones, like elf.

Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth was published October 4 by Pegasus Books. Order it at your favorite bookshop, through Simon & Schuster distributors, or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Thanks!

For another artist's response to the funeral for Ok glacier, see this news release from Rice University.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Writing for Iceland

Interviewing me about my new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, a reporter asked, Did you write it for an Icelandic audience, or for an American one?

Um ... yes.

Of course, my main audience is the much larger American one. I fell in love with Iceland (population 365,000) on my first visit, in 1986, and much of my writing since then has been aimed at sharing my love for Iceland's landscape and culture with people who haven't (yet) visited this amazing island in the north Atlantic. (In 1986, Iceland was not on everyone's bucket list, as it seems to be today.)

But it is also very important to me that the Icelanders I am writing about like my books--or at least see them as being fair.
It makes me very happy, for instance, to know that the families featured in my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, are always glad to have me visit. This summer, 25 years after I bought a horse from them, I spent a week with Fjóla and Elvar of the farm Syðra-Skörðugil in north Iceland; we laughed at how naive I'd been about horses then, and reminisced over how well things had turned out.

So when my book about Iceland's elves, Looking for the Hidden Folk, was sent to a group of Icelandic writers and scholars for review, pre-publication, I was anxious that they would also think I was being fair to their ancient culture.

I needn't have worried.

Wrote Egill Bjarnason, author of How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island: "Nancy Marie Brown reveals to us skeptics how rocks and hills are the mansions of elves, or at least what it takes to believe so. Looking for the Hidden Folk evocatively animates the Icelandic landscape through Brown's past and present travels and busts some prevalent clichés and myths along the way--this book is my reply to the next foreign reporter asking about that Elf Lobby."

Terry Gunnell, a professor of folkloristics at the University of Iceland, whose work on elf-lore is heavily cited in the book, called it "A love song to the living landscape of Iceland and the cultural history in which it is clothed, inspired by the author's numerous encounters with the country and its people over the last decades."

Ármann Jakobsson, a professor in the department of Icelandic at the University of Iceland, and author of the fascinating book The Troll Inside You, also understood what I was trying to say. He wrote: "Looking for the Hidden Folk is an elegantly written and wonderfully individualistic exploration of Icelandic culture through the ages, combining a shrewd appraisal of traditions with an acute interest in the modern world and all its intellectual quirks."
Gísli Sigurðsson, a research professor at The Árni Magnússon Institute of the University of Iceland, agreed. He wrote: "Using ideas and stories about the hidden folk in Iceland as a stepping stone into the human perception of our homes in the world where stories and memories breathe life into places, be it through the vocabulary of quantum physics or folklore, Nancy Marie Brown makes us realize that there is always more to the world than meets the eye. And that world is not there for us to conquer and exploit but to walk into and sense the dew with our bare feet on the soft moss, beside breathing horses and mighty glaciers in the drifting fog that often blocks our view."

And finally, my friend Gísli Pálsson, professor of anthropology at the university of Iceland, seems to always know how to sum up my books just so. He wrote: "This is a sweeping and moving journey across time and space—through myth and theory, language, and literature—into the world of wonder and enchantment. Beautifully written, Looking for the Hidden Folk offers a compelling and surprising case for the recognition of forces and beings not necessarily 'seen' in everyday life but nevertheless somehow sensed, exploring their complexity and why they matter."

Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth will be published on October 4 by Pegasus Books. It is now available for pre-order through Simon & Schuster distributors or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

What Does It Mean to Believe in Elves?

Icelanders believe in elves. There are many ways you could take issue with that sentence, but let's start with that shapeshifting verb, “to believe.”

We believe in elves, we believe in gravity, we believe in science, we believe in God. Does anyone really know what it means to believe?

As I note in my book Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, anthropologists like himself, Rodney Needham wrote in 1972, “appear to take it for granted that ‘belief’ is a word of as little ambiguity as ‘spear’ or ‘cow’” when they write about the beliefs of this culture or that.

Yet “belief” is kaleidoscopic. It translates a “bewildering variety” of foreign terms. Its root means to love or desire. Translators of the Bible used it to translate trust or obey. It means to follow a religion, to accept a statement as true, or to hold an opinion. You can say, “I believe I’ll have fish for dinner” as easily as “I believe in elves” or “I believe in God.”

Philosopher David Hume in 1739 defined belief as “something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination.”

Stuart Hampshire in 1959 defined a man’s beliefs as “the generally unchanging background to his active thought,” those things he “never had occasion to question” or to state.

Jonathan Lanman in 2008 defined belief as “the state of a cognitive system holding information (not necessarily in the propositional or explicit form) as true in the generation of further thought and behavior.” Using this definition, Lanman asserted, we can “pursue a cross-cultural science of belief,” as everyone has such beliefs. “All have cognitive systems that represent the world in some way and act according to what they believe to be true about that world.”

Your beliefs define you. As fuzzy, illogical, or unquestioned as they may be, they control how you see the world and how you act in response.

As Needham concluded, “An assertion of belief is a report about the person who makes it, and not intrinsically or primarily about objective matters of truth or fact.” Belief, said Needham, is “ultimately a reference to an inner state.” More, that inner state seems to be emotional. Yet we cannot say, in English at least, that someone is “believing” or “belief-full,” Needham mused.

Philosopher Jesse Prinz thinks the emotion involved is wonder. It’s wonder that produces both religion and science, as well as art: The three institutions “that are most central to our humanity,” said Prinz, are “united in wonder.” They are not in conflict. They are not either/or. Each of the three feeds “the appetite that wonder excites in us,” says Prinz. Each allows us “to transcend our animality by transporting us to hidden worlds.” It’s wonder, Prinz argues, that makes us human.

Adam Smith, the inventor of capitalism, wondered about wonder in 1795, Prinz found. “He wrote that wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented … [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.’”

What is it like? the brain asks. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Wonder is sensory: “We stare and widen our eyes,” wrote Prinz. Wonder is cognitive: “Such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them … : We gasp and say ‘Wow!’” And then there is “a dimension that can be described as spiritual.” Wonder, concludes Prinz, awakens us. “We don’t just take the world for granted, we’re struck by it.”

Or we are not. Emotions, brain researchers have found, depend on culture. You will not sense wonder if you’re never exposed to it.

There’s much we don’t know about the brain. But we know it categorizes. We know it uses concepts and words, finds causes and crafts stories. We know it constantly simulates the world and makes multiple predictions of what we will sense and see—and what we should do in response.

We know that it’s wired for emotion, for wonder, for ecstasy, but that Western culture disdains and derides this side of the brain. We’re taught to control our emotions, to give up wonder in childhood, to stifle our mystical experiences—or at least not to talk about them. Otherwise we’ll be thought “ignorant, eccentric, or unwell,” says Jules Evans of the Centre for the History of the Emotions in London.

We’ll be laughed at as loony elf-seers.

But without words, without the concepts to describe them, you are “experientially blind,” says psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. Wonders—elves?—may be all around you, but you will not see them.

Which brings up the next question I grapple with in Looking for the Hidden Folk, What immaterial beings are we allowed to believe in, and who is allowed to do the believing?

You can read more about Iceland and my many adventures there in my new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, which will be published on October 4 by Pegasus Books. It is now available for pre-order through Simon & Schuster distributors or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Icelandic Bliss

In a way, my new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth, is about the power of stories. We all tell stories. We always have. But we don’t always take responsibility for the effects of our storytelling. Stories shape how you see the world. They determine not only how you think of elves, but also how you think of such “real” things as mountains—or creeping thyme.
“When we look at a landscape,” writes Robert Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind, “we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there. … We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory. … What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans—a mountain of the mind.”

A story that cast a magic spell upon all mountains was Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke, from Ireland, published it in 1757, when he was twenty-eight. He was, writes Macfarlane, “interested in our psychic response to things—a rushing cataract, say, a dark vault or a cliff face—that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too high, too fast, too obscured, too powerful, too something, to be properly comprehended.” Instead, such things inspired “a heady blend of pleasure and terror. Beauty, by contrast, was inspired by the visually regular, the proportioned, the predictable.” It’s the frisson of fear that makes a Icelandic volcano, or a cliffside swathed in fog, sublime.
Burke’s book, says Macfarlane, “provided a new lens through which wilderness could be viewed and appreciated.” Macfarlane’s own books do much the same for me. In The Old Ways, he mentions an archaeologist named Anne Campbell who was “close-mapping” a moor. Why that moor? “It is the most interesting place in the world to me,” she told Macfarlane. “So I spend most of my time walking shieling tracks, paths, and the streams and the walls that used to divide up the land. Then I talk to people and try to fix their memories to those particular places.”

I once visited that part of Scotland, the western edge of the Isle of Lewis, but did not meet Campbell walking her moor. Still, a story Macfarlane told, a little aside, gave me a new perspective on Iceland (the most interesting place in the world to me). Macfarlane wrote, “When it wasn’t too cold, and not so dry that the heather was sharp, Anne liked to walk barefoot on the moor. ‘It takes about two weeks to get your feet toughened up so that it’s no discomfort. And then it’s bliss.’ You should try it when you’re out there. Take those big boots of yours off!’”
On the western tip of Iceland’s Snaefellsnes peninsula sits the long-abandoned farm of Laugarbrekka, where Gudrid the Far-Traveler was born in about 982. I’ve written two books about Gudrid, sister-in-law to Leif Eiriksson, the Viking explorer credited with discovering America some five hundred years before Columbus. Yet Gudrid spent more time in the New World than Leif did. Gudrid is the real Viking explorer, and a recurring inspiration to me. In 2016, on a sunny Sunday in late July, I visited her monument at Laugarbrekka for the umpteenth time. I walked out to the laug or bathing pool, which is no longer bathwater warm, took off my boots, rolled up my pants, and waded in, but the sharp stony bottom of the lake kept me from going far.

Back on the bank, I dabbled my toes and gazed at the glacier-capped volcano, Snaefellsjokull, its corruscations of lava catching the light, until it was time to go, then, remembering Campbell’s bliss, decided to walk barefoot back to the car. It was lovely. The heath was springy and soft and comforting to my feet—though they were not even toughened up. Picking along, carefully placing each foot, I found ripe crowberries and almost ripe blueberries, some very blue but still tart. The grass was soft, too, but I found myself preferentially stepping on the berry bushes and fragrant creeping thyme, which tickled. Who would have thought that thyme (not time) equaled bliss?
You can read more about Iceland and my many adventures there in Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, which will be published on October 4 by Pegasus Books. It is now available for pre-order through Simon & Schuster distributors or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.