One day last summer, under the midnight sun, I drove through the surreal landscape surrounding Iceland's Myvatn in a tour bus decorated with streamers and balloons. The driver, Thorstein, carried a big bag of candy. The company logo was No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I didn't have the nerve to ask.
Paired with this hoopla was the elegant image of a raven, painted by the Icelandic artist Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (see more of his work here: http://www.fauna.is/defaulte.asp) and used as the company's logo by permission (okay, after the fact, but she did get permission) by the founder of Krummi Travel, Gerri Griswold of Connecticut.
Yes, Krummi Travel. Krummi is a fond nickname for ravens in Icelandic, but it was pronounced by pretty much everyone in Gerri's group as "crummy."
Being able to hold those two competing thoughts in your mind--elegant artwork, sounds like "crummy"--explains Gerri's brilliant approach to travel in Iceland. Yes, ravens are beautiful. They're also crummy: They eat the eyes out of newborn sheep. And Icelanders love them enough to give them a nickname on the order of "Tommy." (I know Icelandic men with the nicknames Gummi and Mummi.)
With Krummi Travel you get the nature and the culture of Iceland: the beautiful bird (mountain, fjord, etc.) and the layers and layers of cultural meanings. And you get it by meeting Icelanders.
Our tour guide around Myvatn, for example, Illugi (pronounced something like It-Louie), was a real raconteur. He jabbered on and on about how he lost his dog in the lava field. He made himself cry, remembering it. He made all of us cry. We were all out there in the lava field with him, in the snow, looking for the dog, who had fallen through a hole in the lava into a cave and burned her toes in the hotspring that nearly filled the cave floor. She was gone overnight. Illugi had to call in the Icelandic Rescue Squad to lift her out.
But there she was, in the bus with us, missing a few toes. She happily climbed up an enormous tuff-ring volcano and hiked all the way around the crater rim as if we were taking a walk in a park watching the sunset--which we were, Icelandic style.
Along the way, Illugi stopped to dismantle a cairn of stones some previous tourists had piled on the rim. He was quite annoyed by it. Cairns are used in Iceland to mark a path. They're not to be taken lightly or set up willy-nilly. To put one here was like spray-painting a statue. It was rock graffiti, which reminded Illugi to tell me about the real graffiti.
Can you imagine? Someone had clambered down into the bowl of this crater and spray-painted "CRATER" on the rocks. The letters were 17 meters tall, I later learned from a report on IcelandReview.com.
The same someone had written "CAVE" in a nearby cave and "MOOS" on a mossy lava field (couldn't spell). Interviewed on local TV, the local police inspector said, "I mainly find it strange. A very peculiar motive must be behind it.”
Peculiar indeed. Somebody thought it was "art."
A few days after my visit with Krummi Travel, I read about an Icelandic artist who was gallery hopping in Berlin. Reported IcelandReview.com, "He noticed an exhibition at the Alexander Levy gallery by an artist by the name of Julius von Bismarck, a student at the Studio Olafur Eliasson," run by the famous Icelandic-Danish artist. The visiting Icelander, Hlynur Hallsson, took photos of what he found on the gallery walls:
[For more photos, see http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/search/news/Default.asp?ew_0_a_id=400624]
He then contacted the Icelandic media--and the police.
Bismarck, the German art student, quickly released a statement denying that he was the "nature terrorist." He said, in part: "Different anonymous artists collaborated on each location to produce the inscriptions." He said he wasn't even in Iceland at the time.
The gallery's website, on the other hand, gave him credit: "… In a series of nature inscriptions, Bismarck and Julian Charriere directly bring together nature and its conceptual (humanised) form …" [See http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/search/news/Default.asp?ew_0_a_id=400643]
Hlynur, who outed Bismarck, is also known for "spray-paint artwork." As he told the website Akureyri Vikublad, "I don't approve of works that damage nature, regardless [of] whether they're made in the name of visual art or commercialism. To mark moss, lava, or rock faces with paint which doesn't wash off in the rain is unnecessary…. To write in the sand or snow can be more effective even though it only lasts a short time. … Then nature would have been given the respect it deserves."
Reading this, I was reminded of an essay by Justin Erik Halldór Smith called "The Moral Status of Rocks." [Read it here: http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2013/05/moral-status.html] He writes of meeting a "student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock" who said, "in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks."
Smith goes on to talk about "environmental ethics" and why it usually refers to animals, sometimes to plants, but rarely to rocks. Except in Iceland. Where building a meaningless cairn, spray-painting a title on a crater, or smashing a rock are things no thinking human should do. Not even crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists--I mean, tourists. Or artists. Or those of us who aspire to being both.
Join me again next week at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.