Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Iceland's Imaginary Landscapes

I'm reading Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane, a fine book that explores how the landscapes we see are mostly the result of our own imaginings. And I've just come home from a trip to Washington, D.C., where I was welcomed to the board of the Leifur Eiriksson Foundation, which awards $25,000 scholarships to Icelandic graduate students to study in America, or American graduate students to study in Iceland.

Monday afternoon, two of the outgoing Leifur Eiriksson board members, both Icelanders, accompanied me to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum to see the exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" by photographer Feodor Pitcairn.

None of us knew who Feodor Pitcairn was, and the exhibition--and the companion coffee-table book, which was too heavy (and costly) to come home with me--failed to enlighten us. (Later I learned from his own website that Pitcairn was a "diver, naturalist, and underwater cinematographer" who had created the "signature feature" of the Smithsonian's new Ocean Hall, its "immersive, multi-screen, HD, site-specific video installation.")

All we could discover at the time was that Pitcairn had first visited Iceland in 2011. A newcomer. I wondered what he had expected to see. I wondered what "Iceland" called up from his imagination.

According to the Smithsonian's press office, "The exhibition will convey that Iceland is a geologically active wonder, with diverse and magnificent landscapes. The primordial quality of Icelandic landscapes offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the planet was formed and continues to evolve."

Or, in the words of Icelandic geophysicist and poet Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, written in bold yellow letters high on the front wall: "Nurturing landscapes reside all around us. The more pristine they are, the deeper they touch our mind, evoking humanity. They stir up waves of feelings, though never the same for each of us. This is primordial Iceland."

A large hall on the main floor of the museum, opening out from the famous elephant's rotunda, was set aside for the exhibition. The photographs were immense--one covered a whole wall--and numbered 41, I learned from the press materials. I was not inclined to count. I was mesmerized. Iceland all around me: Beauty all around me. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, snow, steam vents, sulfur pots, cairns, a turf house, some trees. Using a large format digital Hasselblad, Pitcairn captured the color and detail of every lichen-coated stone, every leafless birch twig, every shimmer of ice or mineral rime or Northern Lights.

We were the only ones in the hall for the most part; a few tourists wandered through, but none lingered. We amused ourselves by guessing the names of places without reading the captions--some of which gave no place names, in any case.

We remarked at how odd it was that none of the scenes showed a single tourist. It's hard, nowadays, to find a time when some of these beauty spots are abandoned.

We played at picking our favorites: If you could afford one, which would you want on your own wall? I dithered between a stark scene, nearly black-and-white, of snow and peaks and wind-pruned trees and the glorious glacier shot that opened the show (and made the cover of the book).

Photo by Feodor Pitcairn, courtesy the Smithsonian's press office.

My Icelandic colleagues passed those by. On the far wall, in a cluster of images, was a misty green fjord-side graced with two sheep. Those two sheep were the only animals Pitcairn had found in his imaginary Iceland. "That one," said Halla. "I would like that one for my birthday." (It is not among those images made available by the Smithsonian press office.)

In 1996, I spent a summer living in an abandoned farmhouse on the west coast of Iceland. The sea rose into the hayfields at high tide. Behind us stretched a vast jumbled field of rough lava. Across the fjord, snow-capped mountains fenced the sky, the grand shield-volcano of Snaefellsjokull rising Fuji-like at their furthest tip. I took well more than 41 photographs of primordial Iceland from that spot, each of them touching my mind, in Ari's phrase, and encouraging my imagination.

The next year I met a family who had once farmed there and had chosen to move away. "It's very beautiful," said the farmwife, "but the tides kept taking the sheep."

I will never see the Iceland she saw--or that my Icelandic colleagues see--or that Pitcairn photographs. As MacFarlane explains in Mountains of the Mind, most of what we see in a landscape we bring to it.

Feodor Pitcairn's exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" runs through April 2017. Photos of and from the exhibit are courtesy of the Smithsonian's press office.

Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, by Robert MacFarlane, was published in 2003 by Random House. I wish I could write like him.

If you'd like to come to Iceland with me and see the land of my imagination, sign up for my "Sagas and Vikings" tour, July 10-16, 2016, at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I am immensely glad to know about this exhibit and will be sure to visit. Kind regards from your fan,