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.


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