National Geographic : 1951 Nov
Iceland Tapestry By DEENA CLARK STOU'LL need a passport, a cocktail dress, a dinner gown, a raincoat, galoshes-and a boundless capacity for astonishment!" The airline executive briefed me as I asked about the trip I planned to Iceland. I found he was right, especially about the last. Our swift four-engined air clipper was per haps inspired when it was christened Reyk javik by lovely Madame Thor Thors, wife of the Icelandic Minister to Washington. In early sailing times, 13 days would have been fast time to Iceland, about midway between New York and Moscow (map, page 604). The plane headed northeast-by-east and ticked off the 2,679 miles to Keflavik Airport, on the southwestern shore, in just 13 hours. Living Ice Scours Frozen Lava As the plane approached the craggy island, we saw far ahead gleaming ice domes capping lofty volcanic mountains. Down the valleys glaciers descended like frozen waterfalls. Be low us crystalline snow glistened on ebony black lava. The incredibly blue sea lashed the coast line and spread over ancient lava reefs that turned chalk-white foam to lace. The small contingent of United States troops which landed last May at the same airport came almost as rapidly, in air transports. The airport, midway between Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, Stephenville, Newfoundland, and Rhein-Main Airport, Frankfurt, Germany, is a focal point of European military air trans port. Thus Iceland's position still is of the utmost strategic importance, a perfect step pingstone on the great circle air route, half way between the Old World and the New. Iceland is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States troops landed at the proud little island repub lic's invitation, just as they had in much greater force in 1941, during World War II.* The 30-mile drive to our hotel gave us a swatch of the Icelandic scenery that was to come. Black, contorted lava fields, unre lieved except for huge snow-covered boulders, spread in all directions. The desolate acres, once molten oceans of boiling rock, looked like a hurricane-whipped sea which had sud denly petrified in all its fury.' The strange liaison of fire and ice was ap parent as we approached the capital city, Reykjavik. The ground was frozen, but all around we could see steam rising through the thin crust of earth from the subterranean vol canic fires below. We saw ducks enjoying a warm pond directly adjacent to skaters on a natural ice rink. Reykjavik is home to more than one-third of Iceland's people. Now well-equipped with American refrigerators and washing machines, the city claims the distinction of having been chosen as capital by the gods themselves. According to tradition, when Ingolfur Arnarson, a hardy chieftain of the 9th century, approached Iceland, he threw overboard the carved oak pillars from his high seat in his ancestral hall in Norway. As they splashed into the sea, he vowed to settle permanently where they drifted ashore. After a three-year search, the swollen beams finally were found in a bay in southwest Ice land, near hot springs which sent up white clouds of steam and vapor. Arnarson called his new home Reykjavik, "Smoky Bay," and it has been smoking ever since. I was amazed at the extreme diversity of the city's buildings. A modern apartment section is flanked by dwellings of corrugated iron and wood frame. Most of the houses are made of reinforced concrete, as all building materials except stone, gravel, and sand have to be imported. How the Icelanders cherish the few trees they have! Even if they were large enough to provide lumber, they probably would not be cut for such a mundane use. "One of our great natural resources," Bjarni Gudmunds son, of the Foreign Ministry, told me wryly, "is driftwood!" Farmers Reap a Driftwood Harvest The farmers in the remote section of Oraefi have drawn lots for a long stretch of treach erous, stony seaboard lying many miles away from their farms. They reap a rich harvest of building materials in the wreckage of Ice landic and other boats washed ashore. The houses (one I saw wore a sod roof with grass growing out of it) looked boxy and bare at first, but soon I felt that they were exactly right for their setting. Bright paint on the rooftops gives color and makes up for the lack of trees and landscaping. Lustrous calcareous spar, one of Iceland's few minerals, is ground and mixed with sand stone. Added as a rough finish to concrete houses, it sparkles in the winter sun. "Please tell your friends we don't live in igloos here," an Icelander implored me. "And while you're about it, maybe you'll say we aren't overrun with polar bears, either," he * See "Ancient Iceland, New Pawn of War," 21 illus., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July. 1941. SSee, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPIIC MAGAZINE: "Walking Tour Across Iceland," by Isobel Wylie Hutchison, and "Island of the Sagas," by Earl Han son, both April, 1928.