Guidepost cover, 12 October 1973
A GUIDEPOST Reprint
12 October 1973
By Jack & Carol Baker
REYKJAVIK – Icelanders maintain that their covetous Viking forefathers christened this newfound paradise “Iceland” to discourage prospective settlers.
The subterfuge worked. Today Iceland has only 21,000 inhabitants, though the island almost equals the combined area of Belgium, Holland, and Denmark, home for 30 million people.
In the post-Viking era, when immigrants were needed, Icelanders had grown too attached to their misnomer to change it. Their leaders cunningly decided not to make same mistake with a neighbouring colossus of ice and rock. This they named Greenland, in one of history’s more perverse jokes.
“There’s a woman under every tree,” dubious Greenland prospectors were told. All very true. But try to find a tree…
This chicanery failed anyway. Today’s Greenland is still vast, snow-bound and virtually uninhabited. Thus Greenland remains the real Land of Ice, and Iceland remains a land of misconceptions. There are neither polar bears nor Eskimos on the island, and Detriot gets more snow than Reykjavik. Similarly, New Yorkers shiver through lower January temperatures than residents here in the world’s northernmost capital. And the landscape’s predominant colour is not white, but green.
Rainfall is heavy year-round, bathing the hills in some of the most verdant hues we’re ever seen. But though the winters are surprisingly mild, summers are cool, with the temperature rarely rising over 70 degrees.
This is a haunting land of diverse beauty: Rolling pastures, steaming geysers, black sand beaches, snow-capped peaks, rustic fishing villages, spotless modern towns, imaginative architecture, crystal streams, trout-filed lakes, and almost a waterfall per inhabitant.
It’s a paradoxical place where the seasons are literally as different as night and day. Under the July sun, skiers can slalom 22 hours a day on the glaciers. But two hours of daylight are rare in mid-winter’s “tunnel of darkness”.
Perhaps because of the long winter nights, this mini-state’s artistic activity far surpasses its size, particularly in drama, painting, sculpture and literature. There’s even a flourishing native television network – an amazing achievement, considering that Icelandic is rarely spoken off this 330-by-200-mile island. The language is almost pure Norse. Indeed, Eric The Red would feel right at home here today, though he’d be lost for words in Norway, Sweden or Denmark.
The University of Iceland, which zealously champions Icelandic culture, has an enrolment of 2,000. Novelists like Nobel Prize Winner Haldor Laxness have an enthusiastic market. Iceland is the world’s top publishing nation. On a per capita basis, it produces seven books for every one printed in the United States.
“In the old days,” says Ingevar Hjalmarrson, a printer at Morgunbladid, the island’s largest daily newspaper, “there was little else to do but read.”
There is now, Reykjavik, a streamlined city of 100,000 bustles with shops, theaters, cinemas, hotels, restaurants and a surprising night life. The capital can even lay dubious claim to the planet’s most northerly strip show. It’s candidates’ credentials are democratically exposed to public scrutiny in a nightclub facing the parliament building.
The capital also boasts a lakeside park, numerous indoor sports facilities, a modern soccer stadium and a larger-than-olympic outdoor pool, heated by natural hot springs.
Once, on a cool September day, we found ourselves shamefully diffident about testing the Reykjavik pool. Prodded by Host Hjalmarrson, we finally plunged into the lukewarm water.
To our relief, the experience was invigorating – almost as pleasurable as lounging, minutes later, in a piping hot circular tank at its side. We emerged to strut around the king-size pool, laughing in the face of the wind. Later, jacketless, totally refreshed, and oblivious to the elements, we walked two miles back to our cozy room at the main square’s Hotel Borg (a wise investment, incidentally, at $20 a double).
No visitor should miss these outdoor pools and sauna baths, which are found in every major centre and are considered vital to community life. Citizens splash about in the 80-degree waters year-round, even midst winter snowfalls.
These hot springs heat much of Iceland, including chimney-less Reykjavik and northerly Akureyri, cities that know no air pollution. For that matter, “smog” has yet to appear in the Icelandic dictionary.
The natural springs also heat huge greenhouses, which grow such unlikely fruits as grapes and bananas. At Hveragerdi, 25 miles southeast of the capital, you can buy flowers, fruit and vegetables at these hothouse farms, then stroll to the town outskirts to watch geysers erupt at regular intervals. You’ll also see numerous boreholes emitting powerful jets of steam.
Another road leads to Thingvellir, 30 miles northeast of Reykjavik, site of the world’s oldest parliament. The nation’s earliest political problems were ironed out here, way back in 802 A.D. Tribal chieftains rode to this windswept plain, pitched tents beside a silver lake, and assembled cross-legged around a raging fire.
While commendable for its unprecedented ambition, the original Althing (parliament) was something less than a paragon of democracy. Disagreements were frequently solved by chopping off opponents’ heads. Womenfolk found guilty of infidelity were dragged to a nearby crater lake and hurled to its icy depths, never again to stray (Be it said, however, that similar proceedings were not uncommon in later European assemblies).
Iceland’s parliamentary practice has noticeably improved. Independent from Denmark since 1944, the country has a model social security system with free medical, pension and education programs. Unemployment is virtually non-existent, and poverty unknown.
The crime rate ranks among the world’s lowest, yet, curiously, there’s a prison problem. Only one state institution exists. It’s not quite big enough, but building another seems a needless expense. Thus convicted criminals often spend months as free men, waiting to start their terms.
Prison leniency has become something of a national joke. Inmates are well fed, work leisurely in the fields, and are allowed considerable freedom. One story concerns a warden who lets out his charges to see a movie. When they tarry past curfew, the jailer is livid. “If they don’t show up by midnight,” he vows, “I’ll lock the doors, and they’ll have to sleep in town.”
Hiking, camping and fishing are national pastimes. Every second hotel seems to house a photograph of Bing Crosby hoisting a giant salmon from a nearby lake or river. Near northern Lake Myvatn, travellers can swim in naturally heated ponds inside mountain caves. The island also features whaling stations, herds of sturdy ponies, Cliffside puffin sanctuaries, and boiling mud flats. The U.S. Apollo astronauts trained in the northeast’s weird lava formations, finding them more akin to the moon than any other part of the earth.
The isle was once a timberland, but the Vikings chopped down almost every last tree for firewood, boats and houses. A few small areas have been reforested, but the program is undermined by two million sheep, which ravenously consume all unfenced shrubbery.
Iceland could use more settlers, but some of the old Viking reluctance remains. “What good is a country,” asks Mr. Hjalmarrson, “if every citizen cannot have a mountain for himself?”