Iceland’s nature is truly magnificent. Grand mountain ranges flanking bottomless fjords. Endless stretches of tundra and vast glaciers. Formidable rivers and thundering waterfalls. But what is there to see when you take your focus off the horizon and bring it closer: to the soil beneath your feet? What if you could zoom in even further, see the microorganisms that are invisible to the naked eye but actually make up the vast majority of the genetic diversity on the planet and are the basis of its ecosystems?
We have plenty of information on Iceland’s soil and microbial ecosystems. But theoretical knowledge is quite a different beast from practical knowledge. You can put soil under a microscope, dissect its chemical components, and assess which tiny critters reside in it. Or you could take a more creative approach and experiment – just to see what happens. Through trial and error, Iceland’s creative people are digging in the dirt – literally – and making illuminating discoveries along the way.
“I started wondering if I could dye fabrics in these colours
and did a few experiments, but it wasn’t clicking. I’m not
a textile artist, I’m a ceramic artist.”
A far cry from mass-produced soil, forming clay by hand is an intimate one, with the material coming to life from the touch of an artist’s fingers. That sort of connection is hard to come by with Iceland’s soil: most of the ingredients Icelandic ceramic artists work with are imported. While there’s clay all around the country, making it into a piece of pottery is a challenge. Ceramic artist Hulda Katarína Sveinsdóttir grew up in Hveragerði, a town named for the geologically active ground. “I felt an affinity for the hot spring clay, but people really don’t like it, and I get that, because it’s hard to work with.”
A few years ago, Hulda began researching what she could make from Icelandic clay. “The results were brittle and would often explode in the oven.” Working with natural clay means that you don’t always know what you’re getting into. Clay is a fine-grained, natural soil containing clay minerals, but its chemical composition differs vastly. The most obvious way you can tell is its range of colours. “When I was studying, we looked into Icelandic clay. You’ll see a field of bright red clay streaked with veins of yellow or silver,” Hulda tells me. Once she had explored all the qualities (and weaknesses) of Iceland’s clay, she was most struck by the colours. “I kept working on it, and I noticed that cloth that touched the clay would stain, and the colour wouldn’t easily wash out.”
One of the difficulties of working with Icelandic clay is that it shrinks drastically in the kiln. It’s not just water that evaporates but all sorts of natural chemicals, such as sulphur. “When firing the clay, it’s important to be wary of the fumes, as a lot of sulphur dioxide gets released.” Sulphur is a natural colour fastener, which inspired Hulda to start thinking about the clay colours in a new way. “I started wondering if I could dye fabrics in these colours and did a few experiments, but it wasn’t clicking. I’m a ceramic artist, not a textile artist. But that’s the process that led me to make crayons out of the clay.” In her natural clay crayons, Hulda captures the surprisingly varied colourscape of Iceland, using finely ground clay from geothermal sites and the region surrounding her hometown of Hveragerði.
During the process, several things surprised her. The biggest one was the immense variation between different types of clay, even those that were sourced only a few kilometres from each other. Some required only a bare minimum of the soy wax she uses as a binder, while others turned brittle without plenty of it. “I thought I could figure out the ratio and use the same recipe for all of the assorted colours. That was impossible. Each clay had its very own personality.” While the crayons present a beautiful way to connect with the colours of Iceland, to Hulda, this is one step of the way to familiarising herself with Iceland’s clay.
If this is so easy and so good for the planet and so effective, why hasn’t anyone done this on a large scale?
Björk Brynjarsdóttir and Julia Miriam Brenner love dirt so much that they want to make more of it. Much more, in fact. And they’ve developed an ingenious way to do it: by making trash into treasure.
In the modern world, technological improvements have often served to move us further away from natural processes. One of the most pertinent issues this has created is the way we manage waste: burning it or burying it in a landfill isn’t sustainable, and all over the world, people are working hard to solve the problem of what to do with what we throw away. Björk and Júlía are working on one such solution through their composting company Jarðgerðarfélagið. Their goal is to take a complicated issue – managing organic household waste – and develop a solution applicable on a large scale without sacrificing the hygiene and comfort we’ve come to expect. The key, if you ask the pair, is microorganisms.
Have you ever made compost? You need time, oxygen, and heat, and you even need to stir it. That process brings to mind two unpleasant words: trash juice. When Björk was studying in Denmark, she heard about another composting method: fermentation. “The first thing that sparked my interest was what this would mean for the environment,” Björk tells me. “But now I just find everything about it fascinating.” Her partner in crime, Julia, is a soil scientist. They met while taking a class on home composting. “The thing is, individuals can compost independently, and many are, but they shouldn’t have to. Putting the responsibility on the individual is not a sustainable solution.” She explains that in Iceland, the responsibility of waste management is entirely in the hands of municipal authorities. If they want to do better, they can – and they should!
Bokashi composting is a way of taking organic waste and transforming it into nutritious fertiliser. Composting is not the right word for it, as the bokashi method relies on fermentation, an anaerobic (oxygen-free) process, and traditional composting requires oxygen. Developed in Japan in the eighties, all you need to do it at home is a sealed bucket and some microorganism-infused bran, and in two weeks, your vegetable scraps and banana peels become usable fertiliser. Unlike traditional composting methods, there’s no stirring needed, and since the bucket is fully sealed, it doesn’t emit any unwanted smells. The microorganisms kill harmful bacteria and promote the growth of good ones, much like when making kimchi or sauerkraut. Keeping organic waste out of landfills also stops it from producing more greenhouse gases.
It all sounds a little too good to be true. “Right?” says Björk. “At every step in this process, we’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, if this is so easy and so good for the planet and so effective, why hasn’t anyone done this on a large scale?” Björk and Julia are now working with Rangárvallasýsla, a region in south Iceland, to scale up their bokashi production. “We’ve been taking this one step at a time, not making grand plans until we know for sure that this works. But so far, it’s been working pretty spectacularly. After our first pilot project, we did some user interviews, and people were thrilled with it. And the process creates a nitrate-rich soil, which is perfect for Iceland, as our volcanic soil naturally lacks nitrate.” When doing their due diligence, Julia and Björk were also pleasantly surprised with the hygienic properties of their microorganisms. “We absolutely flooded some waste with E. coli and salmonella to test them. After leaving it with the microbes for a couple of weeks, the harmful bacteria had been completely annihilated.”
Iceland’s environment doesn’t only offer materials for artmaking: its microorganisms can also make food. While modern science has deepened our understanding of microorganisms such as yeast, you don’t need to know what’s working or how to make some magic happen. People have been doing it for millennia; baking bread, fermenting vegetables for storage and easier consumption – and making beer.
When Sveinn Steinar Benediktsson and Kjartan Óli Guðmundsson met, they were both studying design at the Iceland University of the Arts. They shared a massive interest in microorganisms, and over a beer or two, Grugg&Makk was born. Using old traditions peppered with modern science, they set out to figure out what Iceland tasted like.
To make beer, you only need four ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. The yeast is where things get complicated. These days, you can go to the grocery store and buy commercially produced yeast that comes to life in your bread or beer, but you don’t actually have to go that far; there’s yeast in the soil and air all around us. The Grugg&Makk boys simply leave out a liquid containing the optimal conditions for the kinds of microbes they want to attract, and the milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Only in this case, the milkshake is an unfermented beer base, and the yard is a brewery.
“Grugg&Makk is all about collecting bacteria in certain places in Iceland,” Sveinn tells me. “We’re connecting the microbial ecosystems of specific locations with a flavour experience. So, you can taste a place.” A glass of wild ale brewed with yeast collected in a lava field is a cloudy golden colour and tastes fresh, with a hint of currants, lactic acid, and warm spices. “Seeing through a microscope doesn’t tell you much about what’s going on, but tasting a beer made with yeast from Svörtuloft versus one made with yeast from Djúpalón – the vast difference between them gives you a deeper sense of the scale. Everyone assumes we add different flavours to the beers, but it’s just what happens. It’s amazing how much difference different microbes can make. And taste is one form of perception.”
Their methods are based on culinary traditions present in most cultures throughout history, even Iceland. Kjartan explains: “To make skyr, people would use some skyr from the previous batch as a starter, keeping their culture alive. But if every last scrap of skyr got eaten, you had to get some new microbes. Waiting until summer, you would put out a few bowls of skyr base in various places around the farm and then pick the best-tasting one as the base for your future skyr.”
“And people would have favourite skyr based on which farm it came from!” Sveinn chimes in. “Although the beers from farmland regions were some of the most challenging ones we made – flavourwise. Except for maybe the Ingjaldstún one?” he looks questioningly at Kjartan. “Well, that one was also close to some swampland. I liked it; it tasted a little bit Belgian.”
The difference between these guys and rural Icelanders in centuries gone by is that modern science has cast a light on what’s happening behind the scenes. As they get lost in talk about the differences between saccharomyces and brettanomyces and what makes beer taste “farmy” – the mad scientist vibe borders on uncanny.
They agree that the most accessible beer they made happens to come from lava fields by the sea. Their experiments included visiting the locations in different seasons (more mushroom spores in the air in the fall), and they wondered if the temperature in the sun-soaked black lava affected the outcome. While collecting wild microbes is a game of chance, they also exert a considerable level of control. “Back in the day, beer was sourer, like this one, because lactic bacteria would also be present. It keeps bad bacteria at bay. Most bacteria ideal for human consumption can’t survive in low-acid conditions. It helps to make the product safe for consumption. So, we use old traditions with modern knowledge of microorganisms. We create optimal conditions for the yeasts and microbes we want to collect in our collecting liquid. The base is unfermented beer, with a little alcohol to keep mould at bay. I add a little yeast nutrient to it and a tiny amount of hops, so I don’t get too much lactic acid.”
Letting nature do its thing through a controlled process based on old traditions and modern science – along with a whole lot of trial and error.
That’s how you make magic.