Gerður

icelandic short fiction

Sunna Dís Másdóttir is a member of the Impostor Poets, a women’s poetry collective, withwhom she has published the poetry collections Ég er ekki að rétta upp hönd, Ég erfagnaðarsöngur and Nú sker ég netin mín. Their novel Olía (Oil) was nominated for the IcelandicLiterary Prize in 2021. Other members of the collective are Fríða […]

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Insecticide – With a Buzz

nicotine pouches in iceland

According to data from the Directorate of Health, 34.2% of Icelanders between the ages of 18 and 69 smoked cigarettes on a daily basis in 1989. In 2022, 23 years later, that percentage had shrunk to an impressive 6.3%. This decline is not, however, so straightforward as it may appear, for the introduction of new […]

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A Matter of State

Evrópuráðið Harpa Reykjavík Pólítík

It’s a cold spring day in Reykjavík and winds buffet optimistic tourists in flip-flops. Above, the sky hangs low, an endless expanse of grey. Normal enough for May. Today, however, bulletproof, black limousines loiter in front of Harpa and reports of cyberattacks filter out of Alþingi. A helicopter belches shimmering-hot wakes of exhaust as it […]

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Give a Man a Fish

It’s just after six in the morning and Guðmundur Geirdal is pouring his first cup of coffee. It’s spring, so the sun has already been up for a couple of hours but a light veiling of clouds means that there’s a fresh snap to the air. Down by the Arnarstapi harbour, the squeaky cries of the seabirds are loud enough to drown out the murmured chatting of the other fishermen preparing their boats for the day.

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Pooling Together

iceland swimming pool

The ideal Icelandic hot tub, which takes the shape of a circle, finds its prototype in Reykholt, West Iceland. 

It’s there, on the historical property of writer, historian, and chieftain Snorri Sturluson, that a wooden doorway, leading from an underground passageway, baked into the side of a green hillock, opens up onto a short stone walkway. This walkway leads to a ring of more stone, in the middle of which sits a pool, fed by a hot spring, and dug into the ground so that it’s level with the Earth. While the current iteration of the pool is based on a contemporary mason’s guesswork, historical records show that Snorri Sturluson bathed in a pool of this kind, and, perhaps – looking out onto the vault of heaven – philosophised on the origins of life:

“And the spirit of Fimbultyr moved upon the face of the deep,” Snorri wrote in the Prose Edda (the world’s most complete source for Norse mythology), “until the ice-cold rivers […] came in contact with the dazzling flames from Muspelheim […] and Fimbultyr said: ‘Let the melted drops of vapour quicken into life’.” 

Indeed, there is a special kind of vitality born at the intersection of heat and cold, a quickening of the soul that is familiar to all those who have descended into the warm waters of an Icelandic hot tub on a cold winter’s day. This feeling of vitality, of rejuvenation, forms a not insignificant part of the appeal of Icelandic pools, for the tubs – at least to any mind unnaturally preoccupied with historical throughlines – always seem to hearken back to Snorri’s pool in Reykholt. 

And not without reason.

iceland pool swimming
iceland pool
vesturbæjarlaug reykjavík

Mirrored stages

The first public pool in Iceland to feature a hot tub was Vesturbæjarlaug in West Reykjavík, which opened in 1961. The outside area was conceived of by architect Gísli Halldórsson, who drew upon the design of Snorralaug for the pool’s two hot tubs. Their dimensions are precisely equivalent to Snorralaug, and tubs of this kind were originally referred to as Snorralaugar, or Snorri Pools.

Filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason, who recently released the excellent documentary Sundlaugasögur (Swimming Pool Stories), grew up going to Vesturbæjarlaug. He was six when the pool opened and would accompany his father to the pool every day after school. This father-son routine persisted until Jón Karl graduated from high school. 

Things were different back then.

jón karl helgason
Filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason

“Because there were so few changing rooms, you were only allowed to stay for an hour at a time,” Jón Karl explains. “You’d be handed a coloured bracelet when you entered, and at regular intervals, the pool guards would yell something like: ‘Everyone with a yellow bracelet must get out now!’ My friends and I, however, were quick to game the system. We’d collected all the different coloured bracelets so that we could stay as long as we’d like.”

As Jón Karl notes, the phases of many an Icelander’s life are neatly mirrored in their evolving relationship with the pools. “It begins at six or seven,” he observes, “during mandatory swimming lessons in elementary school. From there, the pools become a kind of playground. Then they serve as convenient venues to bring boyfriends or girlfriends, or to meet your friends. And then, later in life, you bring your kids along.”

I add one overlooked phase of his narrative, the libertine twenties: “When the pools were the perfect place to recover from a hangover.”

Jón Karl laughs. “Yes, it’s good – going to the pool the day after.”

hveragerði swimming pool
hveragerði sundlaug

A brief history of Icelandic pools

The tagline of Jón Karl’s Swimming Pool Stories reads as follows: “The Russians have their vodka. The Finns have their saunas. And the Icelanders have their pools.” 

But unlike those first two, Icelandic swimming pool culture is relatively young. It began in the early 20th century, when a national awakening to the inordinate number of drownings among fishermen was taking place.

reykjavík pool
iceland swimming pool
reykjavík swimming pool

Wednesday’s are “slide days” in Suðurbæjarlaug in Hafnarfjörður. On the day we visit, we meet two regulars: ducks, one green and one white, who commonly stroll around the outside area – and sometimes swim a few laps.

A newspaper article anticipating the founding of the Lifesaving Association of Iceland (SVFÍ) in 1928 noted that 1,754 Icelanders had drowned during the first quarter of the century, most at sea. The authors pointed out that other seafaring nations had long since established similar associations: the English in 1824, the Danes in 1852, the Norwegians in 1891, and the Swedes in 1907. “We are lagging behind,” they observed.

Besides the establishment of lifesaving associations, swimming pools were also a way to prevent deaths at sea. Their construction began at around the turn of the 19th century, so the natives could learn to swim. Some initially opposed the initiative by the rationale that teaching fishermen to swim would only serve to “prolong the agony of drowning.” But as more and more pools were constructed around the country – usually around sources of geothermal heat – and as swimming lessons grew more common, deaths among fishermen grew less and less frequent.

swimming pool reykjavík

These days, drownings off the coast of Iceland are almost unheard of. Modern technology and improved weather forecasting has, of course, played a significant role in this regard, but it would be unwise to discount the effect of swimming instruction in Iceland. As the headmaster of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre in Iceland once noted, swimming instruction accounts for “a total of 800 minutes per year in Icelandic primary school.”

“It’s ironic to think that more people currently drown in our swimming pools than at sea,” I remark somewhat hesitantly to Jón Karl, aware that as a child in Akureyri, he witnessed a drowning.

“I must have been five or six,” Jón Karl recounts. “I wasn’t actually in the pool myself; my mother had gone for a dip, and I, standing on the edge of the pool, fully clothed, noticed a young girl, wearing a red bathing suit, lying motionless on the bottom of the pool. I called for help, and my father immediately dived in after her. He tried to resuscitate her. But to no avail. It was a distressful experience, which later engendered a sense of care when it came to my own kids.” 

The great equalisers

Jón Karl began shooting Swimming Pool Stories in 2013. 

Filming took much longer than expected for he would often visit the pools where he intended to shoot three or four times in order to establish a connection with patrons. (He visited nearly 100 pools). It was only when he had become something of a patron himself that he felt confident enough to bring along equipment to record audio. Then a small camera – then a bigger one. 

Most of Jón Karl’s interviewees were over 80 (eight of them have died since the film was released) as he wanted to focus on those individuals who had been visiting their local pools for decades. 

hveragerði sundlaug

Ása visits the pool in Hveragerði, South Iceland every day. If she doesn’t, she begins to fidget. She moved to the town two years ago, to be closer to her sons. When we find her, she’s there with her elder son. The two of them have a close relationship: “He tells me everything. His friends sometimes say to him, whenever something noteworthy occurs: ‘You’re going to tell your mother about this, aren’t you?’.”

“I wanted people who could tell stories,” Jón Karl remarks. “People who had been swimming all their lives and who had become part of these pool communities. One of my interlocutors in the film, Hallgrímur from Þingeyri, West Iceland, told me that whenever someone from his group didn’t show up to the pool at the appointed hour – his companions would become concerned. I found that rather touching.”

Such “pool communities” have evolved all over Iceland, with people from all walks of life convening at their local pool at a fixed hour: Pottormarnir (a play on the Icelandic kenning meaning unruly boys, and the word for hot tub) in Hafnarfjörður; Morgunfrúrnar (Morning Dames) in Dalvík; and, perhaps most famous of all, Vinir Dóra (Friends of Dóri) in Vesturbæjarlaug.

Icelandic perception of swimming pools differs from what can be found in western literature, I tell Jón Karl. “Two things come to mind: the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever, where the protagonist decides to swim home by way of the private pools at the homes of suburbanites; and The Great Gatsby, where the titular character meets his death in a swimming pool. In both cases, there are connotations of wealth, whereas, in Iceland, the pools are equalisers. As the cliché goes: ‘in the pools everyone is equal.’”

“Yes, and admission to the pool is cheap – especially if you buy an annual subscription,” Jón Karl points out.

Perhaps the most notable example of this democratic intermingling in the public pools relates to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s fourth president and the first democratically-elected female head of state in history. Even after she secured the presidency, Vigdís continued to frequent Vesturbæjarlaug, where every morning – still to this day – a group of pool-goers engage in a tightly-scripted regimen of exercises invented by Danish gymnastics educator J. P. Müller. Vigdís, as president, was not above participating.

Conversations

In March of this year, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, submitted a memorandum to the government concerning Iceland’s nominations to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ministry’s two proposals were Icelandic laufabrauð (a Christmas season delicacy) and the country’s swimming pool culture.

“Swimming pool culture has been intertwined with the Icelandic national soul for many centuries,” Lilja wrote, “and has rarely been as vigorous as it is now. Many matters of national interest are discussed in the country’s pools, and it is a great honour for any intangible culture to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. And I believe that our swimming pool culture […] definitely belongs on that list.”

laugardalslaug
laugardalslaug

As noted by Lilja, the local pools are not only places of community, relaxation, and exercise – but also a venue for residents to engage in lively conversations about current affairs. In an article published in the New York Times in 2016, the writer Magnús Sveinn Helgason explained to reporter Dan Kois that because of the weather, the Icelanders “didn’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style.” Furthermore, because beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, the country didn’t evolve a pub tradition in the manner of England or Ireland.

“The pool is Iceland’s social space,” Kois wrote, “where families meet neighbours, where newcomers first receive welcome, and where rivals can’t avoid one another.” Later in the article, Kois spoke to Mayor of Reykjavík Dagur B. Eggertsson who observed, “It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who don’t typically talk to their neighbours in the store or in the street, to forge connections. In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do.”

There’s a family anecdote that sheds some light on just how engaging these tub talks can be. Some years back, my father went for an evening soak at the Suðurbæjarlaug public pool in Hafnarfjörður. Taking his place in one of the hot tubs, he became fully engrossed in what must have been a rather lively conversation with an acquaintance. At some point during the talk, a young man stood up from the hot tub and took his leave. My father’s acquaintance asked, “Say, wasn’t that your son?” My father looked at him as if he was half-mad. “No, no – he doesn’t look anything like that,” he replied.

The following morning, my younger brother met my father in the kitchen and commented in a rather ironic fashion: “Nice to see you at the pool yesterday.” I’m not sure who comes off as more eccentric in this story: my father, for not having recognised his own son at the pool; or my brother, for having recognised my father, but deciding not to greet him. 

Civil rights

In Jón Karl’s documentary, one of his interlocutors remarks: “If there wasn’t a public pool in Þingeyri (a town in the Westfjords of Iceland), it wouldn’t be habitable.” 

As a regular patron of the public pools, I sympathise with the sentiment, recalling a time when I was hunting for an apartment. Among the variables that I took into account was the property’s proximity to a public pool: If there was no pool within walking distance, then that strongly recommended against it. Luckily, it is rare, especially in the capital area, to encounter housing so far from a public pool so as to render walking unfeasible. As has often been observed, living in a place that’s within walking distance of a public pool is a kind of civil right in Iceland.

swimming pool iceland

“I read somewhere that there are 127 concrete pools in Iceland,” Jón Karl tells me. “And if you divide that by 380,000 (the rough population of Iceland), that comes to approximately one pool per every 3,000 residents. I was also told that something like 80,000 admissions are tallied every month in the Laugardalslaug swimming pool in Reykjavík; and I once reviewed data indicating that five to six million admission tickets were sold to Iceland’s pools every year.”

This may seem like a large number, but a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation may suggest otherwise. I visit a public pool, mostly the one in Hafnarfjörður, four to five times a week. That amounts to over 200 visits a year. If a tenth of the population frequent the pools with the same regularity as I do, that would mean over 7 million admissions annually. (Not including tourists).

Whatever the exact figure, the public pools in Iceland continue to evolve; what began as dirty mud holes, dug for the purpose of swimming instruction, have gradually morphed into ubiquitous modern facilities, featuring concrete pools, hot tubs, kid-friendly areas, waterslides, and, most recently perhaps, cold tubs: where patrons sit, shiver, and meditate, surrounded by a community of individuals who come for various reasons, and with varying regularity, and who, in the event of a protracted stay abroad – usually come to miss the Icelandic pools.

Without them, Iceland wouldn’t be habitable.

Open Books

edda icelandic manuscripts

The Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, located at two institutions in Iceland and Denmark, is on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It was established by Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), who travelled widely across Iceland collecting vellum manuscripts and books stretching back to the 12th century. On his deathbed, he bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen in […]

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Of Ashes and Evergreens

hekla forest project

We come to the windswept, barren highland for solitude. To be alone, away from it all. The immense openness of Iceland’s landscape is only rivalled by the silence that can be found there, punctuated by sharp winds and distant bird calls. But the ash and gravel that cover this subarctic desert hide a story. Out here, so far removed from people, we stand among the scars of human settlement. We come to nature to escape ourselves but find instead a mirror. We are not so alone in this strange and empty place. This, too, is manmade.

hekla forest project

New growth

A new footbridge spanning the Þjórsá river in South Iceland opened in 2021. This was celebrated by hikers eager to further explore this scenic region of Iceland, but it also inspired a different kind of celebration; it was the first major construction project in a millennium to be built with timber sourced exclusively from Iceland.

Last year also saw several other milestones in Icelandic forestry, with a Sitka spruce near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, South Iceland reaching 30 m [98 ft], a post-Ice Age first, and forest coverage finally surpassing 2% of Iceland’s total land area. Admittedly, this figure includes shrublands as well but, in 1990, forest coverage only accounted for 7,000 hectares [17,000 acres]. The figure now stands around 45,000 hectares [110,000 acres], more than a five-fold increase over the course of 30 years. And where just decades ago only a handful of sites were considered viable for forestry, Icelandic forests are growing in places once considered beyond the pale of the habitable world.

hekla forest project

Icelandic forestry is no longer the oxymoron it once was, but as it grows in importance as well as size, so also grow disagreements about its future and methods. At the centre of the debate is the coming merger (or rather, reunion: the once-united agencies were split apart in 1914) of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which has thrown some of these disagreements into sharper relief, including the use of non-native species and the role of the carbon credit market in Icelandic forestry. No matter their differences, everyone who participates in the afforestation effort’s goal is simple: to reclaim a part of the original landscape. One of Iceland’s greatest successes in the field is Hekla Forest (Hekluskógar), nestled in the once-lush Þjórsárdalur valley.

It is generally agreed that prior to human settlement, some 20 to 40 per cent of Iceland was forested. The Book of Settlements states that “there were forests everywhere between the mountains and shore.”

The Hekla Forest Project

Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and since forestry efforts began in the region, it has seen five major eruptions. The birch woodlands around Hekla are quite resilient and can survive eruptions, even when only the tops of the trees are left sticking out of the newly deposited ash and tephra. This is important because other vegetation such as grass and low-lying shrubs do not survive eruptions. Forests, especially tall ones, form durable shelters which prevent ash from spreading and forming deserts on nearby land.

hekla forest project

Experience has shown that Hekla eruptions regularly deposit half-metre-thick ash layers up to 10 km [6 mi] from the volcano. With the next eruption of Hekla only a question of when, not if, the Hekla Forest is also an important investment in the future of this region of Iceland.

“By the turn of the century, forests in this region of Iceland had been reduced to a few isolated patches along Þjórsárdalur valley and Búrfell mountain,” explains Hreinn Óskarsson, former director of the Hekla Forest Project. “But thanks to afforestation efforts, the region is now one of Iceland’s largest wooded areas, extending up Hekla and the surrounding slopes to an elevation of 600 metres.” For the previous generation of Icelandic foresters, elevations above 200 metres were considered the limit.

hekla forest project
hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Some of the methods that have enabled this success, Hreinn says, are the use of soil-stabilising plants like lyme grass and lupine, and the use of fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers often suffice, but in particularly troublesome areas, bone meal is used, an effective slow-release fertiliser. Thanks to these methods, the birch forests of this region have expanded more than any other Icelandic woodland in recent years.

When the Soil Conservation Service acquired Gunnarsholt farm in 1926, it and many surrounding farms had been abandoned to the encroaching sand drifts. Centuries of sheep grazing and soil erosion had left swathes of once-productive farmland in South Iceland little more than a desert. Gunnarsholt became something like a living laboratory for soil conservation work in Iceland, ultimately becoming the headquarters of the Soil Conservation Service. The work there was a great success, and at its height, Gunnarsholt was the largest farm in Iceland, with 1,600 sheep and 600 cattle raised on what had been desert in living memory. During this time, the Forest Service protected the remnants of birch woodland and experimented with new tree species but did not work on the afforestation of eroded land. Although forestry and soil work share many goals, such as reducing erosion, the Forestry Service and Soil Conservation Service seldom worked together. One project, however, was fated to bring these star-crossed agencies back together.

The Icelandic word mörk, like in Þórsmörk, derives from the Proto-Germanic *markō, meaning a frontier or boundary. Because forests often marked the edges of the map, where settlements ended, this term was also used for any region on the edge of a nation or culture. Hence the English term march denoting a border territory, and a marquis or margrave who rules over such a territory. Icelandic mörk also shares this root with Denmark. This sense of mark also indicated signs that set aside territories, like landmarks, and over time, the word acquired a general meaning of “sign,” or “impression.”

It was due to the Soil Conservation Service’s success in the region that in 2007, a contract was signed between the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and the state to finance the project that would become the Hekla Forest. A century after forestry and soil conservation efforts began at Gunnarsholt, 90,000 hectares of wood- and shrubland now grow around the volcano Hekla. Small teams, both volunteers and workers, work tirelessly to repair the damage done by humans here. One individual can plant several thousand saplings in a day, with a small team armed with nothing but an ATV and some fertiliser planting tens of thousands in a day. The work is difficult, often done in the wind and rain, and the mechanical rhythm can take a toll on one’s back. Planters stab at the earth with a shovel, plant a sapling, and throw in a handful of fertiliser all in one deft movement, and then it’s two paces forward and the same thing again, for hours. The hard work means that the teams working in Hekla Forest have to take frequent breaks, often working for three days straight and then resting for two. But during the bright, clear summer nights of June, some teams have been known to work all day, challenging each other to surpass their records.

hekla forest project

In addition to being an inspiring success story, the wooded lands known collectively as Hekla Forest are also providing a model for other forestry projects in Iceland, due to the use of native species and close cooperation between agencies, municipalities, and private landowners. Of the 1,000 km² to the north, west, and south of Hekla, up to 600 km² [232 mi²] will be covered by native birch and willow forests in the next 50 years. The area comprising these forests represents approximately 1% of Iceland’s total land area.

Financing forests

In December of 1997, Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed up a California redwood. When she eventually climbed down, it was a full 738 days later, in December of 1999. In addition to protecting a nearly 1,000-year-old tree from being logged by the Pacific Lumber Company, she was also setting a dramatic precedent for environmental activism, a stunt both to be imitated and dispersed into the popular imagination.

These days, environmental activism looks decidedly less free-spirited, major forestry projects more likely to be spearheaded by international financiers than by stereotypical activists. For better or for worse, activism has been monetised in the form of the international carbon credit market.

hekla forest project

Established by the framework of the Kyoto Protocol and refined by the Paris Agreement, international markets in carbon trading have emerged which seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through financial mechanisms. Carbon credits, which represent one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gas, are traded with the goal of reducing global emissions. In theory, nations that come under their allowed limits can sell their excess emission permits to others that have exceeded their limit. The system also allows participants to offset emissions through environmental projects in developing nations and green investments such as forestry. A key requirement behind this system is that of “additionality,” that is, the actions must not be already required by law or otherwise expected to happen without human intervention.

Additionally, a voluntary carbon credit market exists for organisations wishing to go carbon neutral. When travellers are asked to check a box to make their journey carbon neutral, it is of course not the airline itself planting trees. Instead, companies can choose to approach brokers who will manage the company’s investments in environmental projects.

icelandic forest hekla

However, the voluntary carbon market presents a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, the barrier to certification must be sufficiently low to encourage investment and participation, while on the other hand, standards must be high enough for these projects to actually have the impact they claim. Many early carbon sequestration projects were uncertified, meaning that they can’t be used on this voluntary market. The best of these projects, however, will insist that a company cut their operating emissions down as far as possible, and only then will they cover the difference.

For some working in Icelandic forestry, the entry of private enterprise is one of the most exciting directions in the field today. Until very recently, Icelandic forestry was almost entirely funded by the state. But planting can prove expensive. Very expensive: the lifetime cost of the Hekla Forest Project, including planting an annual average of around 280,000 new saplings, is estimated to be ISK 6 billion [$44 million, €40 million].

Afforestation is a term used for forestry in regions that have not previously supported woodland. Reforestation refers to replacing woodland that has been lost in the recent past. Afforestation is particularly difficult, as these regions often have sparse, nutrient-poor soil. Although Iceland once supported extensive forests, it has been deforested for so long that forestry efforts are considered a form of afforestation.

Indeed, Iceland may prove to be particularly attractive for NGOs and corporations looking for green investments, precisely because its centuries-long struggle with forestry has been so difficult. Iceland’s afforestation struggles have produced some of the best-monitored forests in the world, with comprehensive statistics and metre-by-metre vegetation surveys going back for decades. Of the several international projects currently active in Iceland, at least two are currently within the bounds of the Hekla Forest: Mossy Earth, a UK-based non-profit which focuses on rewilding ecosystems with native vegetation, and Land Life, a Netherlands-based company that specialises in data-driven carbon offset projects. Such companies have also allowed large carbon-emitting industries to help finance forestry efforts, the Icelandic fishing industry now a major player in the field as well.

Missing the forest for the trees

But there are critics of this style of environmentalism, those who doubt that the climate crisis will be solved by market mechanisms. Critics, such as former Assistant Director of the Soil Conservation Service Andrés Arnalds, state that at best, these projects may delay more meaningful environmental action, and at worst, may not actually offset carbon as claimed. “Very often, these carbon offsets can be a kind of modern indulgence. Companies buy off their green sins and continue with business as usual,” Andrés says.

“Even relatively bare grasslands can store surprising amounts of carbon,” Andrés says. “What looks like empty land to many can store up to two-thirds of the carbon that a forest would.” Additionally, afforestation projects often harrow large portions of land before planting. Such practices disturb the soil and can even aid in carbon release, meaning that carbon offset projects themselves can often be significant sources of emissions.

To be able to plant at scale, many carbon offset projects are also monocultures, which isn’t ideal from an ecological perspective, Andres explains. “Icelandic forestry has, for a long time, focused simply on planting trees. But a forest is also an ecosystem with everything that lives in it. It’s not simply a collection of trees, but that’s what they’re planting: trees, not forests.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Planting can be difficult, and historically, the most effective method for large-scale planting has been monoculture plantations. Over time, however, Icelandic foresters have switched to a method that prefers small monocultures of different species clustered together, such that one hectare might have several different monocultures. This, in theory, combines the efficiency of large-scale planting with a more diverse landscape.

And then there’s the fact that the native Icelandic forest, overwhelmingly composed of birch, is a monoculture as well. When we think of biodiversity, our mind often drifts to the tropical rainforest and images of multicoloured flowers, vibrant birdlife, and dense, verdant forests. This is of course an image Iceland will never live up to, but nevertheless, Iceland has its own native biodiversity that’s worth protecting.

For Andrés Arnalds, the Hekla Forest is one of the best models we have: “It’s just a classic example of what we can achieve in Iceland. So many local people have gotten involved in planting, and we’ve restored so much diversity in the Hekla region in the last years.”

Guest workers

The use of birch in Hekla Forest isn’t just a political statement; as a native species, it’s well suited to the local conditions. “Birch is a pioneer species,” says Hreinn. Such pioneer species are often the first species to colonise an ecosystem after a disruptive event like a volcanic eruption or forest fire. “Birch also produces many seeds at a young age,” he says, “meaning that it can spread very quickly under the right conditions.” 

A mature tree can absorb some 22 kg of CO2 annually, the approximate equivalent of 180 km [112 mi] driven in an average passenger vehicle.

Although birch is in many ways the ideal candidate for reforesting Iceland, certain non-native species have also played a key role in Icelandic afforestation. Lodgepole pine, for instance, can tolerate nutrient-poor soils, meaning that it can be used in areas that would otherwise remain empty. Likewise, the aforementioned lupine was intentionally introduced from Alaska to the Icelandic landscape for its nitrogen-fixing properties. Now blanketing many hillsides, it is considered by some to be an invasive species. 

Hreinn Óskarsson, however, is quick to remind me that Hekla Forest has not prohibited the use of non-native species: “What the Hekla Forest Project has done is encourage the use of native species, but it’s a diverse area. It’s not obligatory to just use birch, but that is our main goal. We want to promote biodiversity in the area, and many species in Iceland have grown to be dependent on birch woodlands. Often, with non-native plantations, we don’t get the kind of biodiversity that we’d like to see.”

Hreinn isn’t a purist about what does or doesn’t belong in Icelandic woodlands, and he reminds me that some 2-300 species of flora which we consider to be Icelandic have been imported through the ages. While it’s nice to think that the Hekla birch forests represent a return of the landscape that would have once greeted Icelandic settlers, the goal isn’t simply to revert to a state before human intervention. “The goal,” says Hreinn, “is to restore the function of the ecosystem. We want to see less erosion and more even runoff in the landscape. We want to see stable soils that can withstand catastrophes and to create taller vegetation that both stands up to eruptions and can sequester carbon. But this doesn’t mean simply spreading trees everywhere. We want to expand and preserve birch woodland, without restricting other land use.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Nevertheless, even the best-intentioned projects can have unforeseen consequences. The Icelandic landscape has been barren for so long that forests, even native ones, can cause disruptions to established habitats. Many shorebirds, such as the golden plover, sandpiper, and oystercatcher make their nests in open areas of the lowlands. They prefer these open areas so they can better spot predators like foxes, and increasingly, domestic cats. Notably, they refuse to nest near treelines because they associate trees with predator activity, and even a small stand of trees can deny these birds a large nesting area. 

“We have to accept that human settlement has already totally changed the flora in Iceland,” Hreinn explains to me. “We haven’t seen a reduction in these bird populations yet, but we should also think about how our situation was at the time of settlement, with vast birch woodlands across the lowlands. Now, we’re beginning to see birds in Hekla Forest that we never saw before. In the future, we may well not have the same species at the same sites. Quite simply, we’re creating new habitats.”

Restoring an ecosystem

In the early aughts, one German by the name of Thomas Mann (no, not that Thomas Mann) worked in the Hekla Forest area, shortly before the official founding of the project in 2007. In his evenings and days off, he was accustomed to taking long hikes through Þjórsárdalur valley. He would often take clippings from the day’s work, mostly poplar or willow, and plant them here and there. There wasn’t much method to these trips, and although many of these saplings never took hold, some did, especially those that grew near lupines. 

Not all non-native species are considered to be invasive species, even if they are widespread. Invasives are non-native species which threaten local biodiversity, but plenty of non-native plants manage to find sustainable niches of their own. 

One area in particular that Thomas wandered was Sandártunga, a sand-strewn lava field and historically one of the most degraded areas of the Þjórsárdalur valley. It still presents its difficulties to afforestation today, but among the pockets of lupine and open stretches of gravel, there now also stand the defiant descendants of Thomas’ efforts. It’s not hard to imagine that soon, in decades, not centuries, these lonely trees will be crowded in by other adventurous pioneers. 

Since 2021, Hekla Forest is no longer an independently funded project. But the idea of the project nevertheless lives on, and it is now listed on the Natural Heritage Registry, among such prestigious peers as Gullfoss waterfall, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, and Reynisfjara beach. As puffins and plover begin to descend on Iceland with the coming of spring, this time of year likewise sees a flock of students, volunteers, scientists, and landowners descending on Hekla Forest to continue this important work.

The Garden Past the Monsters

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir

Rain and birdsong, friends’ voices chatting and laughing, woodwinds, breathy strings, muted piano, the strumming of an acoustic guitar. That’s the gentle and dreamy world that greets the listener on the opening of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s first solo album How to Start a Garden. Over this inviting soundscape, her voice enters: Signing off and I can […]

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On the Edge of Glory

Tindastóll Iceland basketball

By the start of Iceland’s latest basketball season, the northerners of Tindastóll, from Sauðárkrókur (pop. 2,612), had made it to the league finals on four occasions. Four times, they left without a trophy. No other team had made it so far, so often, without anything to show for it.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball

This year, the Fates seemed set on weaving a familiar narrative. Excitement brewed, and crescendoed, as the Championship trophy was driven to Sauðárkrókur, Tindastóll’s home turf, during game four of the finals, in anticipation of the team’s first title.

icelandic basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
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Game five began ominously. It was Tindastóll’s final chance to take the title, but Valur dominated the first quarter, and by the closing minutes of the fourth, appeared to have the championship within its grasp: 77-72.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball

A minute is a long time in basketball.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball

In a scene ripped straight out of a sports film, during one of thosehalfunbelievable sequences of events, which occur so rarely so late inthe season – Tindastóll levelled the game with 15 seconds to go.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball

79-79.

Valur’s head coach, Finnur Freyr Stefánsson, called a timeout and drew up a play for Kári Jónsson. He drove past Tindastóll’s defence and netted a tough shot with five seconds left on the clock.
81-79. All hope seemed to have faded.

As the players huddled around, Pavel Ermolinskij – head coach ofTindastóll for all of four months, eight-time national champion, and a former player for Valur – took to the playbook.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball

When play resumed, Tindastóll’s Keyshawn Woods drew a foul on a three point attempt. With the weight of the entire season on his shoulders, he sank the first of three free throws. The next two bounced precariously around the rim – before ultimately sealing Tindastóll’svictory.
81-82.

Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball
Tindastóll Iceland basketball