canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Three Weeks with the Sheep: A Visit to the Klaustriđ Residence at Skriđuklaustur, Iceland

by K.I. Press

More at kipress.ca

Landing in Iceland and taking the 40-minute bus ride from Keflavík (the "f" is pronounced like a "p" in this context, one of the many mysteries of the Iclandic language) Airport into the capital, Reykjavík, is, as many have said before me, like landing on the surface of Mars. What others have not mentioned is the feeling that someone on the bus must be eating a hard-boiled egg. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was not the case; rather, it was the pervasive sulfuric smell of the Keflavík-Reykjavík area, which is full of natural hot springs. In fact, at my guesthouse in Reykjavík, the egg smell hit me every time I turned on the hot water in the bathroom. After only a few days of washing my hair in Reykjavík, it was covered with a palpable minerally film.

Iceland is known as "The Land of Fire and Ice," and when you arrive in Iceland, you are met with the Fire part of the place. Go to the big tourist destinations in the Reykjavík area, and you’ll see rocky, barren lava fields, a clear view of the mid-Atlantic rift, the volcano Mt. Hekla rising in the distance, and hot water everywhere. If a farmer finds "Wet Gold" on his property, he’s rich, for he can sell the geothermal energy from the hot spring.

But where I was going was much more on the Ice end of the spectrum.

A tour guide had, outside of Reykjavík, pointed out the house where Iceland’s Nobel-winning writer, Halldór Laxness, had lived. A few days later I was reading Laxness’s book Under the Glacier (a.k.a. Christianity at Glacier—highly recommended, by the way) while flying over the Icelandic interior in a little plane (there was no security, at all, in the tiny domestic airport in Reykavík). Looking down over the barren interior, I saw mountains and ice, and ice and snow, and mountains.

Egilsstađir, where I landed, is an unusual town just for not being on the coast. It is situated on Lake Lögurinn (a.k.a. Lake Lagarfljót, home to the lake monster Lagarfljotsormurinn) and exists as the service centre for the entire East Iceland region. For a town so small, and a region so sparsely populated (the biggest town in the region, Egilsstađir is home to less than 2000 people), the services are excellent by Canadian standards, and the town has been booming due to a controversial hydro-electric project in the area. Icelanders are very proud that they have one of the highest standards of living in the world, especially since it was the poorest country in Europe before WWII. Everything is expensive, but, just like when you’re travelling elsewhere in Europe, you simply have to stop converting to Canadian dollars in your head, or you might go insane. When I looked at my bank account and credit card bill, it really wasn’t as bad as I had been warned.

Luckily, I wasn’t paying for accommodation. I was in Iceland to "cloister" myself for three weeks at Klaustriđ, a residency for artists, writers and scholars. The site of a medieval monastery called Skriđuklaustur, the property was more recently (in the early 1940s) owned by Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, who built an impressive house with stone walls and a turf roof, intending to expand it into a downright sod-roofed mansion, before his wife’s illness forced him to abandon the property for the city. He donated it to the state, and it now houses Gunnarsstofnun, the Gunnar Institute, dedicated to the study of his works and of the literature and art of the region, as well as a café and a little museum dedicated both to Gunnar’s life and to the medieval monastery, now being excavated. A medieval Madonna statue in wood which had been found in the area—both the form and the material rare in Protestant, nearly treeless Iceland—was a fellow resident in a darkened room down the hall, on loan to Skriđuklaustur from the National Museum of Iceland.

Skriđuklaustur lies in the Fljotsdalur Valley, a long skinny river valley flanked by steep, rocky hills on either side. Out of the highlands flow countless little glacial streams. (If you kept going up in to the highlands, you’d eventually find yourself in the general vicinity of Snćfell, next door to Vatnajökull, the country’s largest glacier, and incidentally where Laxness’s Under the Glacier is set, not to mention Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.) The streams gather into a kind of delta in the valley, becoming the Lagarfljót River, which widens into the lake, narrowing again on the other side of Egilsstađir and flowing north to the Arctic Ocean.

It’s a beautiful setting, but it is not friendly for much walking. The highway, though sparsely travelled, has no shoulders, and walking in the ditches can be challenging. Walking straight up onto the steep, rocky hills is impossible, and while you can go a little ways into the valley, you’ll quickly meet up with a network of dikes into which the glacial streams have been coaxed to flow. There are a few places you can walk up a bit into the hills nearby, including a path to Hengifoss, one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland. Given the time of year (October) and the fast-changing weather (I learned to go "uh-oh" if I was outside and felt a cold wind suddenly come up the valley), I never made the half-day commitment to see those falls, though I did venture to a much closer, and smaller set. To see more of the countryside, you would really need to rent a car.

In the valley and at the roadside everywhere, there are sheep. And sheep. And sheep. And more sheep. Whereas coastal towns are based on the fishery, in farm country, everywhere you go, you scare sheep. They stare at you for a second before running away en masse, their fat woolly bottoms bouncing to the other end of the pasture. Farming is entirely based on livestock in Iceland, primarily sheep, although you’ll see a few cows now and again, and there are also plenty of very cute Icelandic horses, which resemble My Little Ponies. I was told that, 20 years ago, there were more than twice as many sheep (about a million), but the government started paying farmers to stop producing them. In the summers, the sheep roam free in the highlands, rounded up each fall by Icelandic shepherds-cum-cowboys. Gunnar Gunnarson’s most famous work, known in English as The Good Shepherd, or Advent, is a moral tale about a simple man who sacrifices himself to round up other peoples’ sheep from the highlands. When I was there, the valley was speckled with white sheep-dots as far as I could see.

Hungry sheep and cold humans decimated Iceland’s forests not long after they arrived in the ninth century. Now, along with the standard of living, forestry is one of the things Icelanders like to talk about most; in Reykjavík, going to the country to plant trees on the weekend is a popular pastime. Around Skriđuklaustur, there are actually a surprising number of trees. Hallormsstađur, in-between Skriđuklaustur and Egilsstađir, is the country’s biggest (and beloved) forest.

Skriđuklaustur is pretty isolated, and I got a lot of writing done while there. With nowhere to go without a car, and only two books in English in the library, the Internet was my only source of procrastination (although, as we all know, it’s a good one). There is just one guest apartment in the house, although there is a separate guestroom in another wing, where some volunteers from Costa Rica were staying for a few days while I was there. But in general, you’re alone in the house whenever the museum and café are not open.

This can be pretty weird, as you listen to the terrific, Gothic-novel-esque wind howling incessantly throughout the night, or as miscellaneous strangers out for Sunday drives ring the doorbell hoping for a coffee, or circle the building snapping pictures. One staff member does live in another house on the property, but I gave myself a heart attack one day by thinking I had locked myself out, although it turned out there was just a trick with the lock. The apartment would be a good place for two writers to stay together—two writers who sleep in the same bed, anyway. In fact, the staff were surprised I hadn’t brought my spouse. The apartment is bigger than many I’ve lived in, and there are two separate computers available, one in the apartment, and one downstairs in the Gunnar Institute.

I think, for myself, I’ve discovered that I prefer more structured residencies, at least when I have only a short time to devote to them. When someone cooks for you, not only do you not need to worry about cooking and cleaning, but set meal times force you into a schedule (not to mention a bit of social interaction). At Skriđuklaustur, you do your own cooking, and the director of the Institute drives you into town once a week for supplies. The only scheduled residency-related activity was to give a talk on Canadian Literature at the high school in Egilsstađir.

But the staff is great, the setting is beautiful, and the facilities excellent, so, if you are looking for a truly isolated time to write, or are looking specifically for a residency to which you can bring your spouse (at most residencies, this is forbidden), Klaustriđ is an excellent choice.

Residencies can be from three to six weeks in length, and up to 1/3 of the year’s spots can be awarded to writers, artists and scholars from outside Iceland. For more information about Klaustriđ, including how to apply, visit www.skriduklaustur.is.

K.I. Press is a Winnipeg writer originally from Alberta. Her most recent book is Types of Canadian Women (Gaspareau, 2006). She works for the Winnipeg Folk Festival. She was formerly the reviews editor with The Danforth Review.

 

 

 

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