25 August 2012

Lights In the Icelandic Fog

In fog, the coastline reminded us of a knife under thin cloth.  Basalt rocks, sharp to the touch; waves hurled up, the sea licking its chops.  The boats here are small, the landscape is many edged.
It’s a quick-weather place.  Clouds roll over the Snæfellsnes Peninsula like passing cars. Mists arrive and depart with every gust of wind.  A day can begin rainy, turn to sun before noon, then plunge into vagueness and fog.  Lighthouses are small comfort on a drizzly night, but we were ashore, not out on the deep.
Above the cliffs of Súgandisey island, on the outer edge of Stykkishólmur harbor, a lonely light blinks through the evenings.
Even in the waning nights of summer, as the earth tilts back away from the sun, it’s never quite dark.  Iceland’s grass is paradise green.  But I can imagine the winter, when light is scarce and the northern seas are cold and high.  Men have long gone out for cod and herring in these waters, even as their gunnels froze and the wind tore at their skin.
There are at least seven lighthouses on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a long, westward tongue of land jutting fifty-five miles into the sea.  There may be more that we couldn’t see from the safety of land, or that weren’t marked on our road charts.  This one, at Malarrif, looked something like a spaceship.  Just down the shore from it, twin lava towers jut into the sky – the locals call the pair Lóndrangar, and believe them to be a fairy church.
Öndverđarnes is built like so many Snæfellsnes buildings: short, simple, sturdy and small.  It barely rises fifteen feet above the sheep-clipped grass and lichen.  Nearby is an ancient stone well, the only one in the near surrounds – it’s built underground to keep it from freezing. The water is down a long, low, rough-rock corridor.
There is an un-translateable poem - titled “Stökur“ - in brass plate pinned to one side, written by Jón Jónsson.
From land, this lighthouse is called Skálasnagi; from sea, the name is Svörtuloft.  Maybe it’s the other way around.  It is one of the lonelier spots on Snæfellsnes, all the way at the western extreme.  High bird cliffs teem with nesting gulls – puffins too, we were told, but earlier in the year.  The waves come up against rock more violently at these open bluffs, and, with the torturous Neshraun lava field inland, the spot feels totally inhospitable.  The rest of the peninsula is cut off from view by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier.  We peered through salty glass, but there was nothing  inside except a wooden ladder.
Skálasnagi/Svörtuloft feels particularly Icelandic.  There’s mist-diffused light and whipping winds, the noise of the sea and the call of Arctic terns.  As we walked there, we watched a few small boats round the point, heading from the harbors in the north to the bay to the south.  Their crews were barely visible on deck.  We thought of the black afternoons in January, when land would be reduced to the sound of waves and a blinking signal.  A very small comfort in the night, to know where the worst rocks are.

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