In your novels and poems you describe the beauty of Iceland’s glaciers, most recently in the volume of poetry “Nachtdammern” but also the disappearance of the glaciers, their death. What does this mean for Iceland – and for us?
It’s a farewell that is inevitable and the first word that comes to mind is sadness. I grew up knowing that glaciers are symbols of eternity, immortal wonders of nature. It makes me incredibly sad that they are dying. Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier has become a sad symbol of the climate crisis in recent years.
You deliberately say “die” and not “melt”.
Because glaciers are like living creatures to me. You are part of our life. Her death also means a loss of identity for the people of Iceland.
In what way?
I don’t think we will be the same without glaciers. They play a big role in Icelandic literature and poetry, in our everyday life, in our lives. The Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and outside the polar region, it has often even determined everyday life in Iceland, because there are several active volcanoes under the ice cap. How we think, feel and act as a nation is closely linked to nature. Ten percent of Iceland’s land area is glaciers. You know, nowhere in the world do people live as close to glaciers as in Iceland. This results in a different attitude to life than, for example, in Switzerland, where there are glaciers. But they are not as present in people’s everyday lives as they are here.
How important is Vatnajökull glacier in your life?
My father grew up on a farm in South East Iceland where the glacier dominates the landscape, towering over and outshining everything. I remember my father always saying that he grew up protected by the glacier. I spent every summer on this farm as a child; it is only about thirty kilometers away from Vatnajökull as the crow flies. The house where I now spend part of the year is similarly close by. I see the glacier from my desk, have basically stared at this glacier my entire life. In my childhood it had the shape of a dome, gigantic, surrounded by lagoons. Now the lagoons are bigger because of the melt water and Vatnajökull is flat, shaped like a garage. Yes, sadness is the first word that comes to mind. And anger. For me as a child, the glaciers were a symbol that some things will be there forever. It makes me angry that we humans caused the climate crisis. I think that being so close to seeing the glaciers die in Iceland changes our perception of time.
What do you mean?
We see that we don’t have much time left. We are witnessing at close range how the climate crisis is progressing.
When did you first consciously notice a change?
I can not say it exactly. When I think of my books, Vatnajökull appears as a symbol of eternity in Herzort, which was published in 1995. Ten years later I wrote the novel “Sunshine Horse”, whose protagonist looks at the glacier. She knows that she is going to die and she sees that the glacier is also ephemeral, that it is getting smaller. I knew then that his shape was changing.
Today I see more and more black in the ice sheets, more cliffs and rocks. The crunching of the glacier, how it is in motion, I noticed that even as a child. But now it’s chunks of ice you hear falling. I know a woman who works as a glacier guide. She sees Vatnajökull changing from week to week. Just like other glaciers that run through Iceland like veins. For “Night Dawns” I spoke to many people who live close to Vatnajökull.
What did they tell you?
I was touched and shocked at the same time when a farmer told me that when he felt weak he went to the glacier to gain strength. And that he also has no doubt that the glacier will always be there – although he can see with his own eyes that it is going away and is not the same shape it was ten or five years ago. I’ve met people who are pushing away the climate crisis. And others who don’t care that the glacier will eventually be gone.