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Living with disasters, Iceland style

On the narrow, two-lane “highway” that skirts the southern coast of Iceland there are big, illuminated signs that track and report wind velocity. As Jón Ágúst, a quintessentially unflappable native Icelander explains, when the wind blows at a certain speed (the measurement is in meters per second so I’m not even going to bother to give you the stats), it is difficult to keep a car on the road.

When the wind is somewhat stronger, it is “not advisable,” he says, to be on the road. Even stronger wind can whip up gravel, pebbles, even rocks from the surrounding lava fields, creating a geological hailstorm that dents the bodies and breaks the windshields of cars whose owners chose to ignore the illuminated signs (or were Americans who could not do the meters to miles/ seconds to hour conversions). Jón Ágúst points out a new patch of asphalt on the road. It is, he says, a repair job after an “especially strong wind” sent chunks of asphalt flying, ripping up an entire section of the road.

Now the highway is paralleling a bridge, a very long bridge. “That’s the longest bridge in Iceland,” Jón Ágúst says. The bridge is not in use nor, as far as I can tell, does it bridge anything. “There used to a river there,” he explains. The river was formed during one of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs. Then, during another of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs, the river changed course. “But who knows,” says Jón Ágúst. He offers a hint of a smile. “We might need that bridge again some day.”

Why do I recount this for you? Because it speaks to the Icelandic attitude toward the vicissitudes of life—and boy do these people have vicissitudes—which stands in direct opposition to our Disaster! Catastrophe! Crisis! mentality. These people experience volcanic eruptions, lava flows, glacier runs, geological hailstorms, raging rivers, killer winds, deep freezes, financial exigencies, the fall of their government—which occurred with barely a ripple when I was there—and they make it through. They take care of business. Which is to say they don’t panic. They don’t cry “disaster.” They batten down the hatches; they look after their neighbors; they watch for sneaker waves; they stay off the road. They respect the volatility of their environment. They know how to survive. They know how to care for those who don’t.

1 comment

1 Richard Greene { 10.12.17 at 6:14 am }

I see you really liked your visit. I think there are some parallels in Oregon with the volatile environment and the legacy of the lumber camps and forestry industries. There is a residue of that live and let live attitude that recognized time and chance happen to all but you have to scratch for it anymore.

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