I first came to Siglufjörður in 2012. The Salvation Army hut on Norðurgata had been restored, with new corrugated iron walls and a roof, in order to be loaned out to visiting artists. When Guðný gave me the key, she smiled. ‘Jónsi was the last person to sleep in your bed.’ The Sigur Rós singer’s falsetto seemed to echo in the eaves at night, part of the wind that screeched down the valley from the Greenland Sea, between the invisible peaks of Hólsfjall and Hákambur, to Hafnarfjall.
On that visit I learned that weather makes it perilous to explore the mountainous Tröllskagi region in winter. Many days, clouds descended and all I could see from my window was the small door at the back of the Post Office, where the clerk sometimes stood, warmly wrapped, smoking a quick cigarette. When I return the following year, I bring books. I read the entire works of Jón Kalman Stefánsson, novels built of clauses that accumulate according to a natural order like waves or wind or snowdrift. The Sorrow of Angels opens with a postman on his round in a snowstorm who experiences ‘the seeming existence of nothing in this world except for this weather, everything else is gone, such snowfall wipes out directions, the landscape, yet high mountains are hidden within the snow, the same ones that take a considerable portion of the sky from us.’
During the whiteouts, I read some authors who have been on my list for a long time. In Silent Spring there’s a chapter on ‘Earth’s Green Mantle’, in which Rachel Carson writes of the Maine hedgerows: ‘we prefer the sight of the vetch and the clover and the wood lily in all their delicate and transient beauty to that of roadsides scorched as by fire, the shrubs brown and brittle, the bracken that once lifted high its proud lacework now withered and drooping.’ I dwell on the thought of vetch and clover. The roadsides outside my window are deep in snow; if there are plants, they are hidden.
Many artists are coming to this part of Iceland now. In the bakery I meet Marijke Appelman, who is spending the winter in the neighbouring town, Olafsfjörður. Marijke is fearless, her love of risk proportional to my caution. She’s a bit bored in Olafsfjörður, and has come to Siglufjörður for a swim in the pool, and a greasy doughnut afterwards. Her art practice consists of walking to a Post Office every day and posting a letter. One day she posts one to me. On it is written an invitation: ‘Shall we go to Akureyri?’
On our day trip to the northern capital we browse a large supermarket. It outshines our visit to populous tremula, the most avant-garde of the city’s art galleries. I’m transfixed by pots of gaudy primulas for sale on racks by the entrance, and I realise my longing for greenery has reached a critical point. On the hour-long bus ride home, I look for spots of colour in the landscape. Splashes of lichen on exposed rocks. Horses standing with their hindquarters to the wind, their coats in earthy colours: bay and chestnut and black. A glimpse of a farm’s red roof. Marijke gets off the bus in Olafsfjörður, and I continue on. As we approach Siglufjörður, I notice a vast jagged silhouette against the white slopes: pine trees.
I ask Björn, who has lived in Siglufjörður all his life, about the trees. I’d heard many people say that Iceland had no trees because the land was too barren, or cold, and yet here was a forest of thousands. He laughs, and says it’s a significant spot: the northernmost planted forest on the mid-Atlantic ridge. He writes the name down in big capital letters in my notebook, they look a bit spindly, just like the trees. Skógræktin í Skarðdalur – the first word simply means ‘forest growing.’
‘In the 1950s, Siglufjörður was an important fishing town,’ Björn tells me. ‘Jóhann Þorvaldsson, the schoolmaster in those days, he wanted to plant a forest. But everyone told him it couldn’t be done. They said trees would not grow in this valley because of the salt wind blowing from the sea. And all the townspeople and people from the valleys around were busy, working day and night on the catch. Still it was all completed, just as Jóhann planned, and during herring time.’
Many of the people who planted the trees that summer were schoolchildren; they are now the town’s elders. The first saplings to go into the ground were sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, birch and Norway spruce. Then came some white spruce and three types of pine: mountain pine, Scots pine and lodgepole pine. Since then around 180,000 trees have been planted, including larch, rowans, black cottonwood and willows. The forest had few human visitors at first, being too dense for passage. Now the trees have been thinned, and pathways run through it, along which one can walk to find Leyningsfoss or the ‘Secret Falls’ in summer, or to buy Christmas trees in December.
Björn lends me a children’s book called How the Ladies Stopped the Wind by Bruce McMillan. Once upon a time, it begins, the women of an Icelandic village used to get blown over by strong winds, and so they planted trees. It’s a struggle – they must fertilize the saplings with chicken droppings, and keep their hungry sheep away from them. The charming illustrations by Gunnella show the ladies as they grow older and have children, who in turn have children, while the dark pines grow above the houses: ‘In the Icelandic countryside you can still see forever. There are no trees to block the beautiful view – or the strong wind. But thanks to the ladies there are trees in the villages to stop the wind.’
There are trees in Siglufjörður too. There are tall pines by the old houses on the mountainside, growing in groups of three or four, protective spirits for the families who live there. Every garden has a downy birch (Betula pubescens) or a tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia), the latter often growing so close to the ground that only the ruddy twigs bristle through the snow. Some of the shrubs must delineate garden boundaries, but such distinctions become pointless in winter, with snowdrifts so deep no one can walk through them.
The pines, birch and willow of Siglufjörður are all species that survived the Pleistocene glaciation. At the time of human settlement, a thousand years ago, birch forests covered more than a quarter of Iceland. Settlers cut down trees and burnt scrub for agriculture. Sheep were the main source of food, as well as wool, and their grazing prevented regeneration of the birch woods. The settlers cut timber for houses, and charcoal was used to smelt iron and make iron tools. And so deforestation continued, right up to the twentieth century. By 1950 the birch forests covered only 1% of the country, and might have disappeared altogether but for individuals like the schoolteacher of Siglufjörður.
Beyond Tröllskagi, the Icelandic Forestry Commission is engaged in several afforestation projects, including planting birch trees in the 100,000 hectares of land around the volcano Hekla, which would have been forested at the time of settlement. Once the trees were felled, severe erosion was caused by volcanic ash blowing back and forth over the land for years after each eruption. In the shelter of a forest, such dust storms would have been contained. Trees are becoming a part of the cultural consciousness, as well as an important aspect of conservation. The gallery Marijke and I visited, populous tremula, is named after an extremely rare aspen found in only seven places in the country.
When I hand the key back to Guðný at the end of my stay, I ask her about Skarðdalur. She repeats the story I’ve heard from several townspeople, that people thought no trees would grow in this part of the world. But Skógræktin í Skarðdalur has disproved this. There’s no trees in Olafsfjörður, she points out, but that’s only because no one has planted any.
With thanks to Björn Valdimarsson and Guðný Róbertsdóttir for help with research on this article.
Nancy Campbell is currently based in Bamberg, Germany, where she is Writer in Residence at Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia. Her books include Disko Bay (Enitharmon Press) and The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate (ScribnerUK). Nancy can be found on Twitter at @nancycampbelle
The Photograph at the head of this piece is by Sigurdur Aegisson.