I have generally understood myself to be a person for whom nature was both important and affecting. This manifests itself in different ways, depending on the environment. For instance, when I visit my family in Arizona, I always experience this moment of unexpected physical relief–a sort-of full-body sigh–when I step out of the airport and into the sharp (completely dry!) oven-like heat, when I drive through a cactus forest, when I smell damp creosote after it rains. Conversely, I find that although I am incredibly drawn to the ocean, I am actually still very frightened of it (or at least, of being *in* it). Standing knee-deep in the tide, I usually feel like I’m making eye-contact with a tiger: it’s a beautiful experience, but I need to both keep my distance and my guard up.
Having lived in New York City for ten years, my relationship with nature became both more acute and more abstracted. Like most New Yorkers, I relished any and all time that could be spent outdoors (in nice weather), but in general, the “outdoors” aspect was actually secondary to whatever activity was being done, which was usually very social, and mostly stationary. (The drink at a bar with a backyard is a real staple of the Brooklyn summer, as is wresting a tiny spot of grass away for yourself from the two or three soccer games, birthday picnic, co-ed sunbathers, and office workers on their lunch breaks who are also all vying for their own place in the sun.
In New York, there’s also a sense that being able to get out into nature (i.e. taking the train two hours north or out to Long Island) is a privilege that you have to either earn (save those vacation days!), gain through close association with the right people (i.e. friends who(se parents) have summer houses/leave their own homes upstate to go elsewhere for the warmer months), or are otherwise gifted by some other benevolent means (i.e. the Fresh Air Fund for urban school kids). Nature, and time in nature, is not something that you just have unfettered access to–it’s always nature within an urban context (a community garden in a vacant lot; a family BBQ held on the sidewalk in front of an apartment building), and it’s rarely, if ever, a solitary experience.
I often love the communal aspect of outdoor moments in New York–the almost revelatory fact of so many people coexisting together and so diligently carving out personal space for themselves within the public. But there’s something to be said for being alone in nature–or perhaps better put, being alone *with* nature, and also just having it so close at hand. Both of those things are pretty easily attained in Iceland, even when in Reykjavík.
Yesterday (the first day of winter, btw, when everyone except for me was enjoying Free Meat Soup Day) was an overcast day, chilly and misty. But one thing about being a child of the desert is that it is really hard for me to get tired of cloudy days; the light is just so nice. (I do get tired of being rained on, I’ll admit. And I love myself some sunshine. But nevertheless…) Since it looked reasonably dry out, I decided to take a morning walk along the path behind our house. I’ve been saying that I’d do this since we moved in, but thus far haven’t actually done much morning walking with a mug of coffee. I blame this on classes that start before the sun rises, but I digress.
I decided I’d walk in a different direction than I usually do, down toward the beach at Nauthólsvík and the (very) near-by city of Kopavogur. I didn’t make it very far, though, because I got distracted by these lovely birds down by/on the water. There were two groups: a trio of taller, sleeker black birds with long beaks which were searching for food along the shoreline, and a larger group of “ducks” (probably not ducks, but that’s the closest species I can think of*) swimming together in the ocean. The “ducks” received most of my attention, primarily because they were making this dove-like cooing noise, which is what made me stop in the first place. The flock included several black and white birds (presumably males) which were shepherding around their brown lady companions. At first, I stood on the path watching the ducks in the distance, but ended up being so fascinated by their almost mechanical, coordinated movements that I started squelching my way through the frosted-over seaweed and the mud to get closer to the shoreline. (It was a good thing I was wearing clogs–I had a good inch or two of sole to squish down into the muck with so that I didn’t to worry about getting wet.)
These birds really were fascinating: three or four of them would swim along and then suddenly would simultaneously dip down to catch a fish, duck-bums in the air all at the same time, only to then turn over an swim along all together again. Every so often one of the males would rear up on his tail, stick out his little duck-chest, and flap his wings behind him, which I found suitably impressive, but didn’t seem to gain him much traction with the lady-birds, who obviously had seen all of this posturing before.
After I had stood there watching these birds for a long while–all the time alone, I might add, there wasn’t anyone to be seen on the walking path–I started picking my way back from the shoreline, which meant a lot of tip-toeing around pools of water, frozen seaweed, and the like. That took me another twenty minutes–not because it was such a long distance or all that difficult to move, but because I got distracted by the beautiful frosted red seaweed, and the way it contrasted with the yellow grass and green algae.
So there you have it: I’m not only emotionally overwhelmed by waterfalls and glaciers now, I’m fascinated by “ducks” and distracted by beautiful algae. Iceland has officially converted me into a full-blown hippie-type, and I think it’s just splendid.
*I did actually try to find out what species of bird this was, but thus far, I’ve just found a lot of similar-looking black and white sea birds that either are said to live in different parts of Iceland or don’t exactly look right. If you know what these birds are, though, please get a newbie birder off to a solid start and let me know!