Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski
Patriotism is a challenge to define. There can be many flavors – many interpretations of this eluding word depending on one’s perspective. However, no matter what angle is geared toward your liking, patriotism is an attachment to one’s own homeland – a love of the ethnic, cultural, and historical aspects. So, then, shouldn’t this include a connection with the nature and landscape of home? This was, in fact, the conclusion of a famous Icelandic poet, naturalist, and scientist.
Raised on a farm in Öxnadalur, Iceland in 1807, Jónas Hallgrímsson developed a very strong fondness of nature at an early age. This is no surprise as Iceland is filled with innumerable forms of beauty. The island was born purely through volcanic activity and is a geologic gold mine containing features like volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal springs, and fjords. Jónas describes his home farm as one of the most picturesque valleys in Iceland:
Hillocks steep and stately
stride across the valley.
Dimly and sedately
dawn begins to rally:
sunlight rakes the summits —
smoking darkness plummets
down into the deep
dreaming its green sleep.
Jónas suffered a troubling childhood. On a fishing trip with his brothers and father, a simple accident caused Jónas to witness his father drown to death. This experience haunted the eight-year-old boy and is reflected in some of his later poetry. With his father gone, Jónas was sent away to school and proved to be a gifted student. His favorite study, of course, was of the natural sciences. Hannes Hafstein remarks that Jónas was “aware of great alterations in the landscape produced by the operation of natural forces, and his desire to understand the reasons for this – and to study natural science – awoke very early. And so, by slow degrees, was kindled his love for nature, which presented itself to him in the guise of a beautiful and enticing riddle.” It could be said that perhaps it was the riddle and the mystery of nature that kept Jónas distracted from his suffering.
Furthering his studies, Jónas left for Bessastaðir to begin Latin, law, and theology. Again, one of Jónas’s teachers saw his potential and said he was “gifted with a penetrating intelligence, an excellent memory, and a living appreciation for what is true – and especially for what is beautiful.” Upon return, Jónas was broke and had to work as a secretary for three years in Reykjavík to build funds and sail to Copenhagen where he could continue his studies. When sailing, he wrote of his excitement, but also of leaving his homeland behind:
Blow from the west,
oh wind! laden
with airs from Iceland’s valleys!
Waft me the kisses —
cordial and sweet —
of the dales’ lovely daughters.
It was in Copenhagen that Jónas Hallgrímsson continued chasing his love for nature and of his Icelandic countryside. One of his fellow students remarked that “[Jónas’s] deepest wish was to come to know the nature and condition of his native land.” He strived to become an authority on all aspects of Icelandic nature and ventured into the fields of geology and zoology.
In the summer of 1937, Jónas seized the opportunity to conduct field work in Iceland. During this time he spent two weeks in Westman Islands, three weeks at Breiðabólsstaður, and then traveled further east to Haukadalur to study Geysir and Strokkur. These areas provide a perfect place to conduct geologic research and exercise a poet’s pen:
The sun’s imperial pageant in the west
purples the Eyjafjalla Glacier, standing
huge in the east beneath its icy crest.
It dominates the summer dusk, commanding
the screes beneath it, sketched against the cold
sky like a reef where tattered clouds are stranding.
Northward, you see the Summit Mountains, very
sober and formal in their blue-black frocks,
but girt with green where steep and valley marry
and helmed with snow above their sable rocks.
They stare at tarns whose streams will soon be plying
their way through meadows filled with lazy flocks
and sprinkled thick with little farmsteads, lying
deep in the shadow of the sheltering heath.
Wood River glides through leafy glens, then, nearer,
murmuring more softly, makes its leisured way
through farmlands ripe with radiant harvest — dearer
than gold — and grassy meads where cattle stray.
High on the hillsides, fragile blossoms gleam;
golden-clawed eagles glide above their prey —
for fish are flashing there in every stream —
and whirring throngs of thrushes flit and trill
through birch and beech groves lovely as a dream.
For Gunnar felt it nobler far to die
than flee and leave his native shores behind him,
even though foes, inflamed with hate and sly,
were forging links of death in which to bind him.
His story still can make the heart beat high
and here imagination still can find him,
where Gunnar’s Holm, all green with vegetation,
glistens amid these wastes of devastation.
It was also during this time that Jónas wrote of the astounding Aurora Borealis, a sight that many do not live to see:
At first, these streaks looked exactly like light, pale-colored clouds. Little by little, however, distinct individual waves formed, and these shone more brightly, pulsing rapidly outward in various directions. The intensity of the light suddenly increased, just as when you turn up a jet of gas, and soon a large part of the northern sky was flaring brightly. It is true that I have often seem more intense displays of the northern lights but hardly ever one more beautiful: thin, glowing waves, in all the hues of fire – green, flame yellow, and red – pulsed across the sky in various directions.
Without a doubt, Jónas Hallgrímsson was deeply curious about the nature and existence of his homeland. This, too, perhaps is what made him an excellent scientist – fostering a connection and love for his home while being immersed in its raw beauty. Is this not a form of patriotism that Jónas displays for his beloved Iceland? As Americans, we too can show this love for our own home by investigating the history and condition of our lands. We can learn how those who came before us took great care of our sacred grounds, and we can do the same to conserve the rawness, the beauty that we have right on our doorstep.
Jónas’s homeland has recently experienced a skyrocket of tourism. This, of course, is no surprise considering the multifarious features located in Iceland. Areas such as Haukadalur, which contain the popular eruptive hot springs studied by Jónas, are common visiting spots for travelers from all over the world. Crystalline blue glaciers like Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull are popular exploration sites for hikers or ice climbers. Thankfully, these areas are protected by the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act which regulates the standards of conduct of Iceland’s cherished, picturesque lands. However, an important issue currently detrimental to this land is the retreating of its glaciers.
Over 11% of Iceland is capped by ice, and now, due to changes in the climate, Iceland is losing 11 billion tons of ice per year. The immense blue bodies are deflating at incredible rates. To boot, the meltwater produced has also been known to trigger volcanic eruptions and magnify an eruption’s explosivity. This can lead to intense and abrupt floods, lahars, and landslides that decimate valleys full of farmers, shepherds, and civilians.
To be patriots, we need to take care of our beloved homeland in honor of those before us and for the sake of those who will tread after us. However, to be good human beings, we need to care for the homes of others as well. Let us be patriots of Earth and wipe our shoes of their carbon before we trail onward.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Rob Young/Flickr