30 January 2013

What's in a Name?


The passion for naming things is an odd human trait. Many a scientist claims to have explained some phenomenon when in truth all he has done is to give it a name.

— George Gaylord Simpson


Once you label me you negate me. — Soren Kierkegaard


You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. — Richard Feynman


Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. — Gertrude Stein

Gertrude said it most succinctly and perhaps most elegantly. A thing is what it is, not what it is called. Yet, the ancient Chinese proverb — The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names — intimates that words do matter. Perhaps the Chinese were conflating wisdom with knowledge, for clearly names are important in knowledge whilst wisdom tells us that a rose is indeed a rose.


Recently I began reprocessing images of a trip to Iceland I took some years back. I started labeling the images with more specificity than just “Iceland,” and began wondering about Mýrdalsjökull, Hjörleifshöfði, Reynisdrangar and other tongue-twisting place-names I was finding on my maps. Is there a history behind the name? Does the name mean something? Is a rose truly just a rose? Or, in the case of Iceland, is a vík a vík.


On the southern most nub of Iceland’s coast is a small village of some 300 souls. It’s full name is Vík í Mýrdal, but everyone calls it simply Vík. Cast your eyes on a map of Iceland and scattered around the coast of the island you will find other víks: Keflavík, Grindavík, Ólafsvík, and of course the most famous vík of them all, Reykjavík. What’s with all the víks? It is not, strictly speaking an Icelandic word but rather Old Norse for ‘cove’ or ‘bay.’


Some 15 kilometers east of Vík is the isolated 220 meter high headland of Hjörleifshöfði. Named after the Viking Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson, who settled there in 874, the small mountain was once a much larger promontory.  Successive eruptions of the mighty Katla over the eons has caused so much flooding and carrying away of rock that Hjörleifshöfði stands isolated, a mile and a half from the sea. Returning to Mr. Hróðmarsson, apparently he was not a good provider as a year after settling on the rock his slaves revolted killing him and his free men. He is said to be buried at the highest point of the hill. His farmstead was clearly visible next to the rock for over a thousand years until the 1918 eruption of Katla finally washed away the remnants.


The cause of all these volcanic disturbances lies some 20 kilometers north of Vík (as the puffin flies). Katla (derived from the Old Norse word for ‘kettle,’ the shape of which upside-down the volcano is) is a large, very active volcano partially covered by the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. It has erupted 20 times since 930 AD and is due for another, any time now. The flood waters created by one eruption is estimated to have been comparable to the combined output of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile, and Yangtze rivers. Not something one would like to be caught in. In old days, traveling along the southern coast was greatly feared because of the deep rivers and frequent glacial floods. In July of 2011 there was a small eruption on Katla that created a jökulhlaup (glacial ‘leap’ or glacial outburst flood) that destroyed the bridge across the main highway. Watch this short video and at the :34 mark you will see Hjörleifshöfði in the distance.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQlkGO5KsPY?rel=0]


Next: Mýrdalsjökull, Reynisdrangar and Dyrhólaey


03 January 2013

The Þjórsá and Dam Battles

The mighty Þjórsá (loosely pronounced Thyor-sah) is Iceland's longest river at 230 km. Flowing turbulently down from the central highlands icecap of Hofsjökull, the Þjórsá is a classic glacial river, cutting deep ravines through lava fields, ancient and modern, and stepping through waterfalls on its way to the island’s southern coast. When we were there several Julys ago, the river was turgid and yellowish-green with silt and mud. The intensity and force of the river was most apparent at Þjófafoss, the relatively short waterfall that sits picturesquely at a bend in the river, the 2200’ high volcano Búrfell beyond. Þjófafoss means ‘Thieves Falls’ as supposedly medieval cutpurses were chucked off the ledge overlooking the swirling, foamy mass below. Not pleasant, but probably pretty quick. Búrfell, with bright green vegetation climbing up its steep lava-strewn slopes, makes a wonderful backdrop for exploring or photography. To the east the fearsome Hekla rises to almost 5000 feet. One of the most active volcanoes in Europe, Hekla was considered the literal gateway to Hell during the Middle Ages. Between 1970 and 2000 it erupted every 10 years...its overdue based on that schedule.

Further upstream 2 or 3 kilometers and spanning the river is the Tröllkonuhlaup (The Giantess Waterfall). The legend states that a female troll (giant) lived in a cave in Búrfell and wanting to cross the river without getting wet, threw boulders into the Þjórsá as stepping-stones. Whatever the myth, the low falls make a great backdrop for having lunch.

Upon planning a return trip to Iceland I was dismayed to read that the Icelandic government in concert with an energy consortium want to build three dams on this river. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on Iceland’s energy needs, but viscerally I look at this river and wonder what ‘they’ can be thinking. Even more so when I read that no environmentalists were involved in the initial plan drafting, only government officials and energy companies. Sound familiar? Fortunately the planned three dams have been put on hold, though perhaps that is just a waiting game.

Though our climate is very different than Iceland’s, we too in the arid Southwest have had our dam battles. At one time Floyd Dominy, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner (1959-69), and others, wanted to build a series of dams on most western rivers. They were successful to a point but were finally stopped at the doorstep of the Grand Canyon. Many want to rollback the industrialization of the desert by removing Glen Canyon Dam.

As simplistic and unfortunate as it may be, many facets of our current politico-socio clime can be defined by the term ‘culture wars.’ This is true too when discussing the role of humankind vis-à-vis nature. To take us out of the nature equation is unrealistic and frankly, unnatural. But even more so, the claim that we can ‘improve’ on nature is laughable. We may improve our position of dominance within nature, but that is not improving nature. These are really different and opposing viewpoints. I look at the Colorado River flowing through Greater Canyonlands, or the Þjórsá winding its way through Iceland’s volcanic lowlands, and I see wilderness and want to leave it be. The Floyd Dominy’s and Landsvirkjun’s (Iceland’s national energy company) of the world see lands and waters and resources to overcome, manage, and 'improve' upon. We’ve had a lot of the latter the last 200 years or so, with benefits and boondoggles and disasters aplenty. Growth for the sake of growth is the ethos of the cancer cell. Now is the time to manage our own nature and leave Nature be.