"Our projects cannot be lonely." I take that phrase from here, an ITM entry I composed hastily last February during a layover in Minneapolis. I returned to the piece this morning to assist me in framing what I'd like to convey now, and was immediately struck by a feeling must arise for many bloggers returning to old work: did I really write that? Halfway through the journey from Manitoba to DC I put into words everything I have to say, and this post can only be a footnote to that February one, which I suspect was composed by someone else, an itinerant and north-loving scholar who could express himself far better than your recently-returned-from-Reykjavik writer does today.
The Icelandic Version of the New Chaucer Society annual meeting was every kind of wonderful. I cannot begin to do justice to proceedings so filled with scholarly energy, provocation, good cheer, and festive fellowship -- but I can thank the amazing local arrangements committee and the program committee for a job so well done. Returning to Iceland was superb, and I've already made plans to be there again (autumn of 2015). I participated in the conference in two ways: a paper on the agential object in a jam-packed session assembled by Susan Crane (more on that in a later blog post), and two roundtables I put together and moderated on "Ice" (and thank you, thank you Anthony Bale and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir for inviting me to do so). The complete lineup, abstracts and some background information about the Ice roundtables may be found here, and before I left the US I posted my brief introductory remarks as well. I had this fantasy that I'd compose a massive blog post that conveyed everything about the panel, and for that reason have been unable to write anything at all about the proceedings: too, too much. Suffice it to say that as I left the second "Ice" roundtable, in awe of what the panelists had brought to the session, warmed still by the afterglow of us having hiked a glacier together, bonded in friendship with our extraordinary Icelandic glaciologist who had intensified these two days beyond anything I had hoped and had modeled for all of us what humane engagement across disciplines looks like... well suffice it to say that after those events I would be content to never attend another conference, publish another essay, or organize another event. Convergence and completion. I am likely exaggerating due to exhaustion: I had been anxious beforehand about the glacier hike working (Sólheimajökull was closed the preceding week due to deadly gases released by geothermal activity), and I also worried that the hike would seem an extraneous expedition with little effect upon the roundtables. I can tell you only how the event felt, and I leave it to others to describe the proceedings with a colder eye.
I met our glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson, for the first time as we waited at Hallgrimskirkja for the mountaineering company supplying our equipment and transportation to pick us up for the trek to Sólheimajökull. Oddur rode up on a bicycle and was wearing one of those Icelandic sweaters that overpriced gift stores sell -- only his had been made by his wife, many years ago, in a pattern they both liked. Warm and wry, he also keeps a small, bright orange cap in his pocket that he whips out when on the ice. Oddur is, in every way, perfect -- and when I told him so, he laughed, rolled his eyes, and said thank you. We hit it off immediately.
The long drive to the glacier was full of the stunning scenery that in Iceland is just everyday backdrop. Our fifteen trekkers were carefully fitted with crampons and handed ice picks (more useful as anchoring poles in slippery patches than needed for hacking). We ascended the glacier in the company of Oddur and Jonno, a Himalayan climber who summers in Iceland to earn enough money to spend six months of the year wandering the earth. Rain and mist alternated with cloud break and strangely warm breezes. Oddur warned against the moulins with the assertion that should we topple into these deep drains, we would fall until we plugged the hole, the water would continue to fill, the pressure would build, and eventually we would be squeezed through the opening "like toothpaste." This image of the human body become involuntarily liquid haunted our ascent.
The day possessed a gravity that arrived from sharp blue ice, black ash from volcanoes, verdant nearby mountains, and the roiled sky. Limned by catastrophe, the day somehow also managed a strange elation. Yet even buoyancy can be fatal. Oddur showed us a section of the glacier's snout where the ice had risen in a large expanse. That area, he explained, is riding atop meltwater and about to calve. When it rips away from the glacier, the chunk will surge several stories into the air, flip and crash. Three tourists were standing at its edge, and Oddur shouted at them to leave immediately. "They will not have a chance once the ice begins to move," he said.
On the road back to Reykjavik we stopped at a waterfall where a river pounds gravel and you can walk along a ledge from this noisy smashing to see the torrents rush from above (Skógafoss), and another you can walk behind through a cave that should have trolls (Seljalandsfoss). As the rain began again and the van grew quiet during our return, with two hours now of driving now ahead, Oddur announced that he was thinking of a lullaby he used to sing to his children. First he explained the song's meaning in English, and we were startled by its images of black sands, glacier cracks, and imperiled lives. Then in a deep and resonant voice he sang the verses in Icelandic. The melody has been running through my head since that transportive moment, and I searched online until I found that the traditional song was set to music by the poet Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880 – 1919) and is beloved throughout the island. Here are the words of "Sofðu unga ástin mín" in Icelandic and then English:
Sofðu unga ástin mín.
Úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun best að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.
Sleep, my young love.
Outside the rain is weeping.
Mummy is watching over your treasure,
an old bone and a round case.
We should not stay awake through dim nights.
There is much that darkness knows,
my mind is heavy.
Often I saw black sand
burning the green meadow.
In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death.
Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly,
it is best to wake up late.
Sorrow will teach you soon,
while the day is quickly decaying,
that men love, lose, cry and mourn.
The two Ice roundtables the following day had a cohesiveness to them that I would like to think was partially due to the hike we took together. Tim Miller asked what happens if the House of Fame is about ice: can its metaphors bring us beyond the anthropoecentric, to a space in which ice is not assimilable but speaks the adjacency of the human and nonhuman? Lowell Duckert probed how to interpret the affective impress of the sound of ice, and followed the improvisational music that this interchange between types of matter and forces engenders. Riffing on Wallace Stephens and John Gower, Ethan Knapp explored the semiotic powers of frost, of being caught by cold, a crystalline peace. Staging an encounter of Hugh Willoughby (dead by ice) and the the Seafarer, Steve Mentz argued that ice lethally demonstrates the risk of transforming environments into symbols and stories, as well as the inevitability of our doing so. Discerning in the force of ice upon the earth a writing outside the parameters of a poetics based on representation, Dan Remein followed the slow and long history of ice's earthly and wordly marks. Kate Norako linked the vanishing ice of the House of Fame with the glacial movement, and found in the substance something liminal but also creative, a kind of ongoing creative force. David Coley beautifully unfolded ambivalent response to icy environment as both cold fact and lyrical allure, emphasizing slipperiness as both material and linguistic. This slipperiness applies as well to those named by ice: Jeremy DeAngelo well demonstrated the troubled identities conveyed by those in sagas with names like Jokull. The onset of ice has an intimate effect on the body, James Smith noted, and the skin is a threshold: we are not separable from our environments, even when the touch of frost might makes us want to recoil. Oddur showed us through some beautiful photographs what ice looks like to a glaciologist, providing an imagistic tour of crystals, melt ponds, and glacier floods. He emphasized that ice is an interface, and that it is good for myth. It seemed to him right that in Njall's saga a deep cold voice of a giant in a mountain proclaims who is to die. Both roundtables were followed by lively Q&A: we were fortunate to have attracted quite an intense audience.
After the second roundtable we walked to the Ráðhús, the city hall, where the conference sponsored a reception. I wanted to chat with Oddur but the five hundred medievalists I had not seen for a while made that difficult. As I was deep in conversation with a friend he appeared by my side and said it was time for him to leave. I walked him out the door and to his bike. I thanked him again (takk fyrir, as if that could be enough) for making everything work so perfectly, and he thanked me, and we stood for a moment not exactly wanting to say good-bye. I told him I intended to return to Iceland next year and I hoped we could get together. "I would like that very much," he said. "And I would like to still be here. But I cannot know." We both laughed at that, I suppose because it is true for all of us, but maybe a little more so for someone in his seventies who has watched the thing he studies vanish. "I think I will see you again, Oddur" I called out to him as he pedaled away. He did not turn around, just waved an arm. I watched him turn the corner. I sat by the fountain for a long while before I returned to the reception.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. But that cannot be the end.
|The Glacier Hiking Scholars|