Text: Emanda Percival
Icelandic summers have an intensity I struggle to explain. It may be normal for locals but, even after five years, for me it is so fast and furious I only absorb it in parts.
In my first summer I was swept up with the thrill of 24-hour light; kayaking or climbing mountains at 1am, starting road trips at 2am. It was not unusual for me to go running, have breakfast and be reading a book in the garden with a coffee before 6am, because I couldn’t sleep beyond 4am.
A low cloud is what I remember from my second summer. It rolled in from the ocean, blanketing Norðfjörður and erasing the world further than thirty meters in any direction. Hiking for twenty minutes up the mountain, through the water soaked cloud, were vibrant blue skies and relief from the white of the world below.
The cloud stayed for two weeks until one morning, between waking and showering, it had vanished, and the mountains were once again visible behemoths separating water and sky.
Summer three was not warm. There were two days when the wind stopped long enough for sandals and t-shirts, those brief warm moments had gone by five o’clock when a biting breeze came in from the ocean and demanded a jacket. On one of those warmer days I walked past the local beach to see three ladies in neoprene gloves and boots bobbing and chatting in the water as if they were in the Caribbean. The sight of them made me question if I would ever be able to withstand the cold so well, or if the water was warmer than it had been the day before.
My fourth summer was about birds. In a land infamous for its lack of trees, Icelandic birds have developed interesting ways of keeping their young safe. The whooting call of the common snipe or hrossagaukur is the sound of summer. Their nests are tunneled into clumps of snow bent grass, come too close and an adult will burst out trying to draw you away with the erratic flight of a false injury.
The black guillemot lay their eggs amongst the rocks and pebbles of calm fjord beaches. There are no feathers or grass to soften and incubate, just black speckles on creamy shells acting as camouflage. Golden plover chicks become statues when there is danger; their leopard-print down and lack of movement make them invisible in the long tawny grass.
Arctic terns, whose life choice of flying between the poles makes them peevish, swoop and screech at anything that comes within fifty meters of their nesting grounds in the long pale grass. With so few land based predators and so much light the cries, tweets, squawks, whoots and whistles of avian life in Iceland fill every hour of summer. Unlike countries where you might judge the end of the season by a chill in the air, in Iceland it can be judged by a silence. When the birds no longer need to speak, you know autumn is almost here.
This summer my eyes were drawn to the colours. In late June, under the golden mounds of last years’ growth, new life showed bright green. Buds dotted the knotted silver branches of birch and blueberry. Then, in July, between one morning and the next, grasses, mosses, lichens, birch and berry pulled on their summer dresses and a patchwork of every colour green swept the landscape from sea to mountain top.
Buttercups and dandelions were brush strokes of yellow across the lower fields, and grass topped with bruise coloured feathers had grown so tall it brushed my chin as I walked through. Now it’s August the whites of cotton grass and the blue of harebells freckle the grasses, while the mountainsides’ patchwork begins to trickle from greens into autumnal reds and oranges.
Winter will arrive soon and by the middle of December it will feel as if this wild and life-filled six weeks of summer never happened. But, under the snow and dark the intensity will be waiting to burst once more in an overwhelming rush of life. Maybe next year I’ll be able to explain it a little better.