Sourcing Icelandic Wilderness

Þórsmörk. Glacier descending from Eyjafjallajökull. Collodion print by Frederick W. W. Howell ca 1900. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson; Cornell University Library Rare & Manuscript Collections.

How Icelanders themselves saw the inner regions of their country, and the differences in perspective between the more and less educated segments of the population, can give valuable insight to the environmental practices of Iceland today, as well as portray the influence of European teaching on the more erudite Icelanders.

Although my focus is on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it will be useful for me to explore the roots of Icelandic and European thought on unused open land and Nature, especially since much of the rural Icelanders’ perceptions were tinted by folklore and legend. Therefore, at least a cursory background of Icelandic folklore as it relates to my research topic is necessary, so I will consult the multitude of translated Icelandic myths, folk stories, and sagas, as well as the vast literature on wilderness and Nature in European thought, that Cornell Library owns in its Icelandic collection.

Öræfajökull. South cone. Collodion print by Frederick W. W. Howell ca 1900. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson; Cornell University Library Rare & Manuscript Collections.

‘Wilderness’ is a constantly contested term, as are the ideas of ‘natural’ and ‘Nature’, or ‘untrammeled’ and ‘untrodden,’ all of which will feature in my research. Concrete accounts by people directly experiencing and, through their experience, defining wilderness can reveal the cultural constructions upon which such ideas are based. We are faced with a time where globalization means it is becoming increasingly easier to travel to the unknown, isolated, and out-of-the-way places of the world, the way eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists and explorers used to during their months-long journeys. When more people can and do visit these wildernesses, does the label of that nature change? Although this is not the central question of my research, it is one that I hope to be closer to answering by the end of the summer after undergoing my own exploration of the historical perceptions of the wild heart of Iceland.

5 thoughts on “Sourcing Icelandic Wilderness

  1. The other day I was walking through a trail site with a park ranger (I am currently in Ecuador researching the tourist viability of different trails) and he asked me what I thought about the potential. I told him that parts were good, but that “no one is going to walk through all of this mud to get to the clean parts of the trail.” He looked at me, stupefied, and said, “but nature always has mud!” With one sentence, he explained social construction of nature and wilderness. For him, he couldn’t understand why people would only want to experience a ‘cleaned up’ nature, which I thought was really understanding (and refreshing!)

    • Hi Michaela, you seem so famiiar–have you been here before? It’s so true that often people want nature sanitized for use, but we believe there are plenty of us who want to experience it “warts and all”! Thanks for the comment and stop by again soon!

      • Yep, I’ve been a reader over at Raxa Collective for a little while now 🙂 Yes, there are plenty who want it warts and all as well–which begs the question, is that too just a different social construction? And yes I’ll be back!

  2. Pingback: Iceland’s Fearful Agencies at Work |

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