06 September 2010

localized memory loss

Last Thursday night the first real autumnal weather arrived, a howling wind that spattered rain on the bedroom windows and tore leaves from the trees. It roared all day Friday, bringing with it a strange high mist that blurred the edges of the landscape. Along with rain, this wind blew in the memory of Iceland when it's not summer.

Every year as soon as the darkness disappears in late spring, the recollection that most of the time Iceland is a dark and moody place also disappears. Surely it's always this warm and gentle and green and delicious smelling, isn't it? And then June and July and the beginning of August roll along, months of camping without the need for flashlights, sunlit afternoons at the pool, runs along the sea without the need for hats and gloves. Iceland is a great place to live! The only place to be!

When I moved to the new apartment in June, there wasn't even a need to buy lamps. The ones I'd had before worked fine in the only spot they were useful- late night bedtime reading. The living room's southern exposure meant it was plenty light pretty constantly until mid-August. That's when the rather decent night view revealed itself- the glowing mushroom underside appearance of the university science building, the twinkle of lights at Bessastaðir and is that Garðabær over there? It was also time for a lamp or two to create the cozy feeling that makes up the other half of Iceland, time for candles and wool blankets and knitting and books and pots of tea, a time when the feeling of summer's endlessness is what gets forgotten.

This selective memory loss isn't just about the seasons though. I've experienced it in the landscape as well, when travelling through some of the country's more amazing landscapes. I can never pick which is really my favourite waterfall since the one I am currently at seems like it absolutely must be the best. At different times this year I've been certain my favourite must be Gullfoss, no, maybe Aldeyjarfoss, did I mention Háifoss, or perhaps the river above Skógar, and did I forget the secret snack spot in the highlands? They're all so differently amazing that it's impossible to choose just one.

Life should be about enjoying the moments as they happen, not spending it always thinking tomorrow will be better, or yesterday was when it was really good. Iceland certainly strives to remind me of that in so many ways, nearly every day.

01 September 2010

straight from the land

For Saturday's lunch I had an omelet covered with mushrooms I'd just picked. Iceland's got all kinds of interesting mushrooms sprouting up this time of year and I figured some of them must be edible but wasn't daring enough to figure it out on my own. So, I recruited a friend and longtime reader S for some help. She's trained in the forests of Germany, a country that seems to have made a national habit of the hunting of the shroom, so I offered a ride anywhere she wanted in exchange for advice. When the weather promised sunny on Saturday, we packed up and headed to her favorite spot which also happens to be the stands of birch near her office on the edge of town.

We parked in the empty lot and within a minute she'd spotted our first mushroom, a small birch bolete. She explained some of the amateur rules of mushroom hunting as we zig-zagged through the trees, such as if no other creature wants to eat it (birds, mice, worms and slugs), you probably don't want to either. The birch boletes were plentiful in the area, but by the time they'd grown large enough to spot easily, were infested with worms. Still, we managed to spot a few near the bases of the birches by looking for the brown cap pushing through the grass, and looking for the telltale black-flecked stem.

She also pointed out a few of another type with bright yellow pore-underside, the suede bolete. These were equally infested with interesting creatures when we found large specimens, but a few smaller untouched ones made it into the box. S explained that the Icelandic climate was not ideal with all the moisture- it seemed to make the worms more enthusiastic. Furthermore, the forested areas aren't like German forests- there tends to still be grass and other undergrowth around which obscures the best small specimens and collects more moisture, thus encouraging worm occupation.

With only a small handful of edibles found, we decided to turn to another late-summer hobby here, the blueberry gathering. Our immediate area proved fruitless so I called my knowledgeable friend J who gave us precise instructions for a berry paradise. A short drive later down a bumpy gravel road, through some seeding lupines, we came to an abandoned dog agility course where the road ended. We jumped out and found ourselves ankle deep in blueberries. Over the hill it was even more prolific, berries tucked between pine and birch, crowberries crawling over the rocks, and everywhere, the lovely herbed smell of a sun-warmed Icelandic hillside.

We scrambled up the steep hill, pausing for the good bushes, talking as we went, until the benevolent sun and the challenge of picking while standing on a near-vertical hillside caused us to fall silent. It was a treacherous picking spot, despite its friendly smells and fruit-laden bushes, so both of us had moments where our footing gave way and we sledded down to the next lava-rock hole or tangled with one of the (extremely prickly) stubby pines. Nevermind, all par for the course when picking berries in the wilds of Iceland. Who cares with such a view, on a sunny day with the knowledge that it might be the last in a long while? The end of August brings about this special kind of urgency to beautiful days- the darkness has returned and with it the memory that winter is fast closing in.

That evening for dessert, we ate the blueberries in large bowls, drizzled with cream and sprinkled with brown sugar. I'd thought of baking something elaborate but this is how we've ended up always eating the berries here. Why mess with perfection?

I'd like to also thank Maria for her generous support of the photo portion of this blog effort. Readers like her are one of the reasons I keep posting.