Iceland: Þingvellir National Park

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I
The Assembly in the Wilds

Around 930AD Þingvellir was taken from its murderous owner and given to the Icelandic people, the Norse and Celtic migrants who grazed their horses here, gathered kindling from the forest and built shelters.
The chieftains agreed to meet here too in an open-air parliament, first meeting on the river plains, then at the foot of Law Rock when the River Öxará changed course. The assembly in the wilds endured from AD930 to 1798 – the foundation for the modern-day nation of Iceland.
When the Law Council met for two weeks in summer, the Icelanders were drawn together in this meeting place where the land pushes itself apart in the Mid-Atlantic rift. They built make-shift homes of turf and stone, sharpened swords, tanned hides and brewed ales, swapping goods and exchanging skills under the omnipresent daylight.
It was a cultural meeting of minds too: performers entertained the gatherers in words and song and dance – and the appointed Lawmaker recited from memory the legislation and procedures until the laws of the land were written down.

Þingvellir has its roots in Anglo-Saxon – Þing means thing or assembly, and vellir means field – sometimes replaced with weald (forest). The name echoes across the islands to its south: Tingwall in the Shetlands; Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands and Thingwall in the Wirral of mainland Britain. Tynwald is the legislature of the Isle of Man.

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II

Mid-Atlantic Ridge

“So,” I said to Tom, “explain to me how the rift was formed in no more than four sentences.”
I knew my geologist well. This would be a challenge.
I counted. One, two, three, four, five, six…
“That’s six sentences already.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s one.”
“Six sub-clauses and a dozen ands at least.”
“You said four sentences. I’ve stuck to your rules.”
“But that’s cheating.”
“No it’s not. Sentences are sentences.”
Checkmate.
The sentences grew longer, the clauses more numerous and complex; the language and concepts more technical.
I received a lecture.
In four sentences.
Of sorts.

I have the science mind of a small child. To make sense of the physical world, I need pictures and stories. So I imagine the tectonic plates covering the Earth as the gigantic pieces of a three-dimensional, spherical jig-saw puzzle. When the pieces are pushed together, they crumple up and rise in peaks – mountain ranges. Elsewhere, the tectonic plates are torn apart by the heat of the Earth’s mantle. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is one such place. It wriggles its way along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, following the curves of the African and South American continental plates that once interlocked, fitting snuggly together like two jig-saw pieces, before they drifted away from each other. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge lies out of sight and out of mind deep beneath the ocean until it surfaces in Iceland. It cuts a slash across this inhospitable island. The fault line is created by volcanic activity; by the heating and cooling magma that shapes and reshapes the rift valley, but ultimately spreading it outwards at a rate of 2.5 cm a year – about the same rate as fingernails!
A living landscape.

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III
From where I’m standing

From where I’m standing I see a watery amphitheatre. I see the bared teeth of mountains closing in on plains; surrounding the veins of rivers that seep out from the lake and bleed through mustard grass. I see a road of river and a path as wide and flat as a highway driven through the rocks. I conjure up giants. And I conjure up the ghosts of chieftains and traders; horse whisperers and foragers. I hear the scrape of metal, the slap of hide and the dull hammer of stone. I smell earth and turf and fire. I taste bracken on my tongue.

From where you’re standing, you see basalt. You see layers of horizontal sills and vertical dykes. You see the extensional fault of a rift zone.
You look more closely and see pahoehoe – the ropey lava that ripples through basalt and you savour the science.
I love the feel of the word on my tongue.
You see aa – where the lava is broken and rubbly – and say a-a.
I echo the word like a child. Over and over.
I had no idea the factual world of science could be so sensual.

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