In these dog days of summer, I have been dreaming of Iceland. Last winter I visited that northern island country of volcanoes and geysers for the therapy of its hot springs. Now I long to be back for the cold of its glaciers
Intellectually, I know, of course, that it is summer now in Iceland, too. Temperatures in the south are in the 60s; in the north in the 50s, and I would find ice and snow only on its glaciers. (Snowmobiling is a popular Icelandic summer sport.) But I would be more likely at this time of year to be seeing the tundra carpeted with green-gray reindeer moss and dappled with pink and lavender and yellow wildflowers.Summer would be a fine time for trekking on shaggy Icelandic ponies through the island's green valleys and across its plains.
In Thingvellir National Park where, in the year 930, Iceland's - and the world's - first Parliament met, young golden plover and ptarmigan are leaving their nests among the dwarf birches. And, situated as some of Iceland is, less than a mile from the Arctic Circle, the sun is shining now virtually around-the-clock.
When I visited Thingvellir in February, ice and snow were everywhere. Tour buses were unable to make the trip to this most hallowed site of all Iceland because of the ice and the snow. But Sveinn Saemundsson, a proud Icelander with a four-wheel drive vehicle, offered to take a friend and me there. No visitor to Iceland, he said emphatically, should leave without a glimpse of Thingvellir.
Getting there involved a ferry ride from the capital city of Reykjavik to the little cement-producing town of Akranes.farm there that Sveinn had grown up and he showed off the community's folk museum with memorabilia of farming and fishing days, including scissor-like contraptions that cut English codfish nets when, in the '50s and '60s, English fishermen were in waters Iceland claimed were theirs.
From there, we drove along the deep blue Hvaljfiordur - Whale Fjord. And, passing an island in the fjord, Sveinn told of Hardur, declared an outlaw in the Middle Ages for political reasons. He took refuge on the tiny island with his wife, their children and fellow outlaws. When government troops attacked and tried to drive them off, Hardur killed 13 of them before they killed him. Then his wife, with one child on her back, the other by her side, swam the cold waters to safety. Myth and legend are never far from the surface in this land of awe-inspiring nature.
We made a stop at a house to ask if a jeep could make it over the snow to Thingvellir, and learned from a postman, whom we followed awhile, that it could. Then we set off through a veritable desert of snow - not an animal nor a bird track on it; the sun sculpting the immense expanse of white with shadow. Hills and mountains rose in the distance. Cumulus clouds came down from the sky to meet them. And the jeep wheels spun on the silver ice.
It was an hour's drive over the single track road to Thingvillir.
On this plain of Thinvgellir (the Plain of All Men), from 930 until 1270, virtually all important decisions concerning Iceland were made by the Althing - the Parliament.
It was at Thingvellir that it was decided, once Christianity had been introduced to the country, that Iceland would be a Christian nation ruled under Christian law, but that its pagans - of whom there were many - could continue to worship as they wished in their own homes. As a result, Iceland is the only country in Europe to have adopted Christianity virtually without bloodshed.
In July each year the Althing met. At the start of each meeting, the lawspeaker who led the meeting and had a three-year term, would be called upon to recite from memory a third of the country's laws. By the end of his term, therefore, he had recited them all. Then there would be discussion and revision of the laws and the arranging of important marriages and the settling of contracts. Court would be held, not infrequently followed by executions.
In 1262, Norway - which had long felt that it should control Iceland, since Iceland's settlers came from Norway - did, indeed, take over. Though the Althing continued to meet at Thingvellir under Norwegian and later Danish rule, it had very limited powers. But on June 17, 1944, when Iceland became an independent nation, it celebrated at Thingvellir with half the country's population (about 75,000) in attendance. (Today, the Parliament meets indoors in Reykjavik.)
We stood for awhile there in February, stamping our feet to keep warm above that ancient democratic meeting place, and looking down on it, its lake and a frozen waterfall. There was not a sound but the wind - and, reverberating in our heads, the echoes of the past.
And so, these hot July days, I have been dreaming of that cold, clear air and that morning in the stillness of Icelandic snow.