Published on 30/08/2017
I HAVE LONG HARBOURED a desire to visit Iceland, along with an awful lot of people it seems. That country seems to exert a strange pull from its northern latitudes. In early January this year I finally got to go, on an all too brief long-weekend trip to Reykjavik with my husband. It proved to be inspirational and has planted a seed which so far has grown into the exhibition of birds to be shown at Tolquhon Gallery.
Visiting in January means a limited number of daylight hours and we duly arrived at 3 o'clock in the afternoon to dark skies and a blizzard. The view from the plane window revealed a landscape unlike anything I had ever seen before — it was as if the valleys had been filled in with a liquid which had then set and been sprinkled with snow. Peaks rose up from this scene, those too picked out and highlighted by the recent fall of snow.
Apparently, we later learnt, from a wonderful tour guide (full of fascinating digressions) that Iceland has nowhere near as much snow as it used to, at least 10 years have passed since their last really white winter. I felt a little blessed to experience the black and white of snow and land.
We weren't expecting much in the way of birdlife though, in the depths of winter, but surprisingly came upon many, familiar species, particularly in the relative warmth of the capital. Rafts of eiders bobbing close to shore in the harbour, little waders tickling up and down the water's edge and a whole range of ducks and whooper swans on the city's partially frozen lake (the Tjorn).
I don't think we came upon any bird which wouldn't be seen in Britain at some other time of the year, there were redwings and starlings in the back yards of the Reykjavik streets and on our excursions out of the city, ravens. These were the birds who really were in the right place. Their inky black in the snowfields.
We came upon a raven, calling from a snowy rock at Th-ingvellir, the place in Iceland where the continents of Europe and America are pulling apart, the place where the Icelanders created the first parliament, a place of immense significance then and now. It was a moment missed by many who hurried on to photograph the vast landscape in front of us but being a bit of a bird lover, I couldn't resist trying to capture the moment. A small, black shape in the middle of the frame; still, I know what it is!
We only had time for a limited tour of the lands surrounding Reykjavik but even that introduced us to great gushes of steam from the frozen ground, unbelievably great waterfalls bordered by sculpted walls of frozen spray, brooding glaciers in the distance, early sunsets of pink and palest blue and a brief but for me, still memorable glimpse of the Northern Lights whilst lying on rocks in a lavafield at midnight.
We managed a morning in a local thermal swimming pool, floating in steaming waters in 11am twilight, still waiting for the daylight to make its full appearance, starlings flitting in and out of nearby winter trees. When we had to say farewell to this land it was early in the morning and as we headed south-east we were treated to a mesmerising sunrise at 30,000 feet, another light show from the skies.
As the days and weeks passed it became clear to me that I wanted to make work inspired by this visit, by the sight of birds we all know so well in places not so familiar, although upon reflection, Iceland feels to me like a place somewhat like the highlands of Scotland but more so. Having spent a fair amount of time there (my husband has planted thousands of trees in the highlands over many years) perhaps that is why Iceland didn't really feel particularly foreign and maybe what I think to be my Scandinavian ancestry found a chord to strike too.
I have had to imagine the Icelandic summer skies, the long, long days, the bright skyblues, fresh greens but perhaps one day we will return for a visit in season other than winter. For now though, that dramatic, elemental experience lives with me and I hope comes across in the work it inspired.
Iceland Birds by Kathryn O'Kell runs at Tolquhon Gallery from 3 September to 26 September