The New Weather
To Stykkishólmur to report on the weather you go.
Have to borrow a big car, special tyres, four-wheel drive. You know how weather in Stykkishólmur can be complex. You lived there once in 2009.
Eked-out sunrise. You write this down in your notebook, wondering if eked is a word. Pink as a rinsed dishrag, you add, then cross it out. It's about 11 a.m. Temperature 15 degrees F feels like 5. Visibility poor. You look west to see if the Snaefellsjökull glacier is present today. Sometimes it can be seen from a fjörd away, vast and luminous and 700,000 years old.
Not today. Today you drive two hours through yellow and brown hills as big as countries. You write down emptiness. Fewness. Starkness. You see now and then a farm folded tinily into its mountainside, or a huddle of horses. A landscape in monosyllables. No snow. No wind.
Emphasis needs to be placed, if possible, on how odd this is. No snow. No wind.
Whiteness is missing. When you drove this way in 2009 – often, maybe weekly, back and forth to the city for supplies – it was a white world and the wind (people warned) blew the school bus off the road once or twice a year. Stykkishólmur lay deep in snow. Rarely were vegetables to be found in the grocery store then, although canned pineapple was available shelf after shelf. These days you can get regular-sized or miniature aubergines, hydroponic lettuce and hothouse strawberries.
Where does the weather start and stop?
Edges, you notice, are beginning to change.
As you near Stykkishólmur. The temperature is falling. Far mountains are becoming sharp, clear, like cut-outs. Air is glass. Daylight a bluish-silver glow. Snow is forecast. Soon Snaefellsjökull glacier will be visible. Your report will find something to be poetic about. A quote from the sagas might figure.
Then just before you crest the hill into town, the bluish-silver glow begins to grey and bleaken. Distances blur. The air gets two-dimensional. Clouds mass weakly. Snaefellsjökull glacier may not be visible after all. You pass Helgafell, a small former volcano about which there is some lore that you forget. You pass the Stykkishólmur graveyard where the gravestones are hung with lights (for Xmas?) No snow. No wind.
Horn, Roni, the artist, was the reason you lived in Stykkishólmur in 2009. She made an artwork called The Library of Water in the empty halls of the town’s former library. Tall glass pillars there now contain waters from 24 of Iceland’s glaciers, each one radiant at the base with its own lichens and dust. Time is still. Big windows look out on the harbour, on the sea, on islands near and far. The light is grey, blunt, enduring, just a seepage of sky. Snaefellsjökull not visible. In 2009 when you first glimpsed the town from here it seemed pegged to the side of a giant wind. Each day walking the town you crouched against the force of it. You were adjunct. Small. ‘Now I see’ (you wrote at the time) ‘why her art was reduced to adjectives here’ – referring to Roni Horn and the fact she covered the floor of the library with descriptors for weather in English and Icelandic. Oppressive. Brisk. Tempestuous. Stormasamt. Duntóft. Etc. You walk around the glass tubes whistling. All the space resonates, creaturely. It is almost dark. There is a weird lonely gloom and smell of rubber (floors). It feels like one of the endless Canadian Saturday afternoons of your childhood. Was there no weather then either? You go down the hill to the cafe to look for lunch.
Enthusiastically turning the door handle of the cafe you read the sign CAFE CLOSED. You descend to the town hall, where lights are on. And who should pop up from behind the desk but your old friend Ragnheidur, the woman who was town postmaster in 2009, with her same wondrous red lipstick and (foxy) gap between the front teeth. How cheerfully she’d helped you navigate (by post) your twelve boxes of books across the Atlantic. Navigation in fact was her real expertise. On boring days at the post office she’d close her wicket, go down to the harbour and offer to pilot the ferry to Flatey Island and back. She was a good pilot. ‘Sail into the mystic,’ she’d used to sing. Where does the weather start and stop? She points you down the road to the town’s other cafe. On your way you note the bare bones of old snow on the roadsides, mostly just frozen ground and black lava bits. The other cafe is bright and empty. ‘Closed in five minutes,’ says the woman at the counter brightly. You get takeout coffee. It is 3 p.m. Almost night. No snow on the ground makes the dark seems darker. Snow in 2009 daily filled the staircase leading to your (basement) apartment and made digging out the first task of the day. At night you could practically read a book by it. Where does the weather stop and start? A bit sad you depart Stykkishólmur. Nice to have a warm cup in the hands.
Remembering that day now, that day you went to Stykkishólmur, it seems as if the weather had writer’s block. Or, really, these days, doesn’t the whole world have writer’s block – alternately finding nothing to say and pouring out rainstorms, windstorms, snowstorms, glacier-melt, mudslides and volcanoes of self-exaggerated memoir? The weather remembers itself – its old forms and dignity – but it can’t believe in all that anymore. Yet there is suffering. New suffering. New suffering reminding us of old suffering, which has to be got rid of, which Proust says is a main motive for writing. The day after your trip to Stykkishólmur comes a blizzard with 50 km winds. Radio reports roads closed. Airport shuts down. You sit in the kitchen watching whiteness obliterate the fjörd and the far mountains and the sea and the sea path to your door.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.