In late June 2009, five Canadian graduate students and two professors traveled, with NiCHE support, to Iceland to participate in an eight-day environmental history summer school. Led by faculty from the Reyjkavik Academy, the course—Local Environments, Global Impacts—examined the environmental and agricultural history of Iceland over the longue durée, from Norse settlement in the ninth century to the boom and bust of the 21st. In all, the course included 12 participants, including the distinguished American environmental historian Donald Worster.
The course was part of a new initiative in Iceland’s academic community, the Svartarkot Nature and Culture program, a collaborative effort by members of the Reyjkavik Academy, Svartarkot farm, and local organizations to establish a research and culture centre in the island’s rugged north. Participants stayed at the Kidagil hostel, in the remote Bardardular Valley, a rugged and beautiful sheep-farming region about 80 kilometres southeast from Akureryi, Iceland’s major northern city. Located at 65º latitude, Kidagil was, for some participants, their first sub-Arctic experience, an end of the earth that was both visually spare and experientially rich.
Kidagil was the base of operations, providing meals, accomodations, and space for daily seminars; its location also gave easy access for field trips to the famous lake and wetland complex of Myvatn, the Krafla lava-fields, the dramatic Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, and other sites of interest. The hostel, nestled amidst sheep farms and pastures, is emerging as a tourist centre that takes the region’s famed “outlaw” past as the focus for interpretive events and displays. Inside there were text panels and displays, and outside a turf shelter that local residents had built in the hostel’s front yard.
The main focus for the participants, however, was environmental history. The course was built around a large set of readings (see the bibliography below) on Icelandic settlement and environments, and was delivered through talks, seminar discussions, and field trips that looked at long and short-term environmental change in Iceland. Throughout, participants sought to understand the dynamics of environmental adaptation—how people shaped their local environments to suit their ways of life and how those actions changed environments requiring adaptations that set off new cycles of change and adaptation. Iceland was only settled in the late 9th century so it provides, in the words of participant Jason Moore, a “fat case” for environmental historians seeking to understand these mutually constitutive processes. In Iceland’s case, those processes begin on a base layer of historic and ongoing volcanic activity, and extend to include sheep grazing, deforestation, erosion, and invasive species—a suite familiar to environmental historians and which continue to influence Iceland’s present.
Participants also ranged across other scales too, from the intensely local—a herb-collecting walk was one afternoon’s activity—to the widely global in discussions about the challenges of doing world environmental history. Rounding out the program were guest lecturers who presented on Icelandic flora and fauna, hydroelectric development, eruption-induced famines, and off-roading tourism culture. During the program, participants had ample time to socialize and carry on discussions that circulated around the breakfast and dinner tables, and sustained late night rambles and hikes. All of this activity was under the friendly supervision of Árni Daníel Júlíusson, the historian who was running the program on behalf of the Reyjkavik Academy. Árni led tours, shepherded wandering students, and generally endeared himself with his low-key style and humour.
Click to view the interactive map.
Canadian participants at the Svartárkot Nature and Culture program in Iceland collaborated in the production of an interactive Google map. The map lays out a series of conceptual threads that emerged during the course of the Svartarkot program. Taking advantage of Google Maps’ placemark function, participants tagged locations and illustrated the placemarks with photos and texts. These snapshots, both photographic and textual, provide a glimpse into the participants' experiences and thoughts during the eight-day course.
To view more of the photos taken by the participants, visit the Svartarkot image gallery.
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