inside the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
“In area, the home island is so small that it approximates Manhattan south of the Empire State building. The volume of material that came pouring out on Heimaey in 1973 would be enough to envelop New York’s entire financial district, with only the tops of the World Trade Center sticking out like ski huts. The image is not as outlandish as it seems. A few miles west of Manhattan, the high ground of Montclair—of Glen Ridge, Great Notch, and Mountainside—is the product of a similar fissure eruption.” — John McPhee, from “Cooling the Lava,” The Control of Nature
Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar islands of Iceland, via Google Mapsoutside the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
Visiting Heimaey is a bit of a dream come true for FOP. Since reading John McPhee’s dramatic rendering of the island, in the now seemingly ironically titled book The Control of Nature, this place has lived prominently in our imaginations. The convergence of the human and the geologic, as well as a community’s ability to inhabit change, doesn’t get much more literal than this.
On this southern edge of Iceland, in January of 1973, a 1.5 mile long fissure opened and began an outpouring of lava that lasted until July. In addition to birthing an entirely new 225 meter high volcano, the event buried over 300 homes and left millions of tons of tephra in its wake.
Our journey to Heimaey earlier this week began with a short 30 minute ferry from Iceland’s main island. We passed through a dramatic cove filled with caves and turquoise waters. Once off the boat, we hiked through a “house graveyard” where homes are still buried beneath 15 meter deep tongues of solidified lava. From there, we hiked to the stunning new museum, Eldheimar, which was built in remembrance of the events of 1973. It has been built around what is now its centerpiece: an excavation of a buried home.
On Heimaey, the “turn” that we performed was a conceptual one. This is a place where people have adapted to massive, fast, unexpected change. In a matter of hours people had to abandon their homes. In many cases, they returned to homes buried in lava or ash. The lava flow was relatively slow, so as physical and material limits of the town were exceeded, locals were able to save their harbor and the community did not suffer a major loss of life. Because of this, citizens had the time and the psychological capacity to inhabit the change taking place for several months. This afforded active adaptation and creative response (such as spraying sea water on the lava to cool it and protect the harbor from destruction). Inhabitants could experience “catastrophic change” and turn towards it in part because a configuration of fortunate events confined experiences of loss to the loss of material things and not human lives. After 40 years, inhabitants narrate the life of their island in terms of “before” and “after” the eruption. People addressed the changes that engulfed Heimaey and recreated their town with new physical structures, infrastructures, and meanings.
What we paused with on Heimaey was our sense that human psychological limits greatly influence how we are able to meet change. If we have the opportunity to meet change from within our physical and cognitive limits, and while in the midst of a crisis that exceeds our psychological limits, there is a much better chance that we can creatively live within and move in accord with changing material realities. If many lives had been lost on Heimay, it’s very likely this island would be place of mourning and the new museum a memorial.
Yet, we all now live in a contemporary context that has exceeded limits across many realities, including the psychological, social, environmental, cultural, economic etc. The geophysical world churns out changes without concern for us or our built environment.
There’s much that humans cannot control when it comes to the geologic (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions). We design ourselves into even more risk when we stake our own viability upon so many affordances poised at so many edges and beyond the limits of the world. Our activities have set algorithms of change into motion long ago. Many of them can’t be stopped at this point. Even if we do have the luxury of a warning (as we did have about global warming) political, economic, and cultural forces that we set into motion long ago continue to execute themselves. Multiple, compounding forces of change are now co-mingling with one another, many of which we can’t control and currently are not attuned to (physically or cognitively). In this way, many of us live in a different framing of reality than those who inhabit Heimaey.
a walk through the “House Graveyard”, Heimaey Island, Iceland
at the Eldheimar Museum, Heimaey Island, Iceland
*all images this post FOP 2014 unless otherwise noted.