Ruins in Reverse (Nomadic Landmass)

Hello Hello!!!

I am writing to cordially invite you to the 30th birthday celebration of myself and the Eldfell volcanic cone.


October 2 - October 4


The Eldfell volcanic cone,
on the island of Heimaey off the Southern coast of Iceland

Departure meeting point:

I will be flying from the local Reykjavik airport on October 2 on the 12:00 noon flight to Vestmannaeyjar, returning to Reykjavik on October 4 at 12:45.

You may be asking yourself if I am serious about this invite and the answer is absolutely yes, as let's face it, you and a landmass only turn 30 at (almost) exactly the same time once!

All the best and hope to see you at the crater!!!!!!!

Prologue (A story about Werner Herzog)

On hearing that his friend was dying in Paris, he decided to walk directly there from Munich. He felt he could keep his friend alive through the act of walking. *see endnote 1

To wit :

If he went by plane he would die when he reached him.
If he went by foot he would die when he reached him.

I understand this impulse. A friend remarked she thought the gesture was full of self-importance - to think Herzog could affect his friend's life span because of his own journey. I see how it could be perceived in this way, but relate to it much more on the level of being an attempt to live through two time scales at once. To employ slow time, geological time, through a direct engagement with it. A concrete act in the face of news that is beyond comprehension. An inexplicable drive to work against the velocity of impending mortality.

Our Birthday

In 1973, a massive volcanic eruption on the Icelandic island of Heimaey led to the formation of an ash cone called Eldfell. Already, Helgafell an extinct volcano on the same island, broke the horizon line past the town. No one knew there was a second volcano waiting to happen.

I was born on September 18th, 1973. On alternating years my birthday fell on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. We would eat apples and honey for a sweet New Year or fast. In China September 18th is a terrible date, marking the deaths of over 200,000 people killed during attacks on Nanjing. In Great Britain, earthquakes occurred on September 18th in 1833, 1901 and 1904. Eldfell and I were both second to arrive. I have two sisters, one older and one younger. For Eldfell there was first the elder volcano, Helgafell.

In October 2003, to mark the 30th birthday of myself and the Eldfell volcanic cone, I went to Heimaey to celebrate the occasion of our simultaneous appearance on the West Side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge -

Gems and Minerals, Riverside Drive, the North American tectonic plate.

The summer before I turned thirty I was in Maine. My father was very sick. A string of vignettes from this time include; seagulls eating spaghetti from a Styrofoam container sitting on the roof of the car, riding in Wendy's convertible with the top down after bad news from the hospital, the threat of fireworks being called off because baby eaglets were nesting on Curtis island.

I began to plan the trip to Eldfell from my parents' bedroom. There was no clear-cut reason I wanted to go. It was an impulse. Landmass regeneration.

My father resting, my mother drifting through, I'm on the computer -

I found a great deal on a flight to get to the volcano!

Both parents perk up,
YOU are a very strange girl.

But in a good way, evidenced by the amount of time we all invested discussing pros and cons of e-mail versus postal invites, formal dress or casual and guest list questions - welcome diversions to the constant seismic shifts of the P.S.A. number.

Though the Eldfell Birthday Event would most probably exist as theoretical party planning only we tried as faithfully as possible to draw up a guest list as if the actual party would happen on the allotted days, keeping in mind who would get along with whom while climbing up a volcanic cone with birthday cake in hand in potentially hazardous weather conditions.

I sent out the invite from New England with several weeks advance notice.

Within days of the initial invitation, I received my first RSVP as a

Yes, I would be happy to attend.

The Volcano

When Eldfell appeared at 2:00am on January 23rd, it quickly made all the headlines. Over the course of five months, photographs of the eruption appeared in magazines as divergent as Vogue and National Geographic. In one of the last interviews Robert Smithson gave before his untimely death in 1973, he spoke about The Partially Buried Woodshed in relation to the eruption on Heimaey. Through the course of the eruption, 400 houses on the island disappeared under the perpetual ash fall.

Published posthumously, Smithson had chosen images of the sunken town to accompany his interview. Robert Smithson died at the age of 38 prior to the date I was born. He was from the other side of the Hudson and really, in geological time, we should have met. In daily time, it wasn't possible.

As bleak as this volcanic incident may sound thus far, the eruption itself proved an optimistic event, like many new births no matter what the circumstance. Heimaey was the hub of the Icelandic fishing industry and the lava flow was heading straight for the harbor. If the lava reached the entrance, the whole Icelandic economy would collapse. In a bid to save the harbor, an Icelandic physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested they cool the front of the lava through pumping seawater on it twenty-four hours a day. This act, considered a national joke, became known as pissing on the lava. Early on there was some success in diverting and slowing the lava flow. At some stages it could have gone in either direction, particularly during an unfortunate period when Flakkarinn The Wanderer, which weighed two million tons, broke off from the main lava flow and began moving in a direct trajectory towards the harbor. Flakkarinn was shattered apart by thirty million gallons of seawater. After that a new flow formed named The City Flow, as it was on a path towards the center of town. In one day alone it devoured seventy houses.

The lava narrowed the harbor entrance to five hundred feet wide and then stopped. Most people believe that pissa a hraunid helped bring it to a halt. In the end, after five and half months of volcanic activity, no one died and only minor injuries were sustained. All the residents, heavy appliances, good furniture, factory fish, sheep, poultry and perishables were airlifted to safety. Six million tons of seawater was pumped onto the lava flow during the rescue mission. Once cooled, the lava flow actually improved the quality of the harbor. Initially, the community of Heimaey was encouraged to abandon the island to the volcano. *see endnote 2

October 2003

On October 2nd as planned, Karen and I met promptly in the lobby of Salvation Army at 8:30am. We locked up our bags and proceeded to the swimming pool. Built in a 1950s style, the pool was popular among the older generation. After a short swim, we floated in hot tubs filled with women wearing fish-scale flower swimming caps and old men with sparkly eyes. Only minutes later at the airport, we had coffee and awaited our flight to the island. I had never been in such a small aircraft. We lifted off the ground immediately without warning. Initially, I was petrified. The plane was much more sensitive to weather conditions than a large craft. Every cloud could be felt as a full body jolt. I loved being in a small mechanical bird. Our descent to Heimaey was at such an upside angle I thought we were going to land inside the volcano.

We picked up our bags, left the airport and followed a sign towards town. A woman, who turned out to be the local schoolteacher, pulled up next to us and offered us a ride. Two minutes later we arrived at our guesthouse and met Ruth and her husband. Ruth told us that in addition to the guesthouse, they ran the movie theatre in town. She also worked at the bakery. Ruth had a German accent. From the high proportion of Israeli guests in the visitors book I wondered if she was Jewish. That night we wandered around town and ate dinner at a restaurant covered in plastic boats, buoys, flower wreaths and fish.

The next day Karen and I went to the top of the volcano. There was a path that led out of town, along the edge of the lava flow and up to the crater. The route was variable. It began on a suburban street, which abruptly came to an end at a heap of pitch-black asphalt. Thin wooden slat stairs hung over a mess of sharp crags and aging lava. We climbed holding on to the banister. There were high winds that day, though in Heimaey terms it was temperate. Winds of 260 miles an hour had been recorded on the island's barometer. We came upon a series of grave markers at the top of the stairs, they stated :

Vilborgarstadir 9 metres below the surface

Laufas 16 metres below the surface

Hotel Berg 12 metres below the surface

Buried houses were everywhere.

We were told you could start a small fire by burying a piece of paper in the ash, as even three decades on, the ground was still hot from the eruption. We waited very patiently for the paper to incinerate. It got a bit charred. In truth, we should have climbed into the center of the cone, but remained on lukewarm ground.

We had brought cake from Ruth's bakery in town to have at the top of the volcano. It was a small yellow cake shaped like a banana with different layers of cream, chocolate and marzipan. A confection strata study. We collected various pieces of lava at the top of the crater. I took one for each friend I had that was turning thirty in the same year. From the top of the crater we could see Vatnajökull hovering over the mainland, small Surtseys jutting through the surface of the water and people racing motorcycles along the edge of the 30 year old lava flow.

The night before we left the island we took a soak in the outdoor hot tubs. The radio was blasting from inside where the main pool was located and dozens of pre-teens kept appearing to check us out as we floated around in gale force winds. Back at Ruth's guesthouse, we were invited to watch footage from the eruption in a lounge next door. The next morning Ruth told us we could walk up to the airport in fifteen minutes, no problem. Twenty minutes later and only half way there, in a panic we hitched a ride with a man and his kids. With ten minutes to spare until take-off, we boarded the plane to the mainland.

March 2004

I heard Dominick Arduin had gone missing. En-route to the North Pole, all contact has been lost. There was no trace of her sledge, pack, canoe. No sign of leftover meals, no phone signal, nothing - other than a few tracks. On March 19th they put the search for her on hold until further notice. She was presumed dead.

The first and last time we met was during a flood on April 30th 2002, the day before May Day. We were in Ivalo, the last major port of call in Finnish Lapland before you cross border in to Russia. To get there are three options: drive five hours North from Rovaniemi on the Gold Highway, take an 18 hour train ride from Helsinki (plus a long bus ride) or an hour and a half flight direct from the capital. We conducted our interview in a restaurant with a karaoke bar. She was the first woman to ski alone to the Magnetic North Pole. She told me about her trek to get there. A neighbor of mine told me that she had bone cancer when she was a kid, overcame it and became one of the world's foremost adventure explorers. It had

Always been her dream to reach the Geographic North Pole, alone without re-supply.

The night before we met the ice broke on the Ivaloki River. Icebergs were everywhere, flying by and heaving themselves on to the banks. As is annual tradition, everyone in the village gathered down at the water to place bets on where the ice would break next. There was a big fire and a sausage cookout. Moving towards midnight sun at that time of year, a rainbow in the sky lasted the entire night. The flood had only just begun at that point and you had to paddle in a rowboat to get across the driveway. We were in Koppelo, which was the village at the end of a 13 kilometer long road, surrounded on three sides by water. By late in the next day, we were living on an island. The road was gone, submerged under the rising water level from the melting ice. Dominick and I met in the morning and then she had to go and try to save her house from the flood. She said already the front steps to her house had disappeared and it was only a matter of time until it reached past the door.

My father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer about one month before I met Dominick. I was with him in New York and from there left straight for Lapland. Upon arrival, I found out the population of Koppelo was so small that one foreign artist living in the top floor flat of the schoolhouse transformed the entire building into the Inari Art Centre. There was no phone, no internet, no public transportation, nowhere to get food, no one around. Mid-April qualified as winter when everyone kept to themselves. By the time I left six weeks later, everything had thawed.

I read a passage from one of the early Antarctic explorers, who explained they had come to rely more on the soles of their feet than their eyes or ears to navigate their route through the ice. You could feel the perils lurking under the blankets of snow more easily this way. To rely on sight at all was foolhardy. My father explained when using his walker to travel from one point to another, even a paved road could become a minefield. Small cracks in the asphalt could become like a deep crevasse in a fissure row if you were not careful. To remedy this, he trusted only his feet, seeking out smooth surfaces between the small mountains and minor canyons of the street.

April 2004

Waiting in line at JFK to check in for my flight to Iceland, I ran into Eeva-Liisa. I had not seen her since 1999 during my first summer in Akureyri. One time I convinced her and Henrikka to pour milk and skyr down the side of a hill in the center of town to demonstrate the different velocities of lava. She was working as an au pair on a farm all the way out of town and had to hitch rides back and forth. She used to wait at the petrol station on the Ring Road to catch a ride home.

She said she was in New York for a few days with her colleagues from Helsinki. She knew I had been in Lapland because in Oulu she read about me in the local paper. I said I had been thinking about Lapland a lot for the first time in a while because of a woman named Dominick Arduin, who I interviewed when I was there in 2002. It turns out Eeva-Liisa worked for the magazine that sponsored Dominick's first attempt to reach the Geographic North Pole in 2003, when she fell through the ice and lost some of her toes to frostbite.

A rescue team lifted her out. One man at the airport with Eeva-liisa was the photographer who accompanied Dominick all the way to the ice floe in Siberia where she set off on her trip.

Dominick was missing. Her tracks were last seen leading to the edge of an ice crevasse somewhere in Russian territory. One of the last reports in Polarcircle stated,

We have reached the conclusion that something dramatic happened to Dominick on 6 March.

We all stood on the other side of security at the airport, shifting weight. Then we prepared for our flight.

When I went back to Iceland, it was to stay at an art center in a town on the East Coast that I had never been to before called Seydisfjordur. Each week the ferry docked there from Norway, Denmark and the Faroes, so it was busy in the summer, but deep winter was different. The swimming pool was only open three days a week, in the morning and in the early evening. The library was open even less. On my first afternoon in town I happened upon it when it was open. A lucky break considering in the week preceding Easter, the supermarket and all other amenities closed, joining the other three cafes in town that locked up off season.

The library was situated above the gym in the sports center. The only English language books were stacked on a table for book exchange, mostly romances, some sci-fi and strangely enough Z is for Zachariah, a book about a nuclear holocaust aimed at ages 10-12 that I read 20 years ago. There were only two other people in the library that afternoon, one kind of biker looking guy who was wearing a black leather jacket and the librarian. I asked her if there were any books on the Heimaey eruption of 1973 and explained I was born the same year. She found three. One was a dense text written in Icelandic, there was a children's book about the event with a drawing of a dog on the back cover which the man later pointed out would have been cooked during the eruption; the last book was written ten years before, in 1963, after the Surtsey eruption formed a completely new island. On the front page, a panoramic view of Heimaey displays the center of town. One volcanic cone looms in the distance, today there are two. The biker, then at the far end of the library, asked us what we were doing with all the books. The librarian told him I was looking for information about the Heimaey eruption.

He turned to me, introduced himself as Birgir and said,

I was there when I was 16, my first time away from home. I arrived in Heimaey to work in the fishery only two weeks before. My uncle sent me on one of the first flights off the island, said he couldn't be responsible for me under the circumstances. Didn't want to worry my mother.

Solveig, my host at the art center, told me her uncle Kjartan was a rescue worker on Heimaey. He has a photograph of the eruption that entirely fills one wall of his living room.

Dear Ruth,

Hello from Seydisfjordur, where I am working at Skaftfell for several weeks. I stayed at your lovely guesthouse in October of 2003 with a Scottish friend of mine for a few days; perhaps you will remember us, as it was slightly off-season though I know you have many guests each year. Over the last few months I have been working on a project about my visit to Heimaey. Specifically, I had visited the island for my 30th birthday, as the Eldfell cone and I are just about the same age - both born in 1973.

I remember you told us about how it was that you came to live on the island of Heimaey, having only been there once for two hours many years before. Your story resonated very deeply with me. Part of the reason I was drawn to Heimaey was because my father had been diagnosed with cancer about a year and a half before, and his health was failing. Somehow, going to Heimaey felt like a way to respond to what was happening. It was not something I could explain in a rational way, but it made sense - to visit a volcano that was as old as I was at a time when everything else was changing. To meet a familiar piece of land. In December my father died and from this point on I began to think more about Heimaey. Recently, I started work on a book about Eldfell and if you were interested, I would very much like to include your story. I look forward to hearing from you and send all the best from Seydisfjordur.

All the best,
Ilana Halperin

Hello Ilana,

I remember you and your friend especially because you mentioned that you had your 30th birthday just like Eldfell. The eruption and birth of Eldfell had a special meaning and connection to me because I married for the first time in 1973 and Iceland was always the dream country of my first husband and I. I watched pictures of the eruption on the in TV those days. One day we saw in the cinema a short movie about an eruption under a glacier in Iceland and our interest in going one day grew more and more. The only reason why we waited such a long time was we were young and didn't have so much money. But then in January 1978 I went to a travel agency and booked a trip to Iceland. We went to Heimaey in the best weather you could have. We went for a sightseeing tour to the volcano - about eight years later I was working for the same man who took us on the tour. Three months after we came back from our trip we found out about my husbands sickness: cancer of the testicle. When they operated on him it had already gone to his lungs. He was fighting against the cancer. The doctors gave him six more months but he lived until March 1981.

During this difficult time Iceland kept me going. I always knew that if he might die, I would go back to Iceland. After his death I went two months later. Summer of 1983 I moved to Heimaey. I love the work, love to show our guests the island and tell about what happened in 1973. I like to walk up to the new volcano, walk there in the steam, feel the heat, which is still up to 470 ° after thirty-one years. When I am tired or some problems come up, then I usually take a big walk to the volcano, the lava or up to the mountains. Often my dog comes with me and after returning I feel fresh, happy, maybe I am full of new ideas. It is like loading a battery.

I wish you the best for your book. I would like to buy a copy later on if possible.

Summer greetings from Heimaey.
Ruth Zohlen

In Slow and Fast Time (coincidental orogeny)

In July 2003 I spent ten days on and off underground in Kentucky working in Mammoth Cave, the longest cave in the world, with a conservation organization called Earthwatch. I subsequently found out that Earthwatch formed in 1973 as well. As it turned out, much of their work began through documenting the Eldfell eruption within 24 hours of its start. Bob Citron, the primary investigator on the field work session, filmed 16 thousand feet worth of volcanic eruptions between 1968 and 1974 through The Center for Short Lived Phenomena. When the eruption on Heimaey began he organized a spontaneous field session.

The footage they shot was apparently so breathtaking it ended up on most news stations around the world. After the eruption, he and the team decided to print a book called Earthwatch about Heimaey and related volcanic events. It is from this publication that the organization took its name. Blue, my contact at Earthwatch, put me in contact with Bob, who then offered to loan me the original eruption footage before it was permanently donated to the Smithsonian as part of an extensive volcanic archive.

I spoke with a man named Mike at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, who examined a crystal shard I found on the crest of the volcano during birthday proceedings in October. He decided the specimen was either a piece of Quartz from deep inside the earth that came up during the eruption, covered in a thin slip of molten rock; or a shard of glass from a window pane which burst as lava filled a house, later caught in the tread of someone's boot and pried loose by magma as they worked to save the harbor.

A small piece of evidence.


1 Herzog story found in Phaidon book on Doug Aitken.

2 All specific historical information on the 1973 Eldfell eruption found in John McPhee's wonderful book The Control of Nature.