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1 August 2008 Skaftafell in Iceland—A Thousand Years of Change
Karl Benediktsson
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Skaftafell in Iceland—A Thousand Years of Change by Jack D. Ives. Simultaneously published in Icelandic under the title Skaftafell í Öræfum—Íslands þúsund ár. Reykjavik, Iceland: Ormstunga, 2007. 256 pp. ISK 5200.00, US$ 75.00. ISBN 978-9979-63-055-5 (English) and 978-9979-63-056-2 (Icelandic).

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This is an interesting and unusual book that is not easily categorized. It contains bits of natural history, a lot of personal reminiscing, meditations about conservation of natural and cultural landscapes, and coffee-table quality landscape photography, as well as several other things. The author is—well, a mountain in the field of mountain research and, having edited this very journal for a long time, well known to its readers. The place is Skaftafell, a remote farm property in the district of Öræfi, Southeast Iceland. Some 40 years ago, a large part of the property was designated a national park.

In his formative years as a scientist, Jack Ives dwelled in the mountainous and glaciated landscape of Skaftafell for extended periods as a leader of student research expeditions in glaciology and geomorphology. And ‘dwelling,’ indeed, it seems to have been. Ives obviously developed a deep appreciation for this place at this formative stage in his academic career. This appreciation surfaces throughout the text. Moreover, Ives was deeply affected by a tragedy that occurred during one of the expeditions, when 2 of the student researchers disappeared without a trace on the glacier. This is described in detail in the book.

The main part of the book is divided into 3 sections. The first traces the dramatic history of the region. Following the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century AD, the area became a prosperous farming district, only to be decimated by the violent eruption of Öræfajökull in 1362. The district never fully recovered from this catastrophic event. Another eruption, in 1727, together with climatic deterioration, glacial advances, periodic flooding and erosion by the rivers, greatly affected the lives of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the small population of farmers proved resilient and resourceful, and the district has been home to some remarkable and illustrious personalities through the ages.

Ives traces this history by means of a bold literary device: he tells it through several selected characters who have lived at Skaftafell, right from the time of the Icelandic Sagas. In contrast to the terse economy of the Sagas, where emotions and thoughts were kept well out of the way as a general rule, Ives attempts to reveal how his characters perceived their social, as well as natural, environments and acted upon them. Each personal vignette is followed by a commentary from a natural history viewpoint. This makes for an engaging read, although one is left with a certain tension between Ives-the-storyteller and Ives-the-scientist which is never quite resolved.

The second section of the book is a recounting of 3 successive fieldwork expeditions, from 1952 to 1954, instigated and organized by students and young researchers of geography at the University of Not-tingham. It is a fascinating account that would lend itself well to an analysis by a sociologist of science. The group managed to muster considerable resources to do some serious scientific work, for instance determining the accumulation of snow on the main ice cap and measuring the movements of the outlet glaciers. Seemingly, those were the happy days of extended, well-equipped fieldwork expeditions to faraway locations, before the advent of the publish-or-perish mentality in academia and an obsession with minute accounting. Apparently, quite a few British geography departments still mount their annual physical geography expeditions to Iceland.

In a way, this is also a story of Öræfi ‘before the fall’—before the opening of roads to the east or the west, which brought the district into the orbit of modern nature tourism on a fairly large scale, about which Ives clearly has mixed thoughts. The book's third section is concerned with the transition of Skaftafell from a pastoral farm to a national park which is visited by an ever-increasing number of tourists. Ives traces the emergence of the idea of establishing a conservation area in this place, and how the idea was gradually realized. As in almost every case of national park designation, this did not take place without causing problems. Locals, official institutions and other actors entered the process with differing ideals, understandings, and agendas, and Skaftafell became a contested territory.

Ives states his own views clearly. He does not advocate ‘fortress conservation’—in fact, he writes rather disparagingly of what he terms the “US/NZ model” of national parks. Rather, he calls for conservationists to pay due heed to local knowledge and local interests. This is certainly a message never too often voiced. Nevertheless, this reviewer occasionally felt that advocacy of the local sometimes bordered on uncritical celebration of the local. In the case of Iceland, it can hardly be denied that unsustainable land use in previous times affected the country's ecology quite severely. It is one thing to acknowledge and respect accumulated local knowledge, but another to assume that the local point of view always leads to beneficial outcomes. It is obvious that a seasoned observer such as Ives well recognizes this, but he could have discussed this important issue in a, perhaps, more balanced way.

The book as a whole, but this third section in particular, is a tribute to the people of Öræfi, and above all to the late Ragnar Stefánsson—farmer, park superintendent, and the author's close friend. In Ragnar, Ives found someone with an astonishing depth of local knowledge and awareness of environmental changes, as well as a genuine desire to maintain and protect these landscapes. This was in the 1950s, well before the wisdom of the locals was generally acknowledged.

The remainder of the book consists of no fewer than 11 appendices, which add much to the book. Some contain letters and other documents that relate to Skaftafell in different ways, whereas others are the author's own essays about life in Öræfi, glaciers in the district, mountaineering, and other topics. Particularly interesting is the description of a seal hunt in which Ives participated in 1954. Graphic descriptions are accompanied by equally graphic photographs. Finally, there is a description of the discovery of the remnants of the last camp of the 2 researchers lost on the glacier during the 1953 expedition (see above).

Maps play an important role in the book. They are of varying quality: some are excellent and appealing, while others seem rather too simplified. On some maps (eg p 32) the choice of colors seems somewhat odd and unnatural to this reviewer, conditioned in a kind of cartographic naturalism. In the first section, a series of maps reveals the state of the settlement since AD 1010, giving a basic indication of glacial advances and retreats, as well as the gradually diminishing vegetation cover caused by volcanism and glacial river erosion. Surprisingly, however, no distinction is made between those farmsteads that were actually settled at the time the map is intended to represent, and those that had been deserted. Thus, the final map from the mid 20th century (p 67) conveys the impression that there were 11 more farms in the district at the time than is actually the case.

The photographs, on the other hand, are exquisite. Many are taken by Jack Ives himself, who is a keen and highly able photographer. His photos in the second main section of the book, documenting the 1952–1954 expeditions, give an invaluable insight into both the expeditions themselves and life in Öræfi in general.

This book was simultaneously published in English and in Icelandic, which is certainly commendable. The translation from English to Icelandic is generally well done, although some passages are a little stiff and the choice of words is sometimes a tad dubious (eg figure caption on p 88).

Given the wide and somewhat eclectic selection of material in this book, it is rather hard to pinpoint a specific community of readers. My guess is that most readers will be Icelanders, but it should appeal to others as well. Written in an accessible and non-technical language, the book is also of great value to anyone who is interested in the natural history of Iceland, and of course the local history of Öræfi. Those working in conservation, certainly in Iceland but even elsewhere, will find it relevant. As this review is being written, Skaftafell has finally become a part of a much larger conservation area that has been discussed for some time: Vatnajökull National Park, the largest national park in Europe. The book should be of value to those involved in the planning of this large park and the resolution of the many issues that will inevitably arise.

Karl Benediktsson "Skaftafell in Iceland—A Thousand Years of Change," Mountain Research and Development 28(3), 335-336, (1 August 2008).
Published: 1 August 2008

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