Seasons

We have come full circle. Though we haven’t been in Iceland for a whole year, during our time here we’ve been through all four seasons. At the start of March we arrived in snow and next week, the end of November, we will leave in snow again. I have a lot of stories and pictures I’d love to share, to put a beautiful bookend to this icy sojourn, but I am going to be realistic – it’s unlikely I’ll get them written this weekend when packing is yet to begin. So, here is the place I would most like to share now as it forms a review of sorts of the whole year. The botanical gardens in their spring, summer, autumn and winter clothes.

Winter

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I saw the gardens first stripped of their own colour and lent blue by the sky. They seemed smaller than the name suggested: when I think botanical gardens I think Kew. Acres of glasshouse and border and collection. Reykjavik Botanical Gardens sit within Laugardalur, a park which also includes a swimming pool, the sports stadium and a concert hall. You won’t get exhausted walking from one end to the other. But their size didn’t matter. As I scanned the ground for labels I found many familiar names: Sorbus, Larix, Betula, Hellebore, Hosta, Hebe, Camassia, Crocus, Papaver… the trees were bare and to my rusty plant-identifying mind pretty indistinguishable. Some of the plants and bulbs named showed no trace, just a small white plaque in icy ground. So in winter the ponds sung the most, doubling everything, bringing the sky to my feet.

Spring

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There is not much to spring in Iceland, not in the city at least. It’s possible that my foreign gaze failed to pick up the subtler signs. I missed the progression of home enormously. The snowdrops giving way to crocuses making space for daffodils by which time pink and white blossom is festooned across cherries and hawthorns. The white flowers that bloom on Magnolia stellata, first of the Magnolias. It is slightly unfair to say I missed all these because to give Reykjavik credit there were snowdrops lining the paths through the park, then there were a few crocuses in decorative array, and daffodils finally. But it all took so goddamned long. Perhaps six weeks longer. And no blossom. When we left London at the beginning of March the snowdrops were fading and crocuses in full swing and even the very first few daffodils in bud. It was like being plunged back in time. Winter reigned here until mid-May. In my impatience to settle in I mourned the flowers I couldn’t wait for. And yet there were some gems in the gardens that I was grateful for. The Camassias in the photo above, which I love and have never seen a pale blue version of. And then this Daphne with the amazing strong scent, reminding me of Daphne the family dog (she smells quite nice but not as good as the plant).IMG_20170415_111217981

The rhododendron buds that survived the winter – you can see a picture of them as they are now in my last post – hunkering down for the long cold. The slivers of hot pink. Delightful.IMG_20170415_111038570

In the small glasshouse which houses a cafe in the summer months, a selection of favourites thrive against all the odds. As if by magic you can step in from the snow and smell immediately the Mexican orange blossom of the Choisya below. Plus wisteria and clematis, all flowering all powerfully bringing me home. Proustian plants.

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Summer

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The path is typical of the exuberance shown by all who make their lives here when summer finally comes. Months of dark and cold turn fairly rapidly to light, so much light, people race to the swimming pool to bask every hour they can and crowd the sunniest spots. Buttercups bloom abundantly across fields. The lupins, kept very definitely out of the botanical gardens (here they are an invasive species), turn the roadsides blue. Pots of pansies on windowsills produce more flowers then I’ve ever seen outside of an intensively-farmed bedding nursery. The botanical gardens are glorious and my pictures of this special season don’t do it justice.IMG_20170624_103544600

Here is the rock garden. Healthy spreads of alpine plants show that conditions here are ideal for them and a far cry from the anaemic rock gardens, mostly rock with spots of plant, of England.That might be a bit unfair but still I’ve never seen so many flowers and so much colour sandwiched in great slabs of stone. It is my favourite part of the garden, a world in miniature with a new discovery behind every rock, varieties and species I’ve never seen before from familiar groups – here this neon geum and campanula are shining stars. IMG_20170624_104151099IMG_20170624_102826319Beyond the rock garden is an understated zone where herbaceous perennials are shown off. It’s hard to believe they make it here. Each bed contains a variety of examples from a couple of species. Surprises – irises, thalictrums, delphiniums. It feels like the gardeners are desperately saying, look what we can do here! I don’t see many of these plants outside the confines of this garden. But perhaps it takes an awful lot of nurturing or perhaps Icelanders are not inclined to primp their front gardens or maybe they’re sick of seeing a prize hollyhock shredded by wind. Anyway, this tucked away place reminds me of visiting nurseries in the West of Scotland that produce sub-tropical beauties you don’t expect; it’s the same lush delight to find it here. IMG_20170624_110853757IMG_20170624_111206202IMG_20170624_111057916

Autumn

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We were treated with a longer-than-usual autumn this year, I’m told. IMG_20170930_111635504IMG_20171004_152834820IMG_20171004_153018153IMG_20171004_153038120

 Sorbus (Rowans) were the first trees beyond oaks, birches, chestnuts and beeches that I learned to identify (top tip: most branches end in one single leaf after pairs of opposite leaves along). There are many of them in the park and in autumn they come into their own. Berries yellow to red, leaves going up in flames, in succession because of the great number of varieties here. Rowans go unnoticed in summer but appear everywhere when the berries ripen and signal the beginning of the end. 

Autumn is not getting its full dues here because I’m now rushing to get this post posted. We fly to London in four hours time to start a new adventure. One that was not our original plan, but an opportunity that fell into our laps and gives us something we thought might take a few years to find: the chance to settle somewhere with meaningful work on a smallholding, time to work other garden and diy jobs and make things, and space for a few fruit trees of our own. It doesn’t look exactly how we pictured it- we will be working for someone else rather than owning a house or land- but we are hoping it fulfils the spirit of what we were looking for. It is not a dry acre in Portugal but a house in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England and a job at an amazing self-sufficiency, permaculture, nature reserve that we wwoofed at last December. More on that later. Over and out Iceland, you’ve been a pleasure and a pain, a learning experience that I am so fortunate to have had. I’ve had the joy of meeting Joi’s family and seeing the land he grew up in. I’ve missed my own family and friends deeply and look forward to reconnecting. So long for now! 

A true winter wonderland

SONY DSCIt seems appropriate that before that last of the snow is trodden into slush, I will share these photos I took on Friday, the first fresh morning of carpeted white. Though several of these pictures have a decidedly blue shadow cast over them. I could really do with some photo editing skills, I should get Johann to teach me some tricks. I dallied with altered the levels and saturation but I can’t do a good job so for now they come to you as raw and blue as I took them.

We are taking a walk to and through the botanical gardens. They are just twenty minutes walk from our flat and have been a source of pleasure since we moved here in April. Soon I’m going to put together a review of the gardens through the seasons, as I have more photos of them than anything else here in Iceland (brace yourselves). For now we will stay in one snowy morning. The path I take sneaks along the side of the hostel and into the park. It’s an arched tunnel of joy through which it’s possible to glimpse the spire of Hallgrimskirkja. If I were a better photographer you would be glimpsing it in focus and not over-exposed. Just imagine it sharp through the maze of frosted branches. It was a glorious sight. To have the familiar transformed, that is the wonder of snow.

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The sun begins to shift onto the tops of trees and through narrow passageways. It rises later than I have ever experienced, on this particular day at 9.37 to be precise. The sun is above the horizon by then but the gloaming persists and it’s later still before it really feels like daytime.

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We reach the gardens now. We are greeted by this first in the series of ponds, frozen solid, reflecting pink dawn. The edges seem unclear and I stay away fearing I’ll slip in. There is no-one else here at this hour who would hear my screams. The only sound the creaking of compacting snow beneath my boots.

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The church picked out in the glow is a stairway to heaven, or perhaps a steep slide from grace.

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For once there is no wind and the snow is free to cling in thick layers on the littlest of twigs.

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It is a thrill (maybe only to the botanically minded) to see the buds of rhododendrons already. They hold the promise of spring within them and it seems incredible that they can withstand this winter to bloom their vivid red, months and months away. Just hold on, they whisper to me, this too shall pass. But today I am not eager for the season to pass because it is beautiful and calm and strange.

In the garden already intricate scenes crystallise and edges multiply. It reminds me of a visit to the silver vaults in London: curlicue and flourish on filigree limbs packed close and bearing down on you. Here the bite of cold air and views through rescue you from the discomfort of a small space crammed with detail.

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The rock garden is my favourite part of the garden and it is transformed by the soft drifting curves. A jagged mountainscape becoming pillowy, undulating, soft. The skeletons of the alpine plants persist here and there supporting an impossible weight of snow. How can it be so beautiful!?

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It’s time to go home, I haven’t worn these boots since last winter and the heels are rubbing painfully. As a parting shot the sun hauls itself over the far side of the park and lights up whole bodies of trees. This snow was a gift I didn’t expect. It rarely settles here before Christmas, so I’m told. It’s good to feel this rush of affection and to look with fresh eyes on the same old sights because we are leaving soon; a story for another day.

 

 

Foodie Fridays: growing in the far north

It gives us a lot of happiness to watch our plants grow. The windowsill garden is lush now. I’m really surprised how fast everything came up – rocket, mustard, dill, coriander, and chives within days. The parsley hung about and took a week at least; still far quicker than I thought! Then again, the days are getting longer than I’ve ever experienced before. The sun is up around 4 and sets at about 10.30, with light still in the sky a while longer. Our plants are on our bedroom indoor windowsill, between the window and the curtain so they soak up all that light. They’re also advantageously placed over a radiator. In the first week of their little lives it was snowing and cold outside, we had the window open to get air into the room and I feared for them. But with some radiator heat and the overall warmth of our flat (permanently toasty) they did fine.

2017-05-12-06.40.11-1.jpg.jpgAt first they all seemed quite leggy but they don’t look so bad now, maybe as we’ve had some actual sun lately. We are yet to eat them: I think this weekend I will start snipping the rocket. All this grew in three weeks. The basil and tomato we bought as plants, as I thought we wouldn’t be able to grow from seed and get them to fruit before winter sets in, given that we started this tiny plot at the end of April.

This is about food, yet these plants are worth so much more than just their nutritional value. In a city where the trees are straining to open their buds, still, in mid-May: I can see green leaves soon as I wake up. When I stand over them the basil releases its scent first, reminding me of warmth. Having something to look after is a balm for the soul too, telling me in small but profound ways, that my actions matter. The water I give them is gratefully received. I turn the pots sporadically so they grow straighter and stronger. I will learn to care for myself the way I care for others.

2017-05-01-07.00.31-1.jpg.jpgI love the way the chive seeds sprout, sending up one tall limb that holds its own seed aloft; look what I came from. We have so many of each plant that we can conduct experiments, which was half the purpose of growing things here, to learn. Some chives might make it outdoors where our landlady has, to my delight, given over a couple metres squared growing space to us. It’s tucked around the corner so I hadn’t seen it. There’s even two compost bays! I was so gleeful to find out. So, this weekend I hope to have a look at the patch, do some weeding and get things going.

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Japanese giant mustard

When you’re staring at empty pots and full seed packets, when the garden is an idea not a touchable reality, it is so hard to imagine that anything really, truly, grows. And yet, it does. That is a thought I need to take to heart, for the times I fall into a gloom and can’t see past it. Day always follows night. Small seeds turn into plants with fruit and flowers to seeds again. I know this; I lose it, find it, lose it but I know it deep down. I will grow to know it always, I hope.

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Settling

The last seven days has been so busy, my feet ache and I’m just about hanging on, but enjoying the ride. Here follows the week in brief:

Last Thursday was ‘Sumardagurinn fyrsti’, the offical first day of summer here in Iceland. It was snowing. Then the snow cleared and the sun came out. This happened approx every ten minutes throughout the day. Johann had the day off work and we made an expedition to Hveragerði, a village about 45 mins out of the city, where there’s a horticultural school. There was an open day, so we could wander round the glasshouses and buy plants raised organically there. One glasshouse contained Iceland’s largest (and now only, I believe) banana plantation. Yes, really! Warmed by geothermal heat, we walked past steaming pipes running from the ground outside. Indoors I was so excited to see the bananas actually fruiting, oranges hanging from trees, and tropical flowers, all under the shadow of a snowy mountain. I feel like a child at Disneyland going to gardens these days. Always going wow, wow, WOW! 

We were inspired and on our way home stopped at a garden centre, where we bought seeds, soil, and seed trays to start our own windowsill garden. Watching the seeds sprouting and put down roots helps me grow my own roots here. To grow something in a place is to commit to it. And we are so lucky to be watching this game of nature already, the rocket sprouted in 48 hours, now 6 days on we have chives, dill, and mustard too. So exciting. 

At the weekend I attended a course in Nonviolent Communication run by Jack Lehmann. You could also call it empathetic, or compassionate, communication. In brief it’s about learning a way of talking and listening that promotes harmony… In which we learn how to express our feelings and needs, and listen to other people’s feelings and needs, in a way that avoid conflict and allows them to be met. I couldn’t afford the fee and so bartered my skills as an illustrator to record the training visually, whilst also being a participant. It was exhausting. Illuminating. Emotional. Affecting. Funny. I’m going to take some time to process it and will hopefully share more details here soon. My drawings are currently with the course leader, I was gutted to get a migraine on the afternoon of the last day so I left them with him in a hurry. I’ll work on them when I get ’em back. 
So that happened…then I started my new job on Monday! I’m working in the kitchen at Reykjavik Roasters, which is a super nice cafe here that’s very serious about coffee. So far I’ve been learning the ropes (and the recipes) from the guy who’s running it currently before he leaves on Friday. We’ve been toasting granola, making seedy crackers, pesto, fresh almond milk and coconut milk and other delicious things. I’m really enjoying working with food all day and it’s going to be a challenge next week with no-one to tell me what to do, but I’ll learn a lot! Everyone is really friendly and I feel like I’m really settling down in this city now I have a workplace and regular faces to chat to. Also, it’s the best place to learn about coffee. So serious. To a decimal point serious. And we also planted some chive seeds at the end of the day today so soon I’ll be able to raise plants at work too, hurrah!

Still I struggle with the discipline of doing yoga and meditation. Still I know what helps and I don’t do it as often as I should! Tonight I’ll try and practice patience and self-compassion for my mistakes. The perfectionist in me wants this post to say more, for me to delve deeper and try to express the settling feeling of this at last becoming home, but I’m tired and reaching my limit. There’s always next time. I’ll be pleased I even wrote at all. 

I walk home down a hill with a view to Mount Esja, and though the foreground is taken up by a stack of humdrum office buildings and traffic, today I smiled and saw the beauty and the strangeness. Why here? Why now? How did I get here, working in a kitchen in Iceland, I who grew up in England thinking only of making words and pictures, scared of new places, scared of new food? Funny how a dream shifts, percolates* through and settles in the margins. As I grow older it becomes less important to me to forge a primary career as an artist. I find having another occupation is fertile ground for making art, telling stories. I was happy and surprised, once I wavered from the path of studying, practicing, teaching art to find other things I love: food and gardening. Things that fulfil me too. So I smile at the mountain and feel thankful for having got where I am today, standing at a busy crossroads waiting for the clickety-clack of the traffic lights to change and signal I can move forward once again.
 

*Coffee on the brain, clearly