Friday, July 24, 2015

No Man is an Island: Lessons Learned in the Land of Fire and Ice

                                                        My mother and I hiking in Iceland. 

As many of you may know, our family went to Iceland for two full weeks this summer. It was an amazing trip for multiple reasons: we were all together after two years enjoying 22 hours of daylight, hiking, fishing, and losing count of all the waterfalls we saw each day.

But perhaps the most meaningful part of the trip was getting to better understand my roots. My grandfather is actually Icelandic, and his grandfather, Elias Eggertson, was one of the thousands of Icelanders who left their homeland for a better life in Nova Scotia and North Dakota. I have felt some connection to the country after helping my grandfather assemble our Icelandic family history almost seven years ago. Growing up in the American Midwest, Iceland held sort of an exoticism to me, as I tried to imagine an island nation clustered with glaciers, volcanic formations, and bizarre hours of sunlight. At the same time, Iceland also seemed like an enigma with its cumbersome language and a relatively insular past that had rarely come up in my history and politics classes in school. In short, it was a country that rarely intersected with my consciousness.

So, when I traveled to Iceland, I expected to have a similar experience as when I had traveled to destinations in Europe and Asia. I was excited to soak in a foreigner's experience, and visit the spas, eat fresh seafood, hike, and swim in the naturally heated pools. I wasn't disappointed. What shocked me the most, however, were its small moments of familiarity.

I had never realized, for example, how Icelandic my mother actually looks, until I saw the other Icelandic women. We couldn't help but chuckle as tourists would tap my mother for directions, assuming that with her high cheekbones and Icelandic sweater, she was a native. They were half-right. One of my younger brothers  suddenly seemed to blend in with the rest of the blonde-haired and blue-eyed Icelandic boys. The nagging question he had always wondered about which side of the family he looked like, had finally been answered.

As most people agree that I look like my mother, I started to wonder how Icelandic I looked. But after a while, I then started to wonder what else I may have actually inherited from my Icelandic heritage:

Do I love seafood because my ancestors fished for hundreds of years in the Arctic Sea?
Can my literary interests be partially attributed to my ancestors who told stories, read, and wrote poetry during the long stretches of winter darkness?
Did I inherit my occasional lack of patience from my Viking forefathers who were reputed for their hot tempers?
Do I prefer cold weather over hot because my ancestors learned to survive and acclimate to arctic temperatures?

Maybe some of these answers are yes, and some are no. Maybe it doesn't really matter. But whatever I did inherit, I did leave Iceland hoping that I possessed--or could hope to claim--some aspects of my heritage. When visiting the northwestern region where our ancestors lived, a sense of wonder and astonishment came to me as I surveyed the treeless land in front of me with the foreboding fjords, glaciers, and rocky cliffs. How could communities have lived in a land like this that seemed so inhabitable? I wondered. Millions of questions came to me: How did they stay warm without trees for firewood? Where are all the large animals that they could have hunted? How did they farm with abundant rocks and snow on the ground? And the ultimate: how did they survive in 18-22 hours of darkness for six months of the year?

                                                        Elias Eggertson's birthplace. Foss, located in the Westfjotds, Iceland

As I visited the birthplace of Elias Eggertson, my ancestor who was responsible for transferring my Icelandic roots to the United States, John Donne's words immediately came to mind:

No man is an island  
Entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent 
A part of the main.

The spirit of the Puritan work ethic, while making its mark on our American perspective, nonetheless remains myopic and inadequate on many levels. Of course, I have worked hard to gain the opportunities that I have been given. And yet, I owe something to the men who bravely climbed down 500 ft cliffs to snatch eggs from puffin nests. Or the women whose weary fingers and dimming eyes knit sweaters from sheep wool during the long, dark winter nights. And of course, I am partially here due to my ancestors' intense uptra (a longing for a distant scene) that made them leave their homeland for the unknown. As I stared at my ancestors' birthplace, it suddenly occurred to me that he, a ship captain by trade who had grown up by the sea and waterfalls his whole life, never saw the ocean again when he emigrated. How much he must have missed the water landscape, as he re-branded himself as a farmer in North Dakota.

No matter how many years ago these events occurred, a piece of this nation has made an etching on my soul. And I am glad that it does. I don't know if I have the same kind of hardy, rugged spirit that they did, but I hope I do. I'm sure there is an inner spark of their grit and determination somewhere that I can claim for myself as I navigate my own world and the unknown paths I currently face.