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Skaftafell National Park, Iceland

An armadillo-scaled rock that is a close relation of the Giant’s Causeway

Rebecca Willis | Summer 2011

It is the crunching of tectonic plates, not of credit, that makes Iceland so photogenic. As many travellers learnt under the ash cloud last year, it sits on the boundary between the North American and the Eurasian plates. This armadillo-scaled rock at Svartifoss (Black Fall) in Skaftafell National Park is a close relation of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The hexagonal basalt columns formed inside a lava flow which cooled slowly and allowed crystallisation. In geological terms Iceland is very young, still being formed and changed by fire and ice—hence its popularity with human adolescents, who flock here on school field trips to see their textbooks on volcanic activity brought to life (not least in the Geysir after which all other geysers are named).

David Short, who took this picture, feels that Iceland lends itself to photography with its “alien scenery of barren, lunar landscapes, mushrooming, soft rocks covered in heather, and immense, monolithic rock formations”. It also lends itself to supernatural interpretation—Iceland’s population of 320,000 is famously open-minded about the “huldufolk” or invisible people who also live there, in the curiously shaped hills and rocks. These elves, trolls and dwarves have their roots, like the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien, in the Nordic sagas of the 13th century, and must have arisen to make sense of the fantastical landscape. Even today, the Roads Authority has occasion to negotiate with elves, through a medium, if its road-building plans involve the destruction of an elf-dwelling—otherwise the bulldozers have a habit of breaking down. That is why some roads in Iceland take a sudden turn for no obvious reason. When the environment has a personality, it seems to command more respect. Environmental campaigners of the world, take note. 

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