Visitors to Iceland seem to have no interest in the island’s forests. Instead, they delight in the volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs and a midge-mobbed lake called Mývatn. Trees simply get in the way of the view. Not only that, but as a woman from Los Angeles told me, “Hey, I can see all the trees I want back home.” Yet if a glacier or active volcano would be considered exotic in southern California, then a forest ought to be considered exotic in Iceland.
This was not always so. At the time of Settlement, perhaps as much as 40% of the island was covered by birch forests. But the Norse settlers brought cattle and sheep, and it’s quite a bit easier to graze such animals on open land than among trees. So, down went the trees. Within 50 or so years, the island was almost totally deforested. And given Iceland’s volcanic and porous soil, erosion set in. More and more erosion. By the 20th century, the result was a wasteland—a photogenic wasteland, it’s true, but still a wasteland.
However, due to planting and a less prejudicial attitude toward trees among farmers, Iceland is slowly but surely gaining back its forests. “I used to say that if the forest cover reached two percent before I died, I would die happy,” Þröstur Eysteinsson, Director of the Icelandic Forest Service (Skógrækt ríkisins), told me. It’s almost at two percent now, and he is already happy.
That old joke about Icelandic forests
Þröstur and I were wandering through the island’s oldest forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur (“Hallormsstaður forest”) in East Iceland, near Egilsstaðir. Contrary to my purposefully erroneous title, an attempt to snatch the volcano and/or glacier-craving reader’s attention, the trees in this forest were not giant redwoods, but they were the Icelandic equivalent—eighteen-metre-high downy birch (Betula pubescens). Veritable dwarves compared to redwoods, but at least they’ve retired the perennial joke that asks the question: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Answer: Stand up. Nowadays even a giraffe could stand up and not get out of the Hallormsstaðir forest.
I saw trees that were nearly 200 years old and looked so gnarly and withered that they might have been 1,000 years old. Yet “gnarly” and “withered” are typical features of Betula pubescens even in its pubescent state. If the trees had been straight and firm, something doubtless would have been wrong with them.
It was easy to see why Icelandic farmers used to hate forests. Whenever Þröstur and I left the trail and bushwhacked, we found ourselves in an entanglement of branches that seemed eager to reach out and grab us. Not much fun if you’re trying to round up sheep. I also discovered a previously undocumented feature of Icelandic birch forests—they possess a growth habit that specializes in untying shoelaces.
In and around the Hallormsstaðir forest, I saw plantings of non-native trees. Here was a grove of Siberian larch, and here were several Alaskan lodgepole pines. Here was a Norway spruce, and here was a Sitka spruce. Here was a Scots pine. Some of these trees seemed to be doing very well, but others looked like they wanted to haul up their roots and go home. A particularly sorry-looking Scots pine seemed to be looking at me and saying, “Would ye take me back to the Highlands, laddie?”
In Iceland, the activity of planting is trial and error, Þröstur said. For while a boreal forest tree has evolved to tolerate cold winters and warm summers in its homeland, here it would have to grow accustomed to warmer winters and cooler summers, along with strong winds. For many trees, this is not as easy as it seems…
I brought up the controversial subject of introducing non-native species. Þröstur smiled. “After the devastation done by agriculture on the Icelandic landscape, can a few larch trees from Siberia be considered bad?” He added that the understory plants associated with larch are more or less the same as those associated with Betula pubescens, which means that larch, although a non-native tree, behaves exactly like a native one here.
Falling on banksters
We ended up in a part of the forest next to the ring road, whereupon Þröstur recited the well-known poem “Hríslan og lækurinn” (“The Birch Tree And The Stream”) by the nineteenth century poet Páll Ólafsson. In the poem, the poet envisions himself as a stream into which a nearby birch tree is dropping its leaves and, by doing so, caressing him. Þröstur pointed to a particularly gnarly birch—the very tree that had been caressing the poet 150 years ago! Only a few feet away, cars and tour buses were roaring by, their occupants oblivious to perhaps Iceland’s most famous tree.
Once upon a time the island’s forests were dispatched even before they reached middle age. Not anymore. Except for occasional pruning and thinning, the trees in those forests are now becoming mature and, with maturity, they’ll end up experiencing a natural death.
“A tree has never fallen on a person and killed him in Iceland,” Þröstur told me, “but I have high hopes that this will happen in the not too distant future, preferably falling on a bankster…” There was a big grin on his face.
The author would like to express his thanks to Hótel Hallormsstaður and the Guesthouse Egilsstaðir for offering him accommodation during his exploration of the nearby forests. Book by email or phone (+354) 471-1114
Flights to Egilsstaðir provided by Air Iceland, book flights online or call (+354) 570-3000.