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The Library of Water

  • By Michael Barron
  • Issue 12
  • Shelf LifeSeptember 2015

“I don’t suffer midwinter depression from the lack of light,” says Guðmundur Lárusson. “That’s doubtless been bred out of me, the way anything can be bred out of people. I might not be a barrel of laughs in the winter but I don’t get sad either. Still, I always keep an ear to the weather.”

These words could open an Icelandic saga; instead they are the overture to a weather report. Lárusson, a former fishing boat skipper, is one of the hundred or so Icelandic citizens whose memories of the weather have been documented and archived at Vatnasafn, also known as the Library of Water. Conceived by the American artist and writer Roni Horn, the library houses a learning center dedicated to the island’s relationship with its volatile landscape. Perched upon a hilltop two hours north of Reykjavík, the library resembles a lighthouse, with arched windows facing out to the Breida Fjord and its litter of islands. The panoramic view takes in Flatey Island where The Flatey Book, the largest medieval Icelandic manuscript, was written. A monastery on that island reputedly kept Iceland’s first printing press.

Iceland, which boasts nearly universal literacy, is a country ideally placed to nurture a meteorological literature. According to a recent study, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. The island is also geothermally hyper-active. The sun stays aloft throughout the summer, slowly sinking from the Solstice toward the horizon to hibernate for the rest of the year. Only the moon and the aurora borealis illuminate Iceland’s sky during the winter, when conditions are so harsh that the highlands become impassable. Flipping through the reports in the library’s small study room, one reads of a policeman watching the wind buffet a jeep; a teacher inching a bus full of school children through a storm; sheep merrily grazing during a blizzard.

Collected in the library’s main gallery are large glass vitrines filled with the melted ice of twenty-four Icelandic glaciers—some pure and transparent, others dark with volcanic sediment. One column contains water from a notable glacier that lies just down the coast from Stykkisholmer—Snaekfellsjokull, or Snowfell Glacier, which looms over Western Iceland and has inspired writers since Iceland was first inhabited. Snowfell is the only glacier to have its own saga, the Bárðar saga Snaekfellsjokull. Since then, it has also featured in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, as the mountain entered by Professor Lindenbock along with his nephew Axel and their guide Hans, and Under the Glacier by Haldor Laxness, Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate. On a clear day, Snowfell can be seen from Reykjavík — for now at least.

Adjectives in both Icelandic and English are painted on the library's vulcanized rubber floor, words used to describe the weather and landscape: tranquil, glowing, perilous, gluggaveður—the last unique to the Icelandic lexicon, literally “window-weather” that is pleasant to look at but not to experience. Walking around the space, I recalled my own extraordinary weather stories, the incidents I witnessed during Hurricane Sandy in New York: the antique carousel in Dumbo, Brooklyn, seemingly spun by the overflowing East River, the construction crane dangling perilously from a skyscraper. I walked with a friend through depowered Manhattan and discovered a bar serving bottles of beer by candle light.

“I imagine the weather reports of Laramie, Palermo, Hudson Bay, Gorky, Lake Baikal, Timbuktu and so on,” writes Horn in Weather Reports You, an anthology published by the library. “Iceland is only a starting point.” Perhaps Vatnasafn will be just one of the many depositories for our bariscopic testimonies, places to house the kinds of stories that might otherwise drift away like a passing storm.

Photos of the Library of Water by A. Burger. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth