Silence of the land – Iceland and England

Cranham. Foggy nights, but no icy chill. We’ve the window open, and an owl calls on and off through the small hours. And the next night. Distant, and then closer. There’s an almost palpable sense of distance in the silence. Back in west London, the mist closes in, shrouds the last quarter moon, and this time it’s the song of a robin, sustained through the night.

There’s always that background of traffic noise in London. I read recently of an Icelander returning home, and wanting the sound of traffic for company. It gave him reassurance that there were people nearby.  

Iceland is of course a land of supreme quiet, but Reykjavik functions as a thriving city, with traffic noise, rush hours, building sites. (And music, good food, atmosphere, warm welcomes – and high prices!) We escaped three times …. 

To swim in the Blue Lagoon, where the steam and cloud and chill damped down any hubbub.  

To geysers and waterfalls, where a flurry of tourists takes the mind off silence. But not quite – snow shrouded the waterfalls at Gullfoss, and, yes, there were tourists, but we each had our own silence, and I stood and watched the glacier waters smashed into foam by the rocks, and disappear into a chasm in the earth. 

To a hillside a hour’s drive from the city, where on a full-moon night we hoped to see the Northern Lights. The sky was opaque rather than clear, and thicker cloud drifted across too frequently. We failed, no aurora. But I felt the silence of the land, with snow on the mountains, a lake nearby, and the sea beyond, and a sense that nothing separated me from the North Pole, nothing separated me from emptiness. Looking up it seemed as if the sky turning above me was more real than the earth on which I stood. 

With the silence came aloneness. This is what I seek out (not all the time, lest you wonder!), and it’s what others flee from. There must be music all the time, or radio, or voices in the next room. Someone mentioned, and I sympathise, that noise tempers tinnitus.  

Iceland was only settled in the 9th century. Isolated communities of a remarkable sophistication given the circumstances dotted the shores, especially to the west and north. The Norse gods and then the Christian God were omnipresent. Silence would have been, and still is, borne in on the wind and rain and snow. Silence lives within the winter ice and the year-round ice-caps.  

Heimdall (I’m quoting from the Prose Edda) understood silence: 

‘He hears the grass growing on the earth and the wool on sheep…’ 

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