(Click Bjork to launch a slideshow of Iceland photos.)
The clouds in the sky at 2 a.m. looked like whales. They were heavy and momentous in strange orange light, splayed across wowing distances and rounded at the tips of ovoid shapes that seemed to swim as much as hover. The ground below looked rich enough to eat: glow-green moss on crunchy rocks, dirt the color of chocolate cake. It would be a while before my group wound up watching Björk bang a drum in the interest of advocacy, but for now, we were wandering a remote realm where her message didn't need to be uttered to be understood. This was "the environment" doing what it does in Iceland, out on the Golden Circle under the midnight sun.
The occasion was a trip to Reykjavik for Náttúra, a free outdoor concert held last weekend to raise awareness for environmental issues in Iceland and, by extension, everywhere else. The show was the source of much fanfare: Björk had been battling with her homeland's government in high-profile talks leading up to the event, and National Geographic was there to broadcast the show live across the planet on the web. A guy from the Sugarcubes helped organize. Sigur Rós played. The crowd was estimated at 30,000, including old people, kids, reporters, photographers, and the actor who played Tommy Carcetti on The Wire.
The message of the weekend was environmental moderation, and, true to Icelandic form, the tone was more suggestive than coarse. At issue was a complicated paradox. Thanks to its abundance of rushing rivers and geothermal steam, Iceland is home to some of the world's greenest sources of energy. But no thanks to recoiling global markets that have left Iceland's once-booming economy high and dry, those sources of energy are being earmarked and sold to international companies for nefarious uses. (Namely aluminum smelters, which require vast amounts of energy to run, and produce astonishing levels of carbon waste.)
Our guide to the most vexing aspects of the matter was Andri Snær Magnason, the author of a book just published in English with the title Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual For A Frightened Nation. The book has been wildly popular in Iceland since its 2006 publication—it's said to be in one of every five households in the country—and it was a big part of what steeled Björk to action.
Björk hasn't spoken out against Iceland in the past, but her ways have changed so much so that she recently called an Icelandic senator "childish" in a venomous letter published in the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine. Magnason, by contrast, is mild-mannered, an unassuming character with a ready supply of rhetorical questions and self-effacing asides. His modest charm figures into his writing, which juggles reasoned talk of carbon emissions with aspirational ideas for how we might think about living in a world with changing wants and needs. It's a testament to Dreamland that it was always tempting to set aside quiet time to read—even if little else in Reykjavik, at least in a weekend, allows for anything so civil.
Instead, we bounded around a city that churns with more energy than a population of 200,000 would seem fit to breed. After Friday's opening press conference, at which former Sugarcubes rabble-rouser Einar Benediktsson grew teary over his cause, we went to another sanctioned gathering where Magnason showed parts of an in-progress documentary to accompany his book. The film featured a succession of images from Iceland's outlying areas—all dramatic waterfalls and volcanic expanses brushed by a sort of Middle Earth majesty. (J.R.R. Tolkien professed an abiding love for the wilds of Iceland, and Magnason even traced his familial ties to the woman who introduced a young Tolkien to an Icelandic nursery rhyme about an elusive ring.) A curious guy lurking in the crowd talked to anybody he could corner about elves, fairies, and ghosts. Whether such beings are real proved immaterial; of more pressing interest was what the presence of such spirits says about a culture equipped to acknowledge aspects of what can't be seen. The same guy also regaled us with the archaic heritage of devil-horned "rock fingers"—a stock gesture whose two upraised fingers originally conspired to signify the known and the unknown, the darkness and the light.
Björk is just an okay drummer; she basically just makes do when banging on a snare. She had support: The stage she banged on was teeming with other drummers, some of whom rushed out with her from backstage, and others who had been there all the while, dressed like ancients and droogs. The concert on Saturday opened with a hushed set of folk songs by Ólöf Arnalds. By this point, though, Sigur Rós had converted delicacy into something else. It's hard to imagine another place in the world where a big outdoor concert would boast a sound system so adept with tiny xylophones, and then came the guitar: that immense, eerie guitar sound that comes from scraping a bow across strings that fan out into a thousand microtones.
The drum gang accompanied "Gobbledigook," an unusually manic song from Sigur Rós' new album, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (translation: "with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly"). Björk had been hiding in a corner of the stage for a while, singing along with Arnalds' opening songs and bouncing around like an 11-year-old happy to be among friends. When she finally sprang out, the crowd sprang to. What had been an ethereal atmosphere took on a primeval roar.
Björk's own set followed suit. The songs and stage dressing were the same ones she's been using on her tours since her 2007 album Volta, but it was striking to see her so literally at home. The floor in front of her held four thermoses full of elixirs (including one with honey she drank with a spoon), and she never once spoke in anything except Icelandic. She rarely spoke at all, really, which was surprising at an event with such a weighty premise. Instead, she just sang and danced with a big band dressed in Technicolor-nativist garb. Her cheeks quivered when she dug down into certain notes.
The strange thing about Iceland's storied strangeness is how it doesn't appear particularly strange in its own setting. The same goes for any place subject to preconceived notions, of course, but Iceland seems especially aware of its oddities and immune to the ways in which those oddities might be caricaturized. What's weird about it is how routine weirdness proves there, by habit. During the concert, two guys barreled through the crowd carrying a velvet couch to set down on the grass like it was the only reasonable action-plan for an outdoor show. During a bus ride outside of town, Magnason broke from talk about his book to point out a mountain that functions as the "Gateway To Hell."
The talk about his book took similar turns between the pragmatic and the fantastical. The crux of Dreamland is the way governmental and economic thinking runs on a profoundly different track than the kind of thinking that should matter to the affected, which is to say all of us. Announcing the wider availability of Dreamland in English was one of the main causes for the Náttúra concert, and it was easy to understand why Björk and Sigur Rós would take to Magnason when he spoke about getting a book of poetry about supermarkets stocked as an actual product on the shelves of Iceland's Bonus supermarket chain. Such weird conceptualism didn't exactly flow naturally from citations of numbers and figures related to Dreamland's analytic charge, but then, Magnason's brand of analysis seemed to stem from something other than simple number-crunching.
Or maybe it just came from the sun, which never went away the whole time we were there. After the concert, the streets of Reykjavik jumped off with people stumbling wasted to bars at 3 a.m., basking in the sun all around them. At an after-party, the members of Sigur Rós jumped around like they'd been drinking for days. (For a band with such a mum persona, Sigur Rós appeared way more wry and lively than perception would allow.) In line to one of many packed bars later, talk turned from the sun to the way the sun treats Icelandic horses, which by breed are maybe half the size of what count as horses anywhere else.
The way those horses looked out in the open countryside stuck as a take-home image for the whole weekend—the concert, the mood, the talk of environmental hubris handed down to people who don't, by nature, overprivilege their presence against the landscape. The horses look perfectly normal from a distance, but as you crane and grasp for scale, they start to look small to the point of surreality.