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Going North

Going North, Reprise - Route 1, Southern Iceland

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Going North, Reprise - Route 1, Southern Iceland

Going South: Deteriorate or decline. This expression is generally thought to allude to two dimensional maps where north is up and south is down. However, among some Native Americans, the term was a euphemism for dying, and possibly this sense led to the present usage.

All great stories are cycles. And a lot of average stories are cycles too actually. That’s why, this Going North adventure, slowly veering its way back to where it all started, has stepped out of the Kuku Van to record, by the graceful stillness of the Southern Icelandic shore, a Reprise of its flag-song, "'Going North”.

Stillness. Scroll down for music.

Stillness. Scroll down for music.

 

The sometimes-passionate songs, slightly chaotic travels and far-too-long sentences are leading these ukuleles back to the starting point of Reykjavik, capital of Iceland. The last steps of the wintry escapade are on a most majestic stretch of the Iceland Route 1.

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So it is stopping to drink from little fresh-water streams by the sea, and stopping to record a reprise of Going North that Ukulele Road Trips drive this trip ‘home’.

 
 

Above the music, and below, the drink break.

Pictured: left: a bridge and a bit of fresh-water, middle: co-pilot and occasional camerawoman of the Icelandic adventure, top-right: the trusted steed and studio-kitchen, the Renault Master Kuku Camper Van

Pictured: left: a bridge and a bit of fresh-water, middle: co-pilot and occasional camerawoman of the Icelandic adventure, top-right: the trusted steed and studio-kitchen, the Renault Master Kuku Camper Van

 

An adventure full of biting frost, snow, uncompromising winds, grey clouds and cheer draws to a close.

An adventure that has proven with great resolve, that even where the clouds are grey, even where the storms are harsh and everything around you is freezing… well, even there, it turns out, it’s really cold actually.

Closeup of a snow flake on my tenor uke drawn by an art student in Reykjavik.

Closeup of a snow flake on my tenor uke drawn by an art student in Reykjavik.

 

This crazy driving singing cooking Going North adventure was made possible with the help of CloudMusic ukuleles (feature three times in the video above!) and the crazy (crazy nice) people from Kuku Campers. Thanks to them. And to you for following the adventure!

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The Northern Lights - Öxi Road, Iceland

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The Northern Lights - Öxi Road, Iceland

Aurora Borealis: Lat. litt. the dawn of the (Going) North

 
 
 

Despite chasing Giants and hot springs on your Icelandic Road Trip, it is possible you may be surprised one quiet night by a different kind of sight. A sight which many visitors eagerly look forward to on this island.

Unexpectedly peering through the sky as you take a break outside from the late-night drive, 3 a.m. in the middle of nowhere, unannounced, they might just grace your adventure: the Northern Lights.

“What’s that light above the mountains there?”

“What’s that light above the mountains there?”

 

A fascinating dance of colours, a mystical display of flickering beauty, a graceful and inspiring stream of celestial photonic melodies,…

… none of those thoughts pass through my mind.

In the complete silence of a deserted gravel road, surrounded by mountains, I’m trying to understand what on Earth is happening. I only went out for a stretch. And in the dead of night, the sky is becoming lively.

“Oh! Wouo. What?”

“Oh! Wouo. What?”

 

The reason why an adventurer such as yourself may be taken aback under this rare blanket of light, is that it looks nothing like what you’d expect.

The tourist brochures have been lying to us! So drawing from my extremely limited experience, a few things need debunking, I find.

NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT

THEY FLICKER

First off, they’re not still. They’re not like on the brochures. Which I understand cannot flicker. But these Northern Lights certainly do. The sky, in parts, flares up in flashes, light spreading across the canopy of night and stars. These travel like waves, conveyed by heart-beat, sending pulsating clarity to glide over the stillest landscape.

In other parts, the lights move like a cloud, slowly morphing, expanding or retracting. All this with a hint of fragility, as they can then disappear without the slightest notice.

NOT THAT NOISY

That one’s on me for subconsciously imagining a dancing sky would be accompanied by ‘swooshes’ ‘whoooshes’ and ‘vvvvvoooms’. They’re not. They’re really not. Transfixed by the eeriness above, the only sound you’ll hear for miles around, is your own boots on the gravel of the sleeping road. Crunch. Crunch crunch crunch. Crunch. And nothing more than silence.

THEY DON’T LOOK LIKE THIS:

Looks at camera’s screen. ”Whut?”

Looks at camera’s screen. ”Whut?”

 

They don’t look green. There’s a huge difference between how we’re used to seeing them in Instagram or on “Come See cool Iceland Stuff in a Packed Bus” brochures, and how they actually look.

That’s because the cells in our eyes that can detect fainter light (Rod cells) aren’t so good with colour, and the Aurora Borealis-es actually end up looking… GREY !

But (good) cameras pick up colours that we don’t see. Add to that the habit of Instagram and of the brochures to really up the saturation and contrast settings on their pictures after they’ve been taken, and you’ll see there really is a gap between what we’re ‘shown’, and what we ‘see’. A little example with my blurry picture:

My Instagram post with the caption  “OMG Northern Lights so so green #beautiful”

My Instagram post with the caption “OMG Northern Lights so so green #beautiful”

What human eyes actually see. Also #beautiful.

What human eyes actually see. Also #beautiful.

At no point did I see green, blue, or see la vie en rose literally. However this may vary. If the sky is charged with colours enough that the bits in your head that see colour get switched on (that’s the eyes’ cone cells), then you may see certain colours with the Aurora. I guess. Not that I’ve seen it. An Icelandic lady who sold me postcards told me she saw purple ones a couple of times. That’s as reliable as my sources get.

So they’re grey. But, also maybe, colourful, if 1. you’re really really lucky 2. if you modify your memories through exposure to the souvenir photos you’ve taken 3. if you develop the ability to see beyond the usual spectrum of human eyes, like superman.

But why do they happen ? Why do the Northern Lights happen?

Ben’s BIT OF SCIENCE

We live on a planet called “Earth”. Lots of very exciting things are happening there, a few of which, I’ve tried to illustrate here.

Click on the picture to see all these exciting things close up

 

Our planet waltzes around everyone’s favourite star: the Sun! It’s quite hot.

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The Sun’s so hot, it goes on 365 dates a year with the Earth (badum tish). And it explodes a lot. And sends deadly solar wind our way at the end of the meal.

But our planet’s pretty hot too! Inside it, there’s some molten (melted) iron in constant fusion! Hot.

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Luckily for life, giant Eagles and musical adventures, this molten (red hot) iron creates a magnetic shield. A bit like a ukulele bag for when it’s snowing. And this enables us to stay alive. Which is quite handy.

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However, the shield is weaker at the magnetic poles (top and bottom of Home).

Meaning the sun’s radioactive storms -ions and electrons shooting through space- can sort of get through a bit over there as you get closer to the North and South end bits.

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As the sunny electrons fizz (silently) into our atmosphere, they rub and tango with molecules in the air (oxygen and nitrogen). The air’s molecules, rattled by the dance, then have to relieve the extra energy by emitting photons. Which we call light! The type of light emitted by the molecules varies according to altitude and ratio of gases present, and these variables are behind the different colours of the Aurora… that your camera can see.

If all this happens in the Northern bit of the planet, these photons then hit the rods (and if they’re lucky, maybe the cones too) at the back of the eyes of an adventurer or two, who then exclaim “Oh! Wow, I think it’s the Northern Lights!”

That is where the famous expression “Hit the rods, Jack” comes from.

A wave of Light. The Silent Sky, just like it seemed to me, as it hit the rods

A wave of Light. The Silent Sky, just like it seemed to me, as it hit the rods

 

The Aurora Borealis, are, subjectively, fascinating to experience, but not necessarily for the (colourful) reasons they are such a sought-after sight. Rather than a dazzling dance of colours, they are a touching tribute to how little we know, or notice, about our everyday reality.

The particles shooting above Iceland, are shooting all across the solar system and beyond, every single second. We are also unknowingly bombarded by millions of particles, wherever we are sat or standing, whatever we are doing, despite the magnetosphere. It’s just that comparatively with how much is happening, our sense of sight operates on a pretty limited range.

And seeing the sky flicker, standing underneath thousand of stars a late night in Iceland is, most of all, an inspiring reminder to how much unseen drama is actually going on everywhere, always.

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Imagine if I had a really good camera ? This article would have been amazin’. The drawings are top shelf though.

Thanks a lot for reading. Btw, scribbled in the top shelf drawings, are references to 6 Going North other destinations and songs. Do you recognise any of them ? Do tell #sayinthecomments #drawin-skillz

This lucky adventure of light and sound is propelled by Kuku campers, the nicest peoples with vans and cars that you can rent, and CloudMusic Ukuleles, whose hearty ukuleles I strum along the cold adventure. But not during Northern Lights. I just look when those happen.

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Hraesvelg and the Ash - Eyjafjörður, Iceland

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Hraesvelg and the Ash - Eyjafjörður, Iceland

 
 
 

King Gylfi, still disguised as Gangleri, persists in his efforts. He aims to obtain as much information from the great Trinity of Gods as his trickery can muster. It's not everyday you get to chat with the masters of the cosmos (High, Just-as-High, and Third in case you forgot).

High, Just-As-High, & Third ( Hár, Jafnhár, & Þriði ) and Gangleri, deep in conversation (Icelandic comic strip, XVIIIth c.)

High, Just-As-High, & Third (Hár, Jafnhár, & Þriði) and Gangleri, deep in conversation (Icelandic comic strip, XVIIIth c.)

 

After hearing about the universe and creation, Gangleri finally asks a question on the lips of all travellers having braved the harsh Icelandic elements.

Whence comes the wind? It is so strong that it whips the great oceans and stirs up fire. But as strong as it is, no one can see it. It is so wondrously made.

'The Wind! Sometimes it's there, sometimes not. Where does it come from?' Gangleri scratches beard ponderously

'The Wind! Sometimes it's there, sometimes not. Where does it come from?' Gangleri scratches beard ponderously

 

Then High answered 'That I can tell you well. At the far Northern end of Heaven, sits a Giant named Hraesvelg. He is clad in eagle's feathers. And when he beats his wings to take flight, the winds arise from under them. (The Prose Edda 18.)

 
 

And so, from the northernmost part of the cosmos, Hraesvelg, 'who knows many things', sends gusts of wind rushing onto the bare Icelandic mountains. Carving the landscape even as did the sons of Bor. 

"Hraesvelg, he is called,

who sits at Heaven's End

a Giant in Eagle's shape.

From his wings it is said, the Winds

blow over all men"

(The Sybil's Prophecy. 37)

Rare stillness. A gift from the Giant in Eagle's shape

Rare stillness. A gift from the Giant in Eagle's shape

 

However, the Scandinavian scriptures tell us, Hraesvelg is not alone on the edge of the universe (which, as everyone knows, is a big tree). Between his eyes rests a hawk, Veðrfölnir, 'wind-bleached' clear and bright. Not to be confused with Odin's ravens discussed in the podcast...

And one shouldn't imagine that the feathered friends are undisturbed...

The cosmos-tree Yggdrasil leads with its roots down to three planes: the divine one, the one where matter was formed, and the evil one (respectively Æsir, 'where Ginnungagap used to be', and Niflheim). And underneath the lowest root, there where serpents abide, the monster Nidhogg gnaws at Yggdrasil. Meaning, he's biting the roots of it. Which is most probably very unpleasant for the Tree.

Munch, munch...

Munch, munch...

 

Between this lowest plane where the munching goes on, and heaven's end, a squirrelRatatosk is up to all kinds of mischief. He carries 'gossip and insults' between our winged giant and the evil monster. Yes, really. A gossiping squirrel. But to be fair to him, older sources than the very recent Prose Edda (XIIIth c.) state simply that:

'Ratatosk is the squirrel who there shall run, On the ash-tree Yggdrasil; From above the words of the eagle he bears, And tells them to Nidhogg beneath.' (Grímnismál - Poetic Edda)

Which is more straightforward and less controversial for our little friend.

In the midst of the branches, four stags rummage around 'devouring the tree's foliage'. But hey. Stags do what stags do. It's a stag's dues. There's  no stag don'ts. Just ... yes you got it. And the lads are: Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór.

See if you can identify this merry band of beasts...

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Although, actually, the god 'High' is frustratingly unclear about one point: whether Hraesvelg is that same eagle, or, if a separate eagle, non-wind-related, sits up there with a hawk between his eyes. Which would mean there would be two. So a total of four eagle wings. And lots more feathers.

This is up for debate amongst animal-scholars, and I'm just glad I got to bring up the squirrel.

Surely wider concepts hide here in the branches of Yggdrasil. Do you see in it the cosmos, a metaphor for the body, or an Scandinavian's very creative prose?

Interestingly, this representation may have been on a Road Trip of its own. These concepts seem to echo Euro-Asian mythology (see the eagle Garuda who triumphs over serpents, or also the serpent-like kundalini, both from the Hindu faith) and may have been influenced by it, as well as by Christian imagery, say the above-mentioned scholars. The disrupting serpent-beast Nidhogg resonates quite well also with the one who tempted Adam and Eve to fall out of Heaven. Food for thought no doubt. 

All in all, noble creatures and restless beasts, grace, threaten and defend the great tree of life Yggdrasil. But, it is near impossible to picture any of it being the truth behind our reality, when faced with the calm beauty of an early evening by the fjords of Eyjafjörður.

Calmness still spread over the Eyjafjörður

Calmness still spread over the Eyjafjörður

 

Thanks for reading/viewing! If you've made this far, do drop a comment! It's fantastic to know when (if?) someone actually makes it through the whole thing. May Hraesvelg's mighty winds arrive to you as light guiding breezes.

The drawings in this post are from the manuscripts here (XVIIIth c.) and here (XVIIth c.). Feel free to click ahead and practice ye olde Icelandic.

This musical adventure through Iceland is made possible with the participation of the lovely and crazy people at awesome Kuku Campers, and with the participation of CloudMusic Ukuleles, which are the ukes you see me wandering and musing with here on the island!

The edge of the Fjord and a view on the bridge leading to Akureyri

The edge of the Fjord and a view on the bridge leading to Akureyri

 

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