Smoke and Security: About Those Vikings….

A downside to freelancing (“self-employment” in the happy words of government agencies) is that the celebrated U.S. tax refund is slightly rarer than a UFO sighting: the independent contractor almost always owes money. So I emerged yesterday after a week of mathematical gymnastics, tedious typing, and resigned check writing to put my imposed self-absorption behind me and see what is going on in the rest of the world.

To say that I found smoke and ashes is not to present an apocalyptic scenario straight out of a science fiction movie, but to state a fact.

For starters, I came into a cloud of smoke in my own front yard. Fearful that my father had recovered his penchant for plugging outdoor power tools into 1970s extension cords, I stomped accusingly around the property in search of the flaming weed whacker or trimmer. But my neighbor – similarly confounded by the presence of burning somewhere in the area – assured me the condition was not senior-citizen-created but applied to the whole neighborhood. He had driven into it when he returned from work.

Thus, two healthy adults conversed on a highly unusual phenomenon in their own area, then went their separate ways – not to investigate it personally, but to look it up on the Internet and see if the local news had anything to say about it.

"The Viking Explorers" and "Are We Lost, Daddy?" - best read together

It didn’t. Hence, we have no idea what that was about.

Ironically, in this behavior we were not radically different from good old Bjarni Herjólfsson, who is said by some to be the first Viking explorer to sight North America (ca. 990). As told in the Icelandic Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni set out from Norway to spend the summer with his father in Iceland. Upon finding his father had moved with Erik the Red to Greenland, he proceeded to follow him, but got lost in Atlantic storms and fog. He and his crew sighted land several times, but since it didn’t match the description of Greenland, Bjarni kept them sailing until they hit something that did.

It took about 15 years for word of Bjarni’s sightings to get around and capture the attention of a certain Leif Eriksson, who set off west around 1000 and became, by all accounts, the first European to set foot on North American soil, up in Canada. (I recommend Tony Horowitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America for a well-researched account of this and other early American discoveries, particularly in light of Texas’s re-scripting of U.S. history – which may yet produce the incredible revelation that the apostle Paul of Tarsus discovered America.)

Bjarni himself was no more bothered by the peculiar lands that he sighted than my neighbor and I were about strange smoke clouds hovering over our lawns. We all seem to have shared roughly the same attitude: curious, but it’s not directly pertinent to what we’re doing, so after a cursory inspection we’ll let it lie. As my father often notes (usually with regard to junk that I want to throw out), “It’s not hurting anyone.”

The big cloud of ash and smoke over Iceland – and, now, much of northern Europe – is, of course, causing rather more trouble. The resulting problems extend from serious ones with air traffic to more entertaining ones, such as American reporters’ attempts to pronounce the fantastic-sounding name Eyjafjallajökull. This remarkable volcano – the word translates as “island-mountains glacier” – has lately resumed its eruptions after roughly 190 years, taking rather longer to get around to it than Bjarni took to mention some strange lands off to the west, or than I did on my tax forms for the federal, state, and city governments.

Eyjafjallajökull in more peaceful times in 2003. Photo by Andreas Tille, accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

I like volcanoes. I don’t feel like such a procrastinator around them.

As a result of the spectacular transformation of this part of the Icelandic landscape from a peaceful glacier to a belching plume of dust particles and molten glass, airports have grounded flights all over Europe. London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Oslo’s Gardermoen, and Stockholm’s Arlanda airports are four that I have haunted, however briefly, and that now are unwillingly inhabited by weary, bored, anxious travelers – and closed to their respective countries’ politicians, financiers, and voyaging business elites.

The latter is, perhaps, another reason to like volcanoes. And some residents around Heathrow, at least, are looking forward to a bit of quiet time in an otherwise noisy life.

While politicians such as Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg reassure their country that they can run it via an iPad and the Internet (I’m not sure what that says about either the country or the prime minister), and while the airline industry and various businesses measure the financial impact of the ongoing travel chaos, it is Iceland itself that, for the moment, seems likely to suffer the most. And looking to Iceland leads me to consider a truly fascinating phenomenon.

How can a country with a population of 320,000 have so much impact on the rest of us – and so much internal drama? From the collapse of three national banks in 2008 to the end of the coalition government in 2009 and present overwhelming economic concerns, Iceland’s financial crisis has figured front and center in European economic and other news. Now, their volcano is impacting on individuals and businesses all around the globe.

Icelanders are wondering about some of that themselves. Bloomberg’s Business Week online quotes sales clerk Gunnar Sigurdsson in Reykjavik as saying, “I sometimes get the feeling Iceland is being punished.” Though more philosophical, Icelandic journalist Iris Erlingsdotter similarly wrote, in her blog for the Huffington Post, “Perhaps it is part of our national character to ignore potential dangers until it’s too late.” In other words: the volcano’s not hurting anyone.

John Donne

I disagree that it’s part of Iceland’s national character to take this attitude toward possible problems. It’s an aspect of human nature that may go back as far as the species does. We find testimony of this in repeated reminders by poets and philosophers over the centuries.

One of the best known is “No man is an island, entire of itself,” which the English Jacobean poet and preacher John Donne wrote in his Meditation XVII. Financial crises, volcanic eruptions, even strange smoke over a front yard serve to break through our narcissism and remind us that other people and natural forces are out there; we are not always in control.

Not even on an iPad. (Just wait until Apple yanks the prime minister’s apps.)

The driving question that haunts the American psyche is, how curious about these disruptions should we be? (Americans are very into “should.” It’s a revealing use of language.) By Bjarni Herjólfsson’s, and my own, and my neighbor’s standards, “not very curious” produced no great losses. And this may be helpful to consider. It is not always necessary, or even helpful, to expend energy on certain situations.

On the other hand, Leif Eriksson benefited from being more curious. So might a great many local government authorities, in the UK, Norway, and here in America, while the Icelandic banks and Wall Street firms were carrying on merrily in the middle of the past decade. This speculation also has to figure into the equation.

On the whole, I’d say that curiosity is preferable. I have never noticed that curiosity actually killed any cats. I have noticed that it stopped illegal and harmful activities, set in place good safety measures that we now take for granted, and produced a great many medical, technological, and other scientific developments on which we now rely.

Besides, it irks me still that I don’t know what that smoke was over the yard.