May 15, 2010 | Siglufjörður, Iceland
May 15, 2010

When you are living out in the wild or close to it, with nature all around, it feels good and safe to build a town. Here in Siglufjörður, the most northern town in Iceland, it feels good to have a grocery store, a bakery, a public swimming pool, and power. Especially when the sleet is slamming into your face and the waves are very loud, you are happy to have a warm house to go into.

They are building a tunnel to Ólafsfjörður, the next town, which is on the other side of the mountain, and everyone is very proud of the tunnel, which will open in October. In both towns, they are using local wool to knit a scarf eleven kilometers long, which will be able to stretch precisely from the center of Siglufjörður to the center of Ólafsfjörður, passing through the tunnel.

Towns build tunnels, get malls, add highways, and grow. People move there, and towns become cities. Cities get crowded and people want mountains, so cities ooze into suburbs, and at some point you get New Jersey. Then you think how somewhere in all of that growth the pact of balance between humans and nature got broken. What began as an act of self-preservation became a growth monster, growing only to grow. But it's hard to say exactly when that happened, because that particular line is very hard to see, especially when you are racing toward it, propelled by progress and your own momentum.

A man in Reykjavik saw that I was in Iceland, and he emailed me to say he's been wanting to visit Siglufjörður. His grandfather used to live in Ólafsfjörður, the town on the other side of the mountain, and some 50 years ago in a dark winter snow storm, he climbed over the mountain to come to a dance in Siglufjörður. It was a crazy and dangerous trip — the kind of trip that people don't make anymore — but that was the night he ended up meeting his wife, there at the dance.

We love to build tunnels between places we love, so we can get at them more easily. But once we put a hole in the mountain, we will never climb it again, and the trips through the mountain will never feel as fated as the trips that used to go over it.

Only after closing gaps do we understand that gaps make us love things more, that the distance between things — and the ritual act of closing it — is what makes those things feel sacred.

We trade faith for convenience. When the gaps are gone it is impossible to believe in much, because there is suddenly so much that can be gotten so easily, so how can you possibly choose? Then we become wavering wafflers, too floppy-legged and lazy-eyed ever to imagine standing on a mountain in a snow storm, or standing much for anything in any kind of weather, so instead we pay the toll and take the tunnel.