Eleanor M Harris: Ecological green shoots grow in desert Iceland

Birch trees at Lake Lagarfljot, near Egilsstaoir, Iceland. Picture: Olaf Kruger.
Birch trees at Lake Lagarfljot, near Egilsstaoir, Iceland. Picture: Olaf Kruger.
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Three cars pass our minibus at the T-junction. “A ­traffic jam!” shouts Bryndìs. “We’ll be stuck for literally seconds!”

It’s been like this all week for the Scots in the back: a ­geyser of ironic, self-deprecating Icelandic humour.

“They called us ‘indigenous peoples’,” said Bryndìs of one international group interested in SKASS, the archaeological organisation founded by Bryndìs and her sister Gurný. “The Skavurer Church and Settlement Survey. Skass in Icelandic means a very bossy woman. Bloody tourists. This soup? This is those tourists we saw here yesterday.”

We were learning ancient turf-building ­techniques once practised in Scotland, cutting squelchy blocks, and locking them into walls with method and improvisation, “like soggy Lego,” someone said. Over time, the grass will grow through the wall, binding it into the landscape. Icelandic farms were built from little turf rooms connected by cosy tunnels for people, stores, livestock and sagas.

But, unexpectedly, I was ­fascinated by the trees.

I hadn’t expected to see any, remembering bleak treeless childhood holidays in Lewis and Orkney. Iceland, like them, and most of Britain, was anciently deforested.

That’s why Vikings stopped building gas-guzzling longhouses in favour of modular, super-insulated hobbit-holes, heated by the lives inside. Everything inside was wood: beams, panelling, box-beds, utensils, bookcases; traditionally all made from treasured driftwood.

In modern Iceland there are trees everywhere: birch regeneration on lava fields, sweet-smelling poplars in Reykjavik, also planted as timber, along with conifers.

Bryndís pointed out where trees were being used to reclaim land, in a vast desert where the topsoil had blown away: a terrifying warning that could tip deforested islands, like Easter Island, over the ecological edge.

A forestry colleague back home told me the joke: “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up!”

I thought I’d be left at that, with some jokes, impressions and fuzzy minibus photos. But I happened to meet a man from the Icelandic ­forestry service. With an elfish, self-deprecating irony, Adalsteinn told me the same joke. “But it’s only in the east it’s short,” he added. “In the west, it grows like a Scottish birch wood. We don’t know why.”

I went into forester-researcher mode, quizzing him about species, subsidies, regulations, public attitudes, what timber would be used for.

British foresters and environmentalists often look to Sweden or Slovakia for inspiration. But their management techniques for large, ancient forests won’t apply to our new-looking plantations for centuries.

We have wisdom of our own to build on – 18th century East India Company botanists realised that St Helena would lose its fresh water unless deforestation was halted, initiating some of the earliest ecosystem policymaking.

Retimbering deforested islands is its own special thing. Perhaps, as with turf-building, we should share our own wisdom more – joining green dots around the world.

Eleanor M Harris is a policy researcher at Confor – promoting forestry and wood.