Arizona and Iceland

susanwrites asks: Arizona and Iceland. You live in one of the hottest places in the US and appear to love it there and yet I know that Iceland also holds a giant piece of your heart. Can you connect the dots for me?

Heh. The short answer is, I’ve been trying to figure this one out myself. One could argue I wrote an entire book to figure out how two such different places could be among the most compelling places on earth for me, and wound up no closer to an answer at the end than when I started.

I do know that the warm weather was never part of the appeal of the Sonoran Desert for me–I fell in love with the mountains and the huge sky and the deep desert silences, and the heat was more like the price I had to pay in order to be near the desert things I did love. I’ve come to find the heat compelling too, in a strange way, but that took more time, and it’s still not one of my favorite things about living here–and every winter, I still hold out hope for desert snow. So I love the desert, but I don’t hate cold weather, the way many who move here do. (Though of course, I’ve only been to Iceland in summer–I can’t know for sure how I would feel if I went there in winter–though given that the winters actually aren’t all that cold, I suspect the long hours of darkness would be the real challenge for me–especially since the desert light is part of what I love about Tucson, too.)

I think part of finding both places compelling has to do with both the Southern Arizona and Iceland being edge environments–too harsh for lush forests (though actually, Iceland did have forests once),both the sorts of places where if the environment were just a little bit harsher, maybe things wouldn’t manage to live and grow there after all. There’s something about edge environments that pulls on me … something about the way the land is laid a little more bare that makes me just a little more aware of it, maybe. (Looking back, it turns out I talked a bit about both places being edge environments here, too.) Southern Arizona and Iceland are both places where the environment is very present.

I do remember the specific moments I felt both Southern Arizona and Iceland’s landscapes get a hold on me. In both places, my first instinct was to feel a little like I’d landed in an alien place that, while objectively beautiful, wasn’t a place where I could ever feel at ease. In Tucson, that changed the first time I left the city and went hiking in Bear Canyon–in a couple hours, with the trail beneath my feet and the rocks all around me, Southern Arizona went from being a place I was trying to convince myself I could live if I had to being a place I very actively wanted to live. On that hike I got my desert eyes, and the desert went from seeming brown and dead (I can’t even understand how I saw it that way now) to being … stunning.

By the time I visited Iceland the first time, I no longer required lush green trees for a place to be beautiful, partly because of living in Tucson. I found the land beautiful from the start, but even so something shifted for me when I visited Þingvellir, the rift valley where Iceland’s Alþingi, or parliament, used to meet. Walking between rock walls that looked like you could almost see how they’d fit together once, before the land pulled apart; seeing cracks beneath my feet where the land was shifting still–I knew, beyond doubting, that I walked in a place of power. Until this time, I didn’t even really believe in places of power (though later, I would think of my visits to the Cahokia Mounds, and know I’d felt that sort of power once before). Even then, I don’t know that I fully realized that the land had gotten a hold on me until after I’d left, and found myself literally having (sleeping) dreams about going back.

Fortunately, I also came away from Þingvellir with the opening paragraphs of Thief Eyes, so I had a reason I had to go back–though I think I would have anyway, sooner or later. And I hope, even with the book nearly done, to return again, possibly in a different season. Both my Iceland visits have been in summer, when the sun doesn’t set and the days are mild. Among the many things my time in Tucson has taught me is that if you only visit a place during it’s gentle season (as the snowbirds who come to Tucson for the winter and leave before the heat sets in do), you don’t really know a place–to understand and care for it fully, you need to know it in its harsh seasons as well as its gentle ones.

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