Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Iceland

  • People Who Live on Islands

    People Who Live on Islands

    It is is morning. I have been up for hours, although only now did I just serve myself my first cup of black coffee. I suspect a second isn’t far off. Now I have settled in to a morning of writing. I’ve been commissioned to write reference material for walking guides who will begin working on the Three Capes track in south-eastern Tasmania in spring. I have laid my hands on surveys, maps, and specialist reports. “The Tasman Peninsula has a coastline of around 323 km in length and an area of 473 km2,” I begin.

    The anomaly in the situation is that I’m sitting in a hiker’s shelter underneath the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland. I woke up this morning on a pass between two glaciers. It was one of those ugly wet-tent pack-downs. I suspect it was about 4a.m., and I began to head north, off the mountainside and into a verdant valley populated by handsome birch trees. North: further away from Tasmania.

    I believe I’m about 17,000 kilometres from the Three Capes track, but that won’t stop my head from spinning with the Latin names of Tasman Peninsula flora (as per the ecological survey of Wapstra et alia). Mixing this in with the Icelandic vocabulary I’m trying to muster up, I’ve got a wild porridge here. But how pleasant all these words are. If you listen carefully (and with some imagination) you can hear some similarity between Eyjafjallajökull and the word ‘eucalypt’, I think.

    There is no familiarity in volcanoes and glaciers, in the young black rock that washes down murky rivers like soot. But there are numerous commonalities, in the size, the population, the sense of distance, the islandness. The ptarmigan in its dappled winter coat puts me in mind of a favourite bird back home, the Bassian thrush.

    Not the least commonality is how we both sit aloof from our continents, far north and far south, sparsely populated. It’s possible to find days of solitude. Icelanders and Tasmanians may both take the beauty of our home places for granted, and yet we both may identify with it and romanticise it too.

    Icelanders and Tasmanians, we live on islands. What was it that the poet Louis Macneice came up with? “There is only hope for people who live on islands.” Macneice had his reasons, but there seems to have been a truth to it when he said it. Overpopulation is perhaps the great threat of the planet’s future, and we seemed, for a time, to be immune for it. But people are now looking to disperse to the islands.

    In a fjord off northern Iceland there is a rock-island called Drangey, which is famous in Nordic literature. Here an outlaw named Grettir the Strong lived out his last days. It can’t be an easy swim out there, but in the saga written for him in the 14th century, we read that he managed to do it. It’s a story that relates to my research. Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal activity has been found on Tasman Island, off the southern tip of the peninsula where the Three Capes runs. A skull discovered there by early European scientists was disregarded as being that of some ‘accidental adventurer’ stranded there, somehow.

    Now, we’re rather more sure that the Pydairrerme ancestors did indeed visit the island often enough, swimming and boating out there. Only, unlike the exploits of Grettir, we don’t have any written stories of who these swimmers might have been. As is so frequently the case in Tasmania, we don’t know the heroes of our island’s history.

    In Iceland, writing about Tasmania. Maybe it isn’t so strange. Last night, eating polenta and mushrooms from the billy-pot, I took account of my appearance. The possum fur beanie was a gift. My woolly jumper was from a charity store in Zeehan. The shorts I wear most days of my life (even in the waist-deep snow of the Fimmvörðuháls track) are from an op-shop in Queenstown. My pink socks were given to me by an overly friendly lady in Tullah. My soggy hiking boots were from the Deloraine op-shop, $15. We drag our homeplaces with us.



    The connections between Tassie and Iceland also involve a 19th-century adventurer.

  • We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.

    It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.

    For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.

    It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.

    Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.

    So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.

    The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.

    In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.

    As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.

    And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.

    Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.

    Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.

    Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.

    Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.

  • The Former King of Iceland

    The Former King of Iceland

    This bridge tells some stories.

    Not only because it is the third-oldest functioning bridge in Australia; not only because of the colonial context in which it sits; nor because of the geographical milieu that made its existence necessary. Nor, even, just because of the convict labour that made it happen, the quarrying of rough stone, the arduous efforts of construction, the curious interaction of government supervision and forced labour.

    But also because one of the convict stonemasons carved portraits into the rock.

    And one of the carvings has a crown on his head.

    It is not the noggin of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that is crowned either. Instead, the decoration sits atop the chiselled scone of a man who was working for the local police at the time, in the constabulary around the town of Ross, in central Tasmania, where this lovely bridge still conveys traffic over the Macquarie River every day.

    Jørgen Jørgensen was born in Denmark in 1780 and died in Van Diemen´s Land in January 1841. What happened in between spanned the whole globe, and a dazzling variety of careers. He sailed into ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia. He whaled in the Pacific Islands. He was a spy in continental Europe. He wrote treatises about economics and religion, as well as fiction and plays. His friends were at times important historical figures, such as Sir Joseph Banks. He also frittered away his money at the casino and the inn.

    He also was the so-called King of Iceland, for two months of 1809.

    And he wound up a Vandemonian lag, a convict in that hellish island gaol. There, even with his freedoms heavily restricted, he embarked on a series of careers that not only would make good cinema, but are at the centre of a vortex of global forces, colonial expansions and political revolutions and economic reforms and scientific developments.

    Into all of this, Jørgen Jørgensen charged like Don Quixote at a windmill.

    For this, he has been mocked, as on the side of the Ross Bridge, his nose chipped off and washed away by the Macquarie. And it is true, his life was tragicomic. His vices were his undoing. He wrote too much, in a second language. He was naive and idealistic. Quixotic.

    But could it be said to have been worth it, just to be known as the former King of Iceland? To have been, after all, remembered?

     

    This is not the first time I have written about Jørgen Jørgensen. Nor will it be the last.