Graduate English, Student Careers, Student Research, The Value of English

Vatnajökull

Katelyn Brunner is finishing her first semester as a graduate student. This fall she traveled to Iceland to pursue an interest that might cause you  pause when you think about English students: Geology. Because of the interest shown by her fellow classmates, Katelyn welcomed the opportunity to write about this “sweetheart infatuation” for our blog. When not in school or hiking atop glaciers, Katelyn is a copy editor for an ad agency that does work for veterinary/production animal companies.


unknownGeology is a complex, fundamental science that most people take for granted, which is a shame. The deep ocean’s thermal vents, the kaleidoscope in a granite countertop, stratification-stripes on the inside of mountains sliced to make room for highways– all of that beauty is proof that our Earth is not a given, it’s a gift.

My stupid, sweetheart infatuation with the planet is the reason I went to Iceland. It is one of the most extreme places in the world for the Earth sciences– glaciers rest on top of volcanoes and islands rise up out of the sea. Lava fields are covered with moss and the sand is charcoal-black. Everything is big and elemental and a girl in clunky hiking boots feels very small in comparison. It’s not that so many things happened during my trip there– it’s just that Iceland happened to me. But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I want to talk about a glacier.

picture1

I planned my trip around a three-day excursion that included hiking, staying in void-dark villages overnight, and clamping spikes onto our boots so we didn’t fall into an ice cave– literally. Some of the hiking and not-falling was done on top of a glacier called Vatnajökull. The day of the hike, our group of five was driven a few hours to a small, steel cabin to meet our “glacier guides,” all of whom look exactly like you’d expect. After signing my life away and being grilled about my epilepsy, I was allowed near the cramp-ons, pickaxes, and fun little harnesses whose lime-green nylon clashed horribly with my borrowed, hunter’s-orange pants.

The intimate experience that was my harness-fitting rivaled the TSA screening that I once received for committing the cardinal sin of airplane travel: forgetting my ID. Just like that uncomfortable Thanksgiving day, I was subjected to what amounted to little more than a pleasureless groping. Luckily, my fit, blonde “glacier guide” was the nicest woman in the world, if a bit intimidating. Just one of her defined muscles would probably be assigned a better high school superlative than I had.

picture3I was soon released to one of those huge, shiny buses that have impossibly large windows. The bus driver, a kind of lumberjack Santa who smelled like roast beef, pulled away from the cabin with his charges, and switched on the radio to what can only be described as the most offensive elevator music on Earth. The entire, hour-long trek across a landscape clearly not meant for buses, was filled with the sound of “improvised” jazz and clinking hiking equipment. We passed the outwash plain they filmed parts of the last Star Wars movie on and marveled at how like an earlobe the glacier looked, seeping out into its little lagoon. We saw the highest peak in Iceland and it didn’t look very tall until we were right up against it, jumping every so often at each creak and crash courtesy of the ice fall at its base.

We were briefed on how to behave ourselves on Vatnajökull. What I got from the talk was this: when stepping down, don’t point your toes straight forward, stomp so hard you’re sore tomorrow, and don’t feed the ravens; they will chase you. With those wise words, we began to climb.

It’s not enough just to describe the glacier, though it’s tempting. I could mention deep, blue crevasses that seemed very sinister, scalloped edges of melting ice, and the two ravens with gasoline-sheen feathers. But the most interesting thing about the experience was less the beauty of the place– after all, this was day six of a beautiful picture2trip– but the swelling-heart feeling I got when I stepped foot on the ice. I was finally there, finally with the thing I’d studied, presented on, and wrote about during my years in undergrad. Glaciers move and speak and, over time, slice through the landscape like wire through soft cheese. They, like minerals and the ocean’s currents, prove our Earth is alive. And my love for it proves I am, too.

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