Iceland: Holy Ground Still

By Bette McDevitt '54

"In my childhood dreams, Iceland was holy ground. When, at the age of twenty-nine, I saw it for the first time, the reality verified my dream. At fifty-seven, it was holy ground still, with the most magical light of anywhere on earth." -- W. H. Auden

It's true about the light.

I was driving around Iceland with a photographer who stopped the car every 15 minutes, whispering "Look at this light!" as he jumped out to shoot yet another picture. Our destination was a photographer's dream--an annual sheep roundup in southwestern Iceland. The air was crisp, like our own autumn, but there were no brilliant trees. Vikings cut down what few there were, and the rocky ground cannot support new growth.

Icelanders like it that way. "When I travel in other countries, I can't see the landscape. Too many trees," says Steffie, a new Icelandic friend. You can see everything here, the ever-changing cloud formations, the pure blue Arctic sky, the mountains dotted with sheep.

The sheep--I was obsessed with the yarn from these sheep. Two years ago, when I was in Iceland for the first time, I impulsively bought Lopi, as Icelandic wool is called, to knit a sweater as I traveled by bus around the country. The woman who sold me the coils of yarn looked troubled, but her English lacked the words she needed. The yarn was different; it came apart in my hands. I asked everyone about Lopi, and learned that it was unspun wool.

"Take three strands of yarn," a woman in a fishing village told me, "and wind them together three times. Then make the ball dance on the floor." As soon as I learned to do this, I immediately got enough tension, and wound the wool as I circled Iceland, with balls of yarn careening down the aisle of the bus. Passengers chuckled and rolled them back to me.

Only a knitter or spinner could understand why coils of Lopi were stuffed in all the crannies of my luggage. I also mailed home cartons of it at enormous cost, and now everyone in my family has at least one Lopi sweater. I also keep a basketful of Lopi in the corner of my workroom; I just like the way it looks--all shades of the sheep.