Hengill is a land of the sublime in every sense of the word. During the height of the Romantic period, artists across Europe and America were painting landscape works of art to show the awesome power of the landscape and humanity’s submission to the will of nature. Depictions of towering mountains or dramatic lighting across the plains add to the sublimity. All of this was to contrast with the familiar in pastoral works depicting rural communities or familiar places. In the case of Hengill, the sublime is apparent in the harsh conditions and the volcanic activity.
Boiling hot springs and warm, steaming fumaroles (that’s where much of the rotten eggs smell comes from), and recent lava fields across Hengill are just a few of the traits that show the environment’s power and might. The volcanic center of the earth is literally shaping the environment in new and majestic ways.
Furthermore, the dramatic lighting of a sublime scene inspires terror and awe in the viewer. Iceland has lighting in spades. While we are here in the summer it never truly darkens which could give the illusion of a friendly environment. But the midnight sun illuminates the volcanoes on the horizon and the jagged rocks formed when a volcano erupted under a glacier holding all the ash underneath. Some of the landscape may be covered with soils and mosses, but the volcanic origin of the island reawakens the memory of Mount Eyjafjallajokull which shut down air traffic in the whole region, far beyond the boundaries of Iceland.
But that’s all at the macro scale. What about the microscale sublimity? Just think about the diversity of organisms that exist in Hengill streams. We are capitalizing on the wide temperature gradient of streams to look at the diversity of organisms from bacterial to bugs but it’s incredible to think about the diversity that separates streams that distinguishable by temperature variation alone. Then there are also the various bacterial communities using sulfur as an energy source instead of photosynthesizing like plants. That’s a completely different energetic pathway compared to everything that grew to make your salad!
I love the romantic perspective, but in our modern age there are emerging post-romantic and the technological sublime. Now is there a way we can quantify the sublimity of nature? We are doing our best, looking at stoichiometry, nutrient cycling, populations, and communities in these streams to see if we can predict into the future what the fate of streams may be in the event of changing temperatures. In the meantime, I believe it’s pretty sublime to be invited out to Iceland to partake in a small share of investigating the Hengill streams.