life, death, and Iceland

by erinohsays

When I was 20 years old, I lived in the Netherlands as an exchange student. During this year, I was incredibly sad. I was thinking deep thoughts about life and death.

I think this is what saved my life. My Dutch friend Erik asked me if I would go to Iceland with him that summer. Not just him, but 50 other people from across Europe. Mostly young people, mostly anarchists. “It’s an annual direct action camp,” he told me, “to protest the construction of aluminum smelters there.”

I want to tell you this – Erik had this way about him where he would be telling me the most insane, terrifying things that he had done – things like robbing stores, squatting houses that mafia men owned, living in trees to prevent them from being clear cut – and he would say these things with the biggest smile and the friendliest eyes. He was short, with a high-pitched voice, and a frantic way of speaking. He gestured with his hands a lot, and he had a tendency to pace while talking. He wore black t-shirts, black cargo pants, and black military boots. I adored and respected him more than anyone else I knew.

When he asked me if I wanted to go to Iceland, I thanked him for the invitation but I explained that I couldn’t go with him. I said, “I can hardly get out of bed in the morning. How on earth am I supposed to muster up the energy to participate in a summer-long protest of capitalism and ecological destruction?”

But he persisted. He probably said something like, “This is the most important thing you will ever do in your entire life.” And this triggered something inside of me. A feeling of excitement, of possibility, and I hadn’t felt that in a long time. But if I was going to do this, if I was really going to travel to Iceland to protest the construction of aluminum smelters, then I figured that I should at least know what aluminum smelting is.

Erik explained, “Companies like Century and ALCOA mine bauxite ore from around the world. They exploit communities, steal their resources, and destroy the environment. Once they’ve mined the bauxite, they ship it to Iceland, where it’s refined and melted and molded, and then they make Pepsi cans and bullets out of it. We’ve got to stop them.”

I remember looking at him, his eyes darting excitedly across my face, his hands nervously tugging at the bottom of his t-shirt.

“That’s pretty bad stuff.” I said. In retrospect, I think that my decision to go to Iceland depended as much on his endearing nervous ticks as it did on the logic he presented to me against aluminum smelting. Either way, he managed to convince me, “Okay,” I said. “I’ll go to Iceland. But first I have to travel to England and become transcendent.” And that’s pretty much what I did.

I need to stop here for a second and tell you that, at this time in my life, I firmly believed that there was nothing worth living for. I felt that our planet was a disgusting mess of asshole men and shitty capitalists and wide-spread environmental rape, but above all this, I felt absolutely empty and void of any meaning. Like, meaning with a capital M. Spiritual stuff.

So at the same time that Erik is asking me to go to Iceland with him, I’m also having these deep thoughts about life and death and Meaning and how to best live my life. If living is in fact what I’m going to do. And then I realize that I need to get spiritual.

So I read a book on Buddhism and I decided that before I go to Iceland, I am going to become a Buddhist. I read on the wikipedia article about zen Buddhism that monks sometimes sit for hours painting circles as a way to meditate and become enlightened. I thought that was pretty cool so I sat on my bedroom floor one afternoon and painted circles for a while. I chose the circle that was closest to perfection and I got it tattooed on my arm. As a reminder that, through diligence and patience, I am capable of becoming good.

And as a reminder that physical beauty is a worldly, and therefore temporary and unfulfilling distraction, I shaved my head. After doing these things, I went to work as a gardener at a Buddhist retreat center in England for a few weeks. Feeling more confused than ever, and less fulfilled than I had ever felt, I then hitch hiked to Scotland, where I met up with Erik and the other protesters, and together with them, I took a 3-day boat trip to Iceland.

Going to Iceland might have saved my life. But it certainly didn’t make me any happier in the short-term. I was still incredibly depressed while I was there, I found it difficult to wake up, feed myself, speak to people, let alone chain myself to construction equipment.  But I did what I could to contribute to the protest camp. I cooked food for the protesters in our communal cooking tent, I wrote press releases about the direct actions that others were taking, and I worked with a few other girls to interview residents of Reykjavik about their views on the aluminum industry, in order to later make a film.

I want to tell you what I remember about Iceland:

It never got dark. In the evening, the sun dipped but never went below the horizon. It stayed dusk throughout the night.

At our protest camp, we played “cops and anarchists” – an adapted version of “cops and robbers.” We formed teams of 6 and ran around the mountains in a 3 mile radius, cops chasing anarchists, while playing with walkie-talkies and practicing our secret code language.

I shared a tent with a Dutch guy who claimed that he had never read a book in his entire life. Because he didn’t want to be brainwashed by what other people thought. I found that to be pretty remarkable.

And we visited Reykjavik on a weekly basis to empty grocery store dumpsters, which were filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, pasta, and cookies. We fed ourselves solely on dumpstered food that summer.

Sometimes a few protesters would visit mom and pop stores to steal specialty items like spices, tea, and coffee. In defense of their actions, they said, “We’re liberating these items from the evils of capitalism.”

To get time away from the protest camp, we would hitch hike around the island and visit waterfalls and geothermal hot spots. Once, we discovered tons of coins on the bottom of one of the more touristy hot spots. We collected over a hundred euros in coins. Then we spent it on alcohol and went out dancing.

On the Sunday before I left Iceland, to fly back home to Canada, I joined the other protesters on a walk around a threatened site. It was one of the largest areas of geothermal activity in Iceland, a beautiful geyser called Thorsa, and an aluminum company was preparing to build a smelter on top of it.

A local preacher took us on a tour of the area and he explained why the construction had to be stopped. He said, “We are visitors here. And we are only here for a very short time. The earth can live without us, but we cannot live without the earth.”

Shortly after I left Iceland, the country went bankrupt and its citizens took to the streets by the tens of thousands. Unemployment tripled and the prime minster resigned. An economic depression took hold and it seemed to me that the entire country’s population had become radicalized.

Many people blamed globalization for the depression, an over-reliance on foreign investment, particularly from the aluminum industry. Across Iceland, the construction of aluminum smelters came to a stop.

After leaving Iceland, I wasn’t sure what to think about what was happening there. I felt that, in some way, our camp had contributed to a national debate about the aluminum industry and whether or not it was a good thing for Iceland. I also felt that my – mostly emotional – decision to participate in the camp marked a turning point in my life. A point at which I decided, largely with the help of Erik, that I would try to give a shit about something and take a stance. That I would decide the world was larger than my depression, larger than my internal questions about big M meaning, and that this was a good thing.

That summer, I may not have succeeded in dismantling capitalism or transcending all earthly distractions, but I did succeed in something else. Although I already knew that the earth is much bigger than I am, and that yes, I am relatively inconsequential within the bigger picture – I did learn that things add up. Choices, decisions, habits, protests, and direct actions, all of these things add up and have the capacity to change the course of history. And that’s not exactly the same thing as becoming transcendent, but it is pretty cool.