Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Arctic’s Botanical Garden


Iceland was becoming known as the land with no trees, but then reforestation began.  Fossil evidence shows it was once heavily treed.  At the time of the Vikings, it’s estimated that birch forest and woodland covered up to 40% of this island.  Over time, however, sheep grazing, volcanic activity, and wind took out trees and now only 1.3% of Iceland is forested.   Land of few trees seems more accurate.

This was dramatically brought home to me in the National Museum in Reykjavik where I saw 2 lighted maps.  One showed the extent of birch forest at the time of settlement and the other birch forest now.  I had to look very closely to see the 21st century  coverage.  Besides birch, the other 2 somewhat common trees in Iceland are willow and rowan.  Rowans are also called mountain ash, and they’re common in Great Britain, especially in Scotland, and in Scandinavia.


Iceland is trying to reforest but the process is slow.  Inland in the northeast, its largest concentration of trees has a challenging name, Hallormsstaoaskógur.  In addition to birch and rowan, there are 80 other tree types there gathered from around the world.  Nevertheless, this forest is small by global standards.

If Iceland has a tree capital, it’s Akureyri.  The garden at its cultural museum was the first place on the island to plant trees when a nursery was established in 1899.   Akureyri’s Lystigardurinn, the world’s most northerly botanical garden, is so impressive that it became one of Akureyri’s 3 top attractions to both Ruth and me.  The variety of plant life was startling considering this garden’s closeness to the Arctic Circle.  We were there in mid-October and many cold-loving flowers were still blooming.  This botanic wonder specializes in native species, 400 of them.  However, there are 6,600 foreign species being coddled in greenhouses and in protected areas throughout Lystigardurinn, which opened in 1957.  There are forests scattered all around Akureyri.  Kjarnaskógur, Iceland’s most visited forest, is south of town.  Its mountain bike and pedestrian trails are very popular.

On my way to the land with few trees, a flight attendant told me with a big smile that we were visiting at a beautiful time because forested areas were losing their mostly yellow leaves.   Since there were so few of those as Ruth and I circled Iceland, they certainly stood out.


NOMA Better, Besthoff Best




When I went to NOMA pre-Katrina, I was not impressed.  But then I had the opportunity to visit the New Orleans Museum of Art just a couple of days after Mardi Gras in 2015 and had a better experience. Either I had matured or it had moved up to a 4 Compass Museum.  After 46 galleries Ruth wasn’t interested in more art, so I strolled the Besthoff Sculpture Garden on my own and then had to find and convince her that she needed to see it. We both agreed it was 5 Compass.

The New Orleans Museum of Art on the southeast corner of City Park has a fairly good core collection that didn’t surprise me. It was the unexpected in the core that did, like an unusual Gauguin 4-panel door called Rupe Tahiti that he painted on his first trip there.  As I stared at it’s priceless images, I imagined some Tahitian merchant saying to the destitute artist, “Hey, Paul, want to paint my door for a couple of francs?” But in reality he did it to get some privacy.  Gauguin also painted a 6-pane window that writer W. Somerset Maugham once owned.  I like the paintings of American artist Robert Henri and was surprised by his seascape. Approaching it, I thought the rocks might be in France and the painting a Monet. However, it turned out to be Henri’s Rocky Promontory, Monhegan, Maine.

Also unusual and surprising was a Chinese snuff bottle collection.  The Chinese once loved snuff and believed it cured lockjaw, stomach trouble, asthma, etc.  Missionaries, especially Jesuits, used it also and gave it as a gift when the emperor summoned them.  The New Orleans Museum of Art’s other Asian and Oceanic and African acquisitions, an entire floor of atypical treasures, were also worth examining.

Sydney and Walda Besthoff founded a sculpture garden adjacent to NOMA containing 60 works by artists not usually known for sculpture, like Rene Magritte, and others not known at all, at least to me, like Korean Do-Ho Suh.  That’s his Karma above. Mr. Besthoff owned 184 drug stores that he sold to Rite Aid. Walda loved the performing arts.  His money and her taste made the Besthoff Sculpture Garden happen.  Visitors follow a circular path and cross footbridges to see well-placed sculptures, admire aquatic plants, chase children, spend some time among live oaks, camellias, etc.

City Park is a distance but not a great one from the legendary French Quarter, where tourists abound. Most of the people enjoying the Besthoff with Ruth & me were locals. It’s too bad that so many travelers journey to reborn New Orleans for its many attractions and party atmosphere but don’t see this fine combo of art and nature.


The Vikings Are Here!


This bronze figure was found in North Iceland 200 years ago.  It dates from around 1000 AD, which was during the Viking Era that ended in 1066 with the Norman Invasion of England.  Experts are divided on who the figure depicts.  Most agree that it’s either the Norse god Thor or Jesus Christ because the grasped object appears to be either a hammer or a cross.  This figure, a treasured icon, is now in Iceland’s National Museum.  The figure is very Viking-like.

The day before I saw it, I was in the Settlement Centre in Borganes, Iceland. It had a display about the Vikings featuring several maps that showed their explorations and settlements.  They were in Ukraine!  The exhibit, which I could not photograph, said that Viking skill in boat building allowed them to travel widely.   Due to an improved keel, for example, they could sail to Iceland from Norway in 72 hours!

Last night I was reading a review of a new BBC America 8-part series called The Last Kingdom.  Starring Rutger Hauer playing a Viking tutor, it was produced by the same team that gave the world Downton Abbey.  The opening line of the review spoke of Vikings lustily pillaging their way through history.  At first I confused this series with Northmen: A Viking Saga, which came out last year.  This 97 minute movie was produced by South Africans, Germans, and the Swiss.

To deal with my confusion, I googled Viking Movie List and printed 3 pages of titles.   The Last Kingdom was on the list and so was Northmen: A Viking Saga.  So was Vikings, the History Channel’s series that has been OKed for a 4th season.

I mentioned in a recent blog “Swimming in Skagafjordur” that the director of Everest, Baltasar Kormákur, is about to make a Viking film.   Based on Njals Saga, it will cost at least $60 million.  This will be the most expensive movie ever made in Iceland.

The boy group One Direction just announced that its members are taking a year off to pursue personal projects.  One New Directioner is Harry Styles. Leonardo DiCaprio has been trying to get a Viking movie about Norwegian King Harald Hardrada made since at least 2013.  This project could get underway soon.   If it does, DiCaprio will direct King Harald and co-star with Styles.

It’s clear that we are experiencing a Viking media invasion.   Why?




Sexual Differences in Akureyri


The Akureyri Museum, one of the 3 tourist attractions we really liked in Iceland’s 2nd city, divided Ruth and me.  I spent my time looking at ancient maps and the history of the town.   She looked at native dresses and 1980s fashions.

This fine, small museum is in the oldest part of Akureyri and is a bit hard to find.  That’s why I included the picture of it that makes it look like an art deco house.  Once inside, we were told that there were 3 exhibition spaces.  On ground level were two temporary shows:  Land Ahoy!, that was being taken down at the end of the year, and Are You Ready, Madam President?, returning to Reykjavik after it closes on January 3, 2016.

Land Ahoy! enchanted me.  It contained 25 historical maps of Iceland made between 1547 and 1808.  They really showed both the evolution of map-making and changing perceptions about this remote island in the North Atlantic.  The oldest map, printed in Italy, showed an exotic, fantasy place.   The city of Reykjavik didn’t show up on a map until 1771 and was creatively spelled Reikiaviik.   The earlier maps included menacing monsters from the mapmakers’ imaginations.  There were animals called horse-whales depicted. A walrus was described as “a fearsome beast”.  My favorite map was a 1570 Ortelius showing many islands that simply don’t exist with Iceland oddly placed and half the size of Greenland.   I love old maps.

I went to find Ruth, who had spent zero time looking at maps. She was focused intently on a video about Vigdis Finnbogadóttir.  At the age of 50, this human dynamo became the first female president in the world.  She won a democratic election in Iceland and stayed in power for 16 years.  Are You Ready, Madam President? focused on her wardrobe, jewelry, favored decor, etc. Still alive and active at 85, Vigdis is a national icon.  Ruth loves stories about successful women.


I told Ruth I was going downstairs to see the Akureyri Museum’s permanent stuff and she said she’d follow.  She never did.  I was alternately fascinated and bored by “Town by the Bay”.    What greeted me was an exploration of whale and seal hunting, salting fish, etc.  I was bored.   A 1960 photograph showed a thriving, busy city that looked nothing like the 2015 town I was visiting.  It explained that shops were “hang out” meeting places that often offered free booze until 1888, when some prominent citizens stopped the practice.  I was fascinated. I walked by skis and some really old toys.  By the time I got to a re-created parlor, I was bored again.  But then I found Ash Wednesday.   This was local children’s favorite holiday because they dressed in costumes, went to stores and were given free candy and yogurt, and engaged in a practice described as “beating a cat out of a barrel”.  I was fascinated.

I don’t normally blog about exhibits that will disappear shortly after I write about them.  However, I made an exception with Madame President for 2 reasons:  Ruth urged me to tell you about it and MP will return to Reykjavik where it will go back on permanent display at the Design Museum of Iceland. Perhaps it’s temporarily closed for renovations or something and their website is down.  In any event, I can’t find out anything about the Design Museum of Iceland.  Ruth would probably locate it easily.



Port Hardy, Still Remote


Every time Ruth and I go to Vancouver Island we find a reason to go back.   On our way to Tofino, our favorite Vancouver Island destination, one snowy winter day, we drove Highway One as far north as Parksville.  Previous to that on our way to Buttle Lake, we had been to Campbell River, where super highway ends.  We had never been north of this thriving city until June, 2015.

The journey from Victoria to Port Hardy, only 311 miles, took longer than I expected.  The first half, Highway One, was a super road, but it passed either through or close to a series of fairly big towns, 8 of them.   At Campbell River, the highway number changed to 19 and the road became far less super as human development pretty much ended.  There were only 4 towns with limited services for almost 148 miles.  This led to the Carrot War.

Highway 19 to Port Hardy, where all paved roads pretty much cease, is definitely worth driving.   It’s one of those scenic routes with unending forest, mountain views, and signs that warn about elk crossing the road. But if you run into trouble, you’re alone.  I talked to a lady who moved to Campbell River from Port Hardy because she couldn’t take the isolation any longer.   However, Ruth talked to a man in Port Hardy who said he had located there to get away from people.

We’ll probably drive 19 again in 2016 because we learned that there’s a ferry from Port Hardy to Bella Coola and Prince Rupert, where a super highway takes travelers to central British Columbia.  This ferry, which gets rave reviews from inside passage lovers, takes all day, arriving at 11:30 pm.

Port Hardy is THE place for anyone who loves fishing.   I just watched a YouTube video of guys hauling salmon and halibut out of the water there one after another.  We were told that Port Hardy is the 2nd biggest commercial fishing port on Vancouver Island.  Ironically, it’s not a place to enjoy the bounty of seafood in local restaurants.  Most of what’s caught ends up in big cities further south.  It’s the largest commercial port for ground fish, also called bottom feeders, like lingcod.  Prawns too are in abundance. So are ocean dwellers at the other end of the size scale.  Whale watching is a major attraction.

The lack of good seafood in restaurants wasn’t my only Port Hardy surprise. It has very mild winters.  The average temperature is 45º Fahrenheit and cold water surfing is popular.  Sports enthusiasts can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon at Mount Cain, which is said to have Vancouver Island’s best powder.

There’s a monument to the Carrot War in a park near Port Hardy’s port. Promises to turn Highway 19 into a major road that would bring development to the northern half of Vancouver Island have been dangled before residents for many years.   In the late 1970s a serious campaign erupted to force those in charge of highway improvement to keep their promises.  The only result, so far, has been a giant wooden carrot.