I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Aurora chasing is a favourite sport up in Iceland, one of the main draws for visitors. Northern Lights come in all sorts of hues, apparently, but more often than not they are a glowing green – the colour of the equally elusive meteorological phenomenon that gives its title to a lesser-known Jules Verne novel and to Eric Rohmer´s 1986 film Le Rayon Vert. The dreamy final sequence of the latter, as I recall, dilates the moment when the green flash briefly appears just as the sun sinks below the horizon, contemplated from afar by the mesmerised heroine Delphine and her newfound love, Jacques. Earlier on in the film, the troubled protagonist portrayed by Marie Larivière overhears a conversation at the beach in which Verne´s Le Rayon Vert is discussed. Whoever sees the fleeting green ray, the story goes, gains an insight into their own and other people´s thoughts and feelings. A clarity of vision.
A week into my month-long retreat in the solitude of Roni Horn‘s Vatnasafn/Library of Water, overlooking the harbour in the fishing village of Stykkishólmur and the many islands of Breiðafjörður Bay, I sighted a green ray from the writer´s studio located beneath the library. Minutes before I was up in the library, surrounded by the clear glacier-filled glass columns that have replaced its original holdings. The wind-swept sky that evening had the same pellucid quality. For once no clouds were obstructing the horizon line at sunset; this in itself felt like a rare occurrence, one that should not go unheeded. I was in the midst of preparing supper when the sun started dipping into the sea. These rival claims on my attention kept me rushing back and forth across the room, from the kitchen area to the windows looking out to the West Fjords. The sun´s disk was all but engulfed. Eager to resume my cooking activities, I nearly turned my back on the green ray. Yet before I could pull myself away there it was in a flash, eerily, unmistakenly green. And then, just as suddenly, it went out.
Thanks to Rohmer´s film, which a friend had urged me to see some years ago, I knew instantly what it was. The excitement of seeing the green ray for the first time soon gave way to a vague sense of melancholy, brought on no doubt by the dying of the light that this horizontal band of lurid green hemmed in by whiteness seemed to underscore. And then, unlike Rohmer´s heroine, who has found her match by the time she comes to view the green ray, clasped in her lover´s embrace, I had it all to myself.
To capture the elusive ray on 16 mm film Rohmer and his crew went all the way to the Canary Islands. Stacking the odds in their favour, I suppose. That I should spot it from another volcanic island on the edges of Europe seemed fitting. Iceland with its extreme and unpredictable weather, completely at odds with the Canaries in this respect, made witnessing what is an uncommon sight at the best of times feel that much more precious.
The day when the sighting occurred coincided with my first foray into the wilds of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, named after the snow-capped stratovolcano at its tip. I got up bright and early to catch the school bus bound for Grundarfjörður, departing from in front of the public swimming pool at 7.45 a.m. It was a glorious morning. From the rocky expanse atop which Vatnasafn/Library of Water stands, offering sweeping views of the sea and the surrounding mountains, I could see at a glance all the nearby peaks, usually partly obscured by low-hanging clouds.
The two women sitting across the isle from me, one of whom turned out to be the headmistress, gazed out of the window, quietly taking in the breathtaking scenery unfolding before us along the bus journey. It struck me that perhaps they had grown used to it and were seeing the familiar landscape afresh, through a stranger´s eyes. ‘And you do this every day!’ I ventured at last. ‘But we never forget its beauty,’ they assured me, as if reading my thoughts.
On that occasion I only made it as far as Grundarfjöður, the bus‘s final destination. The small fishing town, as one of the women explained to me, lies exactly in the middle of the peninsula; that‘s why the high school catering to all the teens on Snæfellsnes is located there. Grundarfjörður has its own magic mountain, Kirkjufell, possibly Iceland´s shapeliest and certainly among the most photographed. Yet the farther down the peninsula one travels, the more keenly Snæfell makes its presence felt. One of the 24 glaciers whose melted substance is preserved at Stykkishólmur´s Vatnasafn/Library of Water, Snæfell is the point of access to the underground realm that Verne‘s heroes stake out in the Journey To The Centre of The Earth. There is no getting away from Verne´s novel in this part of the world; reading it, I confess, is also what initially drew me here.
By mid-afternoon, the wind had picked up and the clouds started gathering, so that a clear sky at sundown was by no means a given. The green ray, when it did happen, took me by surprise. It came to me unbidden and unlooked for, as if to make up for the patent absence of the aurora borealis that I had been hoping to catch all week. The first (and only) time I ever saw the Northern Lights, they too caught me unawares. It was up in Scotland, coincidentally where Verne´s Le Rayon Vert is set. My partner James and I were driving back from St Andrews to our home in the fishing village of Crail. A green veil of light on one side of the road stopped us in our tracks. Neither one of us could tell then and there what it was. We pulled up into a country lane and watched it billowing against the night sky from across a barren field. It was nowhere near as spectacular as aurora displays can get – in the right place and at the right time – yet it has given me a taste for things that shade of green.
Agnieszka Gratza is a writer and drifter. Her writings about art, performance and film have appeared in frieze, ArtReview, Artforum, Flash Art, Metropolis M, PAJ, Sight & Sound, the Guardian and The Observer. A lapsed academic, she has also published articles on the subject of Renaissance intellectual and cultural history. Her written work often stems from live art and performance: she has collected dreams during an artist residency at a hotel, staged tableaux vivants of the Annunciation, and made a series of edible artworks using saffron in New York.
Image: View from the Library of Water, Roni Horn, Library of Water (2007). Photograph: Roni Horn