I’ve just returned from three weeks at sea with Adventure Canada, travelling from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Reykjavik, Iceland. Of all the remarkable sights I took in–from Mousa Broch in the Shetlands to Mulafossur Waterfall in the Faroes–it’s Heimaey, in the Westmann Islands off Iceland’s coast that has stuck with me.
The Westmann islands have long been considered Iceland’s breadbasket, thanks to their rich fishing grounds. Heimaey’s history, however, is marked by two extraordinary events: an attack by Barbary pirates in 1627, and the eruption of Eldfell Volcano in 1973.
That eruption was huge news. A volcano appeared virtually overnight, next to the long-dormant Helgafell cinder cone. Liquid lava, hot ash and cinders destroyed half the town of Vestmannaeyjar. As luck would have it, the fishing fleet was holed up in the harbour due to a gale and was able to evacuate everyone. Help poured in from across Iceland and around the world; giant water pumps brought in by the US helped cool the lava flows enough to prevent the harbour being blocked. Despite massive numbers of homes being wrecked and buried by lava and ash, only one person died: A fireman who succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning while checking a basement. Otherwise, everyone survived, the harbour was saved, the homeowners dug out or relocated, the town used the cooling lava for geothermal heating, and in time, life moved on.
Today the excellent Eldheimar Museum sits at the foot of Eldfell. It includes as its centerpiece one of the excavated houses, in situ. A second house, partially unburied, sits outside. Tourists come from around the world to visit Heimaey; among other things, they marvel at the overgrowth of new grasses, mosses, flowers, and even trees on lava that came pouring freshly into existence just 45 years ago. But one thing sums up Heimaey for me, and it’s something quite ordinary. Among the the lumps and outcrops of jagged, hardened lava above the harbour, now green with new life, is a small stone monument. Etched into it is an image of the Odd Fellows’ Hall of Heimaey, destroyed by the 1973 eruption.
I live just down the street from an Odd Fellow’s Hall. There’s one in pretty much every town in Ontario. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows are a fraternal order; the hall is basically a community club. They hold roast beef suppers and strawberry socials. Every now and again someone rents the place for a stag & doe or a family reunion or some such occasion. It’s where my wife and I and our neighbours go to vote in elections. The Odd Fellows’ Hall is such a commonplace part of Ontario life, maybe even Canadian life, that I’ve never given it much thought.
Until I saw the plaque memorializing the Heimaey Odd Fellows’ Hall, that is. In an instant I understood many things: that this organization was international. That the hall in Heimaey probably also hosted social events and dinners and dances. That it was a part of ordinary life there, too, and in every respect, accounting for local differences, just like the one just down the street from me.
Except for one thing: the Heimaey Oddfellows’ Hall, and everything around it, was suddenly and forever obliterated by an erupting volcano, within my own living memory. It now sits crushed beneath 16 metres of lava and ash.
Heimaey is a showcase for so much about the human condition, and about life itself. Humankind is tiny, and inconsequential and fragile in the face of nature’s ways; yet people can pull together and rise above their circumstances. Nature’s awesome destructive force is so plain to see in Heimaey; yet the incredible resilience of life is on display here too too, with a shocking green abundance springing from the same stark rocks that nearly extinguished the town.
Heimaey is place with a mere millennium of human history, more or less, whose exclamation point is a volcanic cataclysm. The evidence is everywhere. But what brought it home to me was the Odd Fellow’s Hall: a half a world away, and just down the street. The one in Cobourg is a Memorial Hall. This is what I will remember.