The Bigger Picture

Most people, when they look at landscape, look into the distance. They admire mountains and waterfalls, glacier, rivers and geysers.  The big stuff.  I was taught differently.  My parents would always concentrate on the details.  Their noses as close to ground as possible, they would walk across the landscape with their tiny loupes in hand.  And that is how I learned to appreciate the country and I sometimes wonder: Which is the bigger picture?

I went up to the north last weekend for a gathering-of-the-clan-thing.  In this case it was the descendants of my fathers grandmother and grandfather on his mother's side that gathered at the old farm, Svanshóll  (Swanhill) in Bjarnarfjörður (Bearfjord).  The last time we were there was in 2006 when my father came with us to celebrate his fathers centenary.  Later that year my father passed away, so that trip was very special.

I have been wanting to come back, so this opportunity was welcome.  I wanted to go to spend some time in the fantastic landscape, look for lichens which I knew are abundant in that area and even gather some.  And I did.

How to explain this purple stain on a rock?  One might think that someone took a felt tip pen and colored the stones.  There were a several purple stains on the rocks.  What they all had in common was that, on closer inspection, one could see at its middle a rather battered lichen (of the type Umbilicaria).  Well, I can only surmise that some bird left it's dropping on top of a lichen and the ammonia in combination with the oxygen developed that fantastic purple colour.  I know that purple can be obtained from this lichen and now I've seen it happen spontaneously in nature.  I wonder if this is how our ancestors discovered lichen dyes. 
Umbilicaria proboscidea.  At first glance the rocks seem to have black flecks on them.  Then, when one looks more closely, one notices that it is lichens.  That there are more than one species of Umbilicaria isn't evident until one looks even closer.  U. proboscidea has the distinctive raised, white navel and black fruiting body.  U. arctica is larger and evenly colored and U. torrefacta is distinguished by having small holes in it's surface. 

If one very carefully breaks away the thallus of the lichen, without taking the navel (the stem that attaches it to the rock) this lichen will continue to grow.  This way I managed to carefully gather some of the Umbilicaria which grew absolutely everywhere we looked.  I gathered at least three types, all quite common: Umbilicaria torrefacta, Umbilicaria arctica and Umbilicaria proboscidea. 

Ochrolechia parella (I think).

A beautiful symphony of lichens.

Parmelia omphalodes (or saxatilis).

A fish head found in the grass.

I love the beaches in the north, full of driftwood from Russia, littered with old ropes and the odd shoe or boot and often you will find a small flock of sheep resting on the warm, black sands while Eider ducks swim with their young ones just a stones throw away.

That colour!

What texture!

The rhythm of the relentless sea.

I always stop at the churchyard to visit my grandmother's grave where she is buried with her two youngest daughter and the three other people who died with them in the avalanche that demolished my fathers home.  

The gravestone

My older sister hasn't visited since she was about 6 or 7, so I took her to see Goðdalur (Valley of the gods), our grandfather's farm.  It is very remote.  The road is long and winding and very rough and we had to cross two rivers, one had a bridge, the other didn't.  Jeeps really are a necessity in this part of the world.

Goðdalur, the farm.

Quietly crumbling.

Eventually becoming a part of nature as everything must.

I miss my father.  I think he would have liked my interest in lichen. But this is how my sisters and I always remember my parents:  Together,  heads close, loupe in hand looking at some plant and discussing the details to be able to identify it.  Both of them have found new species of plants for Iceland.  I'm very grateful that they taught me to look closely at the world.  It really is only when one looks at the details that the bigger picture reveals itself.


  1. the details that make a difference ;) Good luck!

  2. Man, you make me so homesick for Norway with those photos. :)

    Thank you.

  3. Wow - stunning photos. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Your knowledge amazes me Ambra!! What a beautiful post and lovely pictures! :)

  5. Ambra, I have to ask you something again... I am sure you sent me this information already but I cannot find it. Can you tell me the contact details for the place you get natural dyes or natural colours that you posted about? If you can, can you pop me an email? Thank you!!! xo Jen

  6. Thank you for sharing your personal story and interesting photos. It sounds like the visit was filled with all types of memories...good and bad.

    I'm fascinated with the purple lichen shots - do you use lichen at all in your soaps? Or will it only work on wool and cloth due to ammonia being needed?

  7. I've used lichen in soaps and there are a few posts about that, but they don't give strong colors. The purple is a long process and I'm still working on achieving that. I'm sure to do a post if it is successful :)


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