Wednesday, February 29, 2012

William Morris's Muse

Here's an essay I wrote for a contest (didn't win) about riding horses in Iceland:

"There's no bad weather, only poor clothing." That's one of my favorite Icelandic sayings, as I was reminded, daily, for a week in the summer of 1990, when I took a horse trek in southern Iceland. It was billed as "a trip for people who have a taste for uninhabited areas far from any luxury." It was run by the company Hekla Horses, named for the nearby volcano long known as the Mouth of Hell.
We rode five hours a day in drizzle or worse, with only a few spells of misty calm to tempt a lowering of our hoods. My rainpants proved leaky. Though warm enough, I grew sticky behind and uncomfortable in the saddle. My hands, wet through three layers of gloves, were claws.

We rode along a leaping river and down farmers' lanes, encountering loose sheep and cows, horses and herd-dogs. Ducks filled the river's rare calm pools. Snipe whirred and tittered overhead. From the fenceposts whimbrels sighed (Icelanders liken the sound to porridge bubbling). Redshanks flew shrieking off the sandflats. We passed a meadow yellow with buttercups. I shut my eyes often -- for cold, rain, dirt, fatigue, fun -- as we rode across an interminable black sand waste, past a booming waterfall called Troll Woman's Leap, a mesa-shaped hill now on our right, now on our left. The Mouth of Hell remained hidden in clouds. In spite of the flurry of my horse's hooves, I felt strangely motionless, strangely light, balanced between the mountains, floating between sand and sky.

We were on our way to a national park deep in the deserted highlands. The park is renowned for the fanciful colors of its geology -- a pea-green chasm, a blue hill, tawny ridges, a lemon-yellow sulfur pit, a cliff-face with candy-pink stripes. From the top of the blue hill, a far-off cluster of lakes mirrors the sky, while on every horizon glaciers lift like white turreted castles.

Or so the tour books say. We saw little of it. It rained for six days straight. Misty rain, wind-driven rain, chilling rain, rain that cut visibility back to the ears of my horse. Once the horses turned tail and refused to go forward into the gusts.

Our guide, Jon, taught us songs. "Ride on, ride on, ride over the sands. The elf-queen is bridling her steed." Jon had a high, strong bellow of a voice, nasal but tuneful, piercing and sad. "Lord lead my horse, this last part is hard."

In 1871, the writer and Arts-and-Crafts designer William Morris toured Iceland. He, like I, was enamored of the medieval Icelandic sagas, Iceland's claim to literary fame. He, like I, thrilled to see the farms, the dales, the mountains mentioned in those tales from a thousand years ago. Tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and strife. Tales of a hard life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace. He, like I, rode a long way in the rain, over rugged terrain on a trusty horse, happy to come at last to a house and begin to feel his hands and feet again. He wrote of cresting a hill and receiving "that momentary insight into what the whole thing means that blesses us sometimes and is gone again."

Once while we rested our horses at a crossroads, Jon shared out bars of chocolate. Each other rider broke off a square or two, but I refused. I didn't want to strip off my layers of soggy gloves. Jon nodded. He bared his own hand, broke off a square, and brought it to my lips.

Twenty years on, I can still smell the wet wool of his sleeve-end, see the manure grime in the heart-line of his palm, his squint of a smile as I opened my lips to this outlaw priest and his bitter wafer.

Hekla Horses is still in business. I highly recommend the six-day Landmannalaugar trip (I've taken it twice). See For a great website on Icelandic horses in general, visit The Icelandic Horse Congress at You can also take a virtual trek on my friend Stan Hirson's video blog, Hestakaup.kom. Finally, to learn more about Iceland and Icelandic horses, don't forget my book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arabic Science Comes to the West

To write my most recent book, The Abacus and the Cross, I traveled throughout Europe interviewing experts on medieval science around the year 1000, focusing especially on the interests of the Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac: Arabic numerals, the astrolabe, celestial spheres, the acoustics of organ pipes, and astrology. None of this material made it into the final book, but in coming weeks I'll be sharing here a few vignettes of "the writer at work":

I was in the manuscript reading room of the National Library of France in Paris, a bright, hushed room, floor-to-ceiling bookcases to my left, floor-to-ceiling windows to my right, ranks of long tables studded with wooden bookrests and velvet rolls to gently prop open the fragile parchment pages. Most of the chairs were filled with hunched-over scholars. 

To be admitted I had to write ahead and state my credentials, submit to an interview, show my passport, prove myself a "scholar" by handing over a letter from my publisher, be photographed (at another desk), get a plastic ID card, go down to the cashier and pay seven euros for the card to be activated for three days and to get three paper tickets. Up to the manuscript room, where I handed the ID card and one ticket to the clerk. She gave me a key to a locker, where I had to leave all my belongings except one pencil (not a pen, with which I could deface a manuscript) and a notebook. Reentering the reading room, I had to display my pencil and notebook to the clerk to get back my ID card and the ultimate prize: a plastic block with a number on it. I was then permitted to sit in a chair -- but not look at any manuscripts, yet.

A medieval astronomer. From a
manuscript in Avranches, France.

David Juste, the medievalist from the University of Sydney who had invited me to meet him there, sat down beside me. "What you will see here," he whispered, "is the earliest Latin manuscript to contain Arabic words. The earliest proof of the transmission of Arabic science to the West. Now I will order the manuscript."

He filled out a form and took it to another desk. 

Ten minutes later, the manuscript arrived from the vault. "Believe it or not," Juste said, "I think I have seen two thousand manuscripts in my life, and this was the very first one I saw." 

It was a rather thin little book, with a newish leather binding. The parchment was off-white with brown letters, undistinguished. Juste turned the page, did the classic French kissing of the finger tips: "This is it." 

It was made in Limoges, he told me, slipping on the de riguer white gloves, a hundred miles north of Aurillac, between 978 and 1000 -- during Gerbert of Aurillac's lifetime. Parts were copied from an earlier manuscript, now lost, that Juste believes came from Catalonia; other parts came from Fleury, including a work by Abbot Abbo of Fleury (Gerbert's worst enemy) on cosmology. Most of the book, however, is about fortune-telling and astrology, not what we would call the science of the stars. 

Juste looked around nervously. "Wait a minute. We have to be very careful. I expect we'll get in trouble. We are not supposed to consult the manuscripts together. Why? It's the rules. The rules are very strict. I have an idea." He got up. "I'll try something." He intercepted a different clerk, a young woman who had just come from a back room. She studied me, then curtly nodded. He hurried back and swept up the manuscript.

"This way. I asked for special permission to talk." We went into the back room, where a trio who looked like professor and students were discussing another manuscript. We sat down at the opposite end of the long table; the clerk closed the door.

Juste relaxed. He began flipping through the pages, pointing to letters, running his finger along a line, thumbing pages back and forth -- for all the hoopla, he didn't treat "the earliest proof of the transmission of Arabic science to the West" as a sacred object. It was a book.

photo captions: A medieval astronomer. From a manuscript in Avranches, France. Bernward of Hildesheim presenting his book
to the Virgin (Dom Museum Hildesheim).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Iceland's Volcano Show

The New York Post called it "The Volcano that Shut Down the World." The ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull eruption in April 2010 caused more than $1 billion in losses to the airline industry and grounded thousands of travelers for days. In Iceland, it wiped out roads and water lines and covered farms with four inches of cement-like ash.

But when I was there that Easter weekend, it was just a "tourist eruption." I was one of 15,000 people who hiked, rode snowmobiles or jeeps, or flew helicopters or planes to the site.

Why did we go? 

"Volcanoes are sublime," said one person I asked. "It's terrorizing and beautiful -- and beautiful because it's terrorizing."

Said another, "I was depressed because I'd lost my job, and this woke me right up. Mother Nature was playing a role in my life." He added, "You must experience this with your own eyes."

I booked a jeep tour. Three hours from Reykjavik, we let some air out of our tires and climbed onto a glacier. We drove an hour on the icecap, guided by GPS, and parked in a long line of jeeps. 

A half-mile away loomed a black caldron, with gray-blue arms of lava stretching out over the snow. It sighed and breathed like a magical being, sending up mesmerizing red fountains of molten rock. Some bombs arced so high they looked like shooting stars. Others bounced on the crater rim and rolled like gold coins. At the cooling face, the lava bulged and broke, tinkling like bits of glass. As the sun set, the colors grew more vivid. A fluorescent yellow tongue oozed over the crater side. Lines of orange lights twinkled on the dark ridges of rock. The lava fountains turned hot pink.

Ten days later, the volcano forced a new channel straight up. Hot lava hit the ice our jeep had been parked on and blasted it 35,000 feet in the air. No tourists were there that day -- it was snowing too hard.

You can read a different version of this story in the August/September 2010 issue of The Penn Stater magazine and an interview I did with an Icelandic scientist, and Penn State alum, on the Penn Stater blog. A third, very different take on it will appear in the May 2012 issue of Highlights for Children.

Carried Away

My first book, A Good Horse Has No Color, has been out of print for several years. To celebrate its rebirth as an e-book, available in all formats from and for Kindle at, I thought I'd start off my new blog with an excerpt. Here is the book's very brief prologue:

I could hear the horses before I saw them, their hoofbeats the high slap of cupped hands clapping, beating the punctuated four-beat rhythm of the tolt, the breed's distinctive running-walk gait. From our summerhouse, I watched them through binoculars. Pinpricks on the silvery wet sand, they shimmered like a vision out of the Icelandic Sagas, the medieval literature that had brought me to Iceland in the first place. Briefly the horses took shape as they cut across the tide flats: necks arced high, manes rippling, long tails floating behind. Their short legs curved and struck, curved and struck. I would watch them until they disappeared beyond the black headland and wonder who their riders were, where they went on their rapid journey. I wanted to go with them. 

Icelandic folktales warn of the gray horse that comes out of the water, submits briefly to bridle and saddle, and at dusk carries its rider into the sea. For me, it was the watcher who was carried away.

Since publishing A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse in 2001, I've become very involved with the national breed organization, the Icelandic Horse Congress, and now co-edit their quarterly magazine. It's a very good place to learn more about these wonderful animals. To see them in action -- and to see riders crossing the sands near my old summerhouse -- visit my friend Stan Hirson's video-blog,