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Lenticular clouds and mountains of air

The seasons change, the storms begin, and we dash to a lighthouse to see some art

Autumn winds means fierce weather and moody skies. The sea is turquoise and flecked with white, chopping, rising and slamming its way to the shore. At dusk one evening we braved the wind and walked out to the Seltjarnanes peninsula and over the tidal causeway to the small island of Grótta, home to a lighthouse and its whitewashed cottage. Access to the island is restricted in summer due to nesting birds, and in winter it can be a wild place. Walking over the sandy isthmus to the island, a stay-at-home oystercatcher peeped its protest as it darted out from cracks between boulders;1 as if powering through a strong sea current, a cormorant laboured its streamlined body silently over our heads and a gull was buffeted 50 yards sideways in one gust.

In the evening light, clouds curved in smudges of blue-grey, collapsing any distinction between sky, sea, mountain and shore, melding together in a purple haze, as if a bruise, freshly inflicted and blossoming in an inky spill.

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Storm brewing over Esja. From Seltjarnanes, 6pm, 22nd October.

These clouds flowed into neat oval-shaped streaks, smooth and rounded, tapering to points and filling the atmosphere with ominous turbulence and stormy imminence.

Known as lenticular clouds (after their lentil-like shape), clouds such as these form on the lee side (downwind) of obstructions on the surface of the earth, such as mountains. When air currents come into contact with such landscape features, they become unstable, swirling to form eddies (for more info on this word, see the bottom of the post). In turn, these eddies can disturb other air currents, and when these air currents are moist and stable, it causes the air to rise up into waves of strong winds. If the temperature is low enough at the crest of these waves, water vapour may condense to form lenticular clouds, their humped and ovoid shapes dictated by the shape of the wave. The clouds’ outline thus appears to follow the shape a mountain, as if resting on its summit, though the mountain in question is made of air.

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Lenticular clouds form west of Esja, over the Faxaflói, moisture condensing on top of mountains of air. Clear view of the lenticular shape.

These clouds over the Faxaflói were formed in the space of sky on the lee side of the Esja mountains. As the moist and stable easterly wind blew across the sky, it met areas of turbulence (eddies) formed directly over Esja, which in turn caused large waves of air to form downwind of the mountain, with moisture condensing into lenticular clouds on their crests, giving us a spectacular show of brooding skies and a riotous darkening of the day, as if in tune with the rotation of the earth on its axis and the seasons' inevitable plod towards winter.

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The island of Grótta from the isthmus.

Braving the blustery exposure of this Atlantic outpost was worth it for first-hand experience of these winds and a ringside view of the ocean-cloud-mountain melting pot. But our goal was the old lighthouse keeper’s house, owned by Seltjarnanes municipality and temporarily home to an exhibition by artist and sculptor Guðrún Einarsdóttir.

Waiting for the tide us to allow us passage to this small island was an odd experience. Semi-darkness combined with crossing a tidal zone lent an air of threshold crossing, as if we were stepping into another world. This strangeness was compounded, as, having left the city, we then carried out the perfectly normal activity of walking up some steps to a house and knocking on the door. All on a dark, windy night in October, on a tiny spit of land stretching westward out into the stormy Atlantic Ocean. I half expected a troubled ghost to answer, or at least a wizened old lighthouse-keeper, replete with full beard, pipe and yellow sou’wester. Instead, Guðrún herself answered the door, apologising for keeping the door locked (a precaution against the rebellious wind). Relieved by the absence of facial hair and dripping Mackintosh coat, we proceeded in out of the storm to the warm, modern interior of this isolated gallery, its very presence at odds with its surroundings. To enter the gallery was to cross over another threshold, as if to move instantaneously from wilderness to high culture.

As we moved around the gallery, we spoke to Guðrún about her art, alternating between gazing through the windows at the murky sky and roiling sea or peering fixedly at the works of oil on canvas in the brightly lit rooms.

Her works were all texture and subtle meshing of colour, resembling either veined alluvial flats, cut through with rivulets and channels, or fields of moss, rippling in muted variation of colour, pastelling into patterns of unfolding growth, multiplying out like lichen on a stone or moss on a tree. Faded yellows blurred into crystalline green as images of moss conflated with the accrued sulphurous deposits surrounding a geothermal pool, fragmented and splintering as if of the same material quality of ice, frosting into shards and cracking into branches and lines.

“It’s all about the material,” Guðrún said; “I’m always led by the material.” And so, similarities between elements of the natural environment and Guðrún’s work must inform her brush strokes subconsciously, or at least without premeditation. This also means, for me viewing the art, that reverberations with my own landscape explorations might well be what I bring to the table as viewer rather than what Guðrún consciously works into the pieces.

Perhaps, then, this cultural outpost at the margins of the sea was a fitting location to exhibit Guðrún’s work, less reflective of nature and more a part of it, Guðrún following the dictations of the material and allowing any landscape elements to present themselves quite organically, perhaps subconsciously echoing experiences that Guðrún herself has had. These works start to seem, then, less like cultural reflections of the natural world and more like flowerings from a symbiosis between human and not.

To look closely at the art was a process of continual discovery as the eye noticed on some new subtlety which in turn prompted a new textural analogy.

I won’t post any pictures of Guðrún’s work as, to be honest, I’m totally at sea when it comes to copyright and sharing ethics, but you can find out more about her work on her website, here. Instead, I’ll post some of my own photographs of small landscape details that I’m increasingly attracted to, to try and convey something of the textural analogies Guðrún’s work made me feel.

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Whether it’s because limited visibility enforces an appreciation of the narrow, or simply because recognising both larger and smaller scale perspectives feels somehow more embedded in the landscape itself. Instead of some aerial, cartographic or more removed point of view, I’m both finding and actively seeking beauty and interest much closer to the ground, so to speak.

Guðrún’s work made me feel this connection more keenly and brought memories of certain landscapes and landscape features to the fore, almost tangibly evoking their textural minutiae and sharpness of colour. I highly recommend going and seeing her work for yourself.

Some notes on the word “eddy”:

An eddy refers to water (or other substance, such as air) which is flowing contrary to its regular course, usually forming a circular motion as in a whirlpool. It can also refer more generally to turbulence or disruption, such as when wind is blown in spiralling gusts close to mountains. Eddy is of unknown etymology, though likely from Old English edwielle, referring to a vortex or whirlpool. Edwielle is derived from the common Old English prefix “ed-”, signifying repetition or turning, much like the Latin prefix “re-”. “Ed-”, in turn, derives from the Proto-Germanic prefix *ith, “a second time, again”, which we also find in other Germanic languages, not least in Old Norse and modern Icelandic, which have iða, also meaning eddy.

Interestingly, in Old Norse, the “ið-” prefix often features in an intensive sense, adding extra significance to a noun or adjective, such as—drumroll please—i(ð)-(g)nógr, which translatable into English with its cognate, “enough”. Discovering this fact made me instantly aware of the connection between (modern) Icelandic nóg(ur), meaning enough, and the English word “enough” itself. An everyday word, “enough”, which I’ve used for well over twenty years, has taken on new significance. I feel like I can see it for what it really is: both a combination of various language changes and an inheritance from Proto-Germanic, which we share with (at least) thirteen other Germanic languages, historical and modern (counted from the OED).2

This is one of those discoveries that acts like a pinprick of philological light, opening up connections between languages and across time. I can’t help but think, in such an instance, of one of my all-time favourite pieces of prose, Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation of Beowulf.

For sheer imagination and philological excitement, look no further. Heaney really was a master of language, though he would have rejected the title, insisting that language is, if not democratic, so unique to each individual, that no one person could truly be called its master. He writes of struggling to deal with the contradiction between an Irish culture and an English tongue, an English literary heritage and yet an identity of Irish colonial oppression. This contradiction, for Heaney, was overcome through language, beginning with the realisation that:

“the word ‘whiskey’ is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and [...] the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, urphilological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me. The Irish/English duality, the Celtic/Saxon antithesis were momentarily collapsed and in the resulting etymological eddy a gleam of recognition flashed through the synapses and I glimpsed an elsewhere of potential that seemed at the time to be a somewhere being remembered. The place on the language map where the Usk and the uisce and the whiskey coincided was definitely a place where the spirit might find a loophole, an escape route from what John Montague has called ‘the partitioned intellect’, away into some unpartitioned linguistic country, a region where one’s language would not be simply a badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or an official imposition, but an entry into further language.”

Whenever I think about language and etymology, I can’t help but think about connections across time and space, between different landscapes and peoples who are connected by the very same tools for understanding the world. This may be romantic and naïve, but I truly believe that these points of intersection on the language map can help us to understand humanity and how it interprets the world: what is different between cultures and what is the same, where the nuances are, and how the stories are contained in the words and the words in the stories.

From the first time I read Heaney’s introduction, this idea of an etymological eddy has never been far from my mind.

Incidentally, when I hear the word “eddy” I also can’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, which contains a sequence of episodes along the following lines:

“'I have detected,' Ford said, 'disturbances in the wash.'
Arthur asked him to repeat what he had just said because he hadn't quite understood his meaning. Ford repeated it.
'The wash?' said Arthur.
'The space time wash,' said Ford.
Arthur nodded, and then cleared his throat.
'Are we talking about,' he asked cautiously, 'some sort of Vogon laundromat, or what are we talking about?'
'Eddies,' said Ford, 'in the space-time continuum.'
'Ah,' nodded Arthur, 'is he? Is he?' […]
'Er, who,' said Arthur, 'is Eddy, then, exactly, then?'
Ford looked angrily at him.
'Will you listen?' he snapped.
'I have been listening,' said Arthur, 'but I'm not sure it's helped.'
Ford grasped him by the lapels of his dressing gown and spoke to him as slowly and distinctly and patiently as if he were somebody from the telephone company accounts department.
'There seems…' he said, 'to be some pools...' he said, 'of instability,' he said, 'in the fabric...' he said."

This is followed sometime later with:

"'There!' said Ford, shooting out his arm; 'there, behind that sofa!'
Arthur looked. Much to his surprise, there was a velvet paisley-covered Chesterfield sofa in the field in front of them. He boggled intelligently at it. Shrewd questions sprang into his mind.
'Why," he said, 'is there a sofa in that field?'
'I told you!' shouted Ford, leaping to his feet. 'Eddies in the space-time continuum!'
'And this is his sofa, is it?'

And then again sometime later:

"'All will become clear,' said Slartibartfast.
'In a minute. Listen. The time streams are now very polluted. There's a lot of muck floating about in them, flotsam and jetsam, and more and more of it is now being regurgitated into the physical world. Eddies in the space-time continuum, you see.'
'So I hear,' said Arthur."

Douglas Adams, is of course also responsible for the excellent dictionary of “things that there aren't any words for yet”, The Meaning of Liff, co-authored by John Lloyd. Existing place names form the headwords and the authors simply provided definitions. So “Abinger (n.)” is not a wooded valley in Surrey but instead “One who washes up everything except the frying pan, the cheese grater and the saucepan which the chocolate sauce has been made in.” Similarly, “Alltami (n.)” is not a village in Wales but “the ancient art of being able to balance the hot and cold shower taps.” So, you see, etymological eddies, to me at least, are on the one hand, insights into both the universal and particular essences of culture and people, and on the other, indications of the absurdity of language, and more than that, the absurdity of life, the universe and everything.


[1] Most oystercatchers migrate south for the winter, but a handful of birds are year-long residents.

[2] When I was first researching this prefix, I was convinced that “enough” was formed from “e(d)-” + the Old English cognate of Old Norse (g)nógr, as the Cleasby Old Norse dictionary seems to indicate, referring, under the entry for the ið- prefix, to its contraction in instances such as “í-líkr, much like; í-nógr, e-nough, plentiful”. Instead, the “e” in “enough” is the remnant of the Germanic prefix ge-, originally meaning “with, together”, which had in fact completely disappeared from the Scandinavian languages before they began to be written down, though surviving in relic form in words such as Old Norse gnógr, “enough”, which would be genōg in Old English, with its Germanic prefix intact. In the development of this prefix in English, it completely lost its independent force and intensity, despite persevering in several words, though with the consonant gradually having been lost, leaving i- or e-, or in some dialects a-. So, Old English genōg, became Middle English inoȝ, anoȝ, and finally, modern English enough.


  • The ever dependable Oxford English Dictionary online (OED).
  • Richard Cleasby & Guðbrandur Vigfússon's excellent and authoritative dictionary, though it was misleading in the case of "ið-". It is also now rather old, published in 1874! The whole text is available in digitised form, arranged by page, as one of the texts of the Germanic Lexicon Project, available here.
  • Heaney's translation of Beowulf, complete with its introduction, is published both by Faber and Norton and is widely available. The text is often referred to as the "Heaneywolf", whether affectionately or derisively depends on the individual. The whole text and introduction is also, seemingly, available online, though I hesitate to post links. If you search "Heaney Beowulf introduction", I'm sure you'll find it. 
  • The Life the Universe and Everything, the third book in Douglas Adams' 5-volume series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I wholeheartedly recommend the lot. If you enjoy perceptive commentary on what it is to be human in this day and age hidden behind a thinly veiled mask of perverse and surreal science fiction, look no further. It's also hilarious. Think Monty Python meets Kurt Vonnegut. It follows the catastrophic life and misfortunes of the last surviving man, Arthur Dent, who, to give you an indication of what the books are really like, only narrowly survived the demolition of Earth by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass. He spends most of the next few years in his dressing gown and his most pressing concern (and desire) is to get a decent cup of tea, which is distressingly difficult to find outside of earth. 
  • The Meaning of Liff, also by Douglas Adams, but co-written by John Lloyd (not the tennis player as I initially thought...). As described above, it's a dictionary with the headwords made up of existing place names. They really have an eye for the absurdity of language; and their general observations of the comedy of human life shine through. Oh, go on then, here's one more example: “Adlestrop (n.): That part of a suitcase which is designed to get snarled up on conveyor belts at airports. Some of the more modern adlestrop designs have a special 'quick release' feature which enables the case to flip open at this point and fling your underclothes into the conveyor belt's gearing mechanism.”

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2020