A Change of Perspective: Visiting the Places of Your Research

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

The subject of my doctoral thesis is the Laki Fissure eruption that took place in Iceland from 1783 to 1784, and its impacts on the northern hemisphere. My studies in history have prepared me for finding primary sources and secondary literature, as well as handling and interpreting historical materials. Occasionally, my university courses included field trips to other cities, museums, or archives. During this time, however, we rarely practiced how to read landscapes and use them to illuminate the past of an area or region. Now that I’m pursuing a doctoral degree in the highly interdisciplinary field of environmental history—for which I use geology, volcanology, and climate science—I have come to embrace new research methods.

Interdisciplinary research is challenging: You must communicate across disciplinary boundaries, use different languages, explain your methods carefully, and make sure you publish in a medium that is read by both historians and natural scientists. Interdisciplinary research is also a tremendously exciting and rewarding experience. When you work with people from another discipline — in my case, geology or volcanology — you get to see the world through their eyes. You learn how to read the landscape, and once you have learned to look at the world through the eyes of a geologist, you see things you can’t unsee anymore. I can’t walk or drive by an outcrop anymore without having at least a quick look at the strata.

As a doctoral candidate in the Environment and Society doctoral program at the Rachel Carson Center at LMU Munich, I get to study and work with other doctoral candidates from different disciplines and different backgrounds. Most of them are not early modern historians. I’m fascinated when my fellow students share their work about conducting interviews with contemporaries to gather materials for their projects. I’m sure most early modern historians would love to be able to pose direct questions to the people who lived during the periods we study, instead we must be content to scour their written documents. However, despite the temporal distance from the present to the early modern period, there are still many ways to experience it.

The Laki fissure eruption occurred in the Icelandic highlands in 1783-1784. This volcanic eruption was exceptional for many reasons: It was not your average cone-shaped volcano, but a 27-kilometer-long fissure, which produced the largest amount of lava of any volcano in the last millennium in its eight-month-long eruption. Icelanders remember this eruption as Skaftáreldar, the Skaftá Fires. Skaftá is the name of the mighty glacial river in this region. This river dried up during the eruption, and a day later lava flowed there instead of water.

The consequences of this eruption were felt widely across the northern hemisphere: many, unusual weather phenomena, such as a long-lasting and sulfuric-smelling dry fog, blood-red sunsets and sunrises, and numerous severe thunderstorms characterized the year 1783. I wish I could interview the people who experienced these weather conditions about what they saw, smelled, and thought!

For obvious reasons, interviews are a method that is unavailable to me, but I can study how the contemporaries in 1783 saw, experienced, and thought about the world through the things they left behind—written documents, maps, paintings, and even built structures. I can also visit the places where they used to live. Most of these places have, of course, changed substantially within the past 200+ years. But perhaps that is an underused technique.

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to visit Iceland—I had started to work on the Laki Fissure eruption in 2014 and wanted to visit this volcano and the country that it tormented in 1783. The Laki Fissure eruption, and the “hardships of the mist” that followed the eruption—adverse weather, fluorine poisoning of the fields and meadows, loss of livestock, diseases related to malnutrition, and loss of life—is to this day is remembered as the worst catastrophe in Icelandic history.

Getting to the Laki Fissure is not quite as easy as you would think. On a map, you can see that the Laki Fissure is “only“ located 50 kilometers inland from Iceland’s famous ring road. Maps can be deceiving, however. The F-roads that lead you to the fissure require a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and you might have to cross a number of rivers en route. I did not want to drive a rental car through any rivers, so I took a four-wheel-drive bus to Laki. With a few stops along the way, the return journey from nearby Kirkjubæjarklaustur took around eight hours.

The street you can see is the ring road and this is the turn towards the Laki Fissure, 49 kilometers to go! Photo taken by author.

Taking a four-wheel-drive bus is a very luxurious way of traveling when you compare it to the story of how the Laki Fissure was discovered. Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle, the weather is versatile and even in the few, short summer months, June to August, the weather can change quickly, with blizzards being possible in the highlands. Summer is the only time of year to explore the highlands.

During the summer of the early 1790s, Icelandic physician and naturalist Sveinn Pálsson explored the Icelandic highlands to study its natural history. In the summer of 1794, his travels led him to the Laki Fissure. He kept a travel diary, which revealed how exhausting the journey must have been: He traveled on horseback, fording rivers while carrying provisions and equipment.

Visiting the Laki Fissure helped me tremendously to understand the distances, not just in metric units, but also in terms of the roughness of the terrain and the difficultness of traversing this landscape without roads or bridges. While on the trip to Laki, I traveled in a sheltered and heated vehicle, protected from the elements, however, it was easy to imagine the magnitude of the task that faced Pálsson in his search for the origin of the source of “the Fires” in the late eighteenth century.  

One of the craters along the Laki Fissure. Photo taken by author.

Mount Laki did not erupt in 1783 but is coincidentally located in the middle of the fissure that did. In Icelandic, the fissure is known as Lakagígar, the craters of Laki. When you are standing on top of Mount Laki, which is towering around 200 meters above the surrounding landscape, you can see Vatnajökull to the northeast and Mýrdalsjökull to the southwest, two ice shields. The Laki Fissure is part of the Grímsvötn volcanic system, which is a central volcano located underneath Vatnajökull.

A lava field inside one of the craters of the Laki Fissure in Iceland. Photo taken by author.

From Mount Laki, you can also see many of the craters that make up the Laki Fissure. It is so stunning to imagine that all of this was once an ocean of lava covering 599 square kilometers. When you travel between through the landscape, you can see the lava fields stretch into the distance, almost as far as the eye can see. If it isn’t the Skaftáreldhraun, the Laki lava fields, it will be the lava fields produced by another eruption in the region.

Hraun chocolate in a supermarket in Iceland. Photo taken by author.

Visiting the Laki Fissure and climbing Mount Laki left me in awe of this amazing landscape. And it turns out I’m not the only one enchanted by it: When you travel to Iceland, you can not only appreciate the beauty of lava fields visually or tactilely; you can even experience it gustatorily! I do not, however, recommend taking a big bite out of the lava fields. This is an ecologically delicate part of the environment that should be protected. Icelanders seem to love their volcanically-formed landscape so much that they created a lava field-shaped chocolate! When I strolled through a supermarket in Reykjavík, I recognized a word on a package that I had encountered on Icelandic maps before: Hraun. This means lava field in Icelandic! Isn’t that amazing? If only you could buy this little sugary lava fields as easily as you can buy little sugary Swiss mountains in many airports around the world!

As you probably know, when you intensively work on a topic, you encounter it everywhere! The Laki Fissure eruption and its impacts are apparent in Europe too. I visited a few towns in Germany that were affected by severe flooding and ice drifts during the winters of 1783/1784 and searched the historic city centers for flood markers and imagined what they must have gone through—but that is a story for another day.

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Katrin Kleemann is a doctoral candidate at the Rachel Carson Center / LMU Munich in Germany, she studies environmental history and geology. Her doctoral project investigates the Icelandic Laki fissure eruption of 1783 and its impacts on the northern hemisphere. She holds a master’s degree in early modern history and a bachelor’s degree in history and cultural anthropology. Katrin receives a fellowship from the Andrea von Braun Foundation, which supports interdisciplinary research. She also is the social media editor for the Climate History Network and HistoricalClimatology.com.

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