Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World

Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World

by Charles Fergus


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Little Lava is a farm on the west coast of Iceland. No roads lead to it; the way lies across a lagoon flooded twice a day by the tide. A lava field borders the farm. From the house, views give onto mountains, volcanoes, rugged coast, and the pure Icelandic sky. In Summer at Little Lava, Charles Fergus tells how he fixed up an abandoned house on the farm and spent a summer there with his wife and their young son-living day to day in great simplicity, without heat, electricity, running water, or other conveniences. Inspired by Henry Beston's classic book, The Outermost House-about a year Beston spent living in a cottage on Cape Cod-Fergus sought a place at the outer limits of civilization, and on the coast of Iceland he found it. As it happened, there was a sudden death in his family-the cruel, pointless murder of his mother at her home in Pennsylvania; and so, in the twilit open spaces of Iceland, Fergus confronted his grief, in the midst of the country's abundant wildlife and distinctive geology, its history and mythology. The little house on the coast became a refuge as he sought to recover himself and the meaning of his life. "Little Lava was a place where I could pass the days in peace," he tells us, "where I could take the first steps into a future that, I hoped, would not be so dimmed with grief and pain." Summer at Little Lava is a wise and vigilant book. It touches on Iceland and Icelanders, birds and nature, tragedy and personal loss; in strong, resonant prose, it evokes the strange and compelling landscape of Iceland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475496
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/01/1999
Pages: 289
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Charles Fergus lives with his wife, Nancy, and their son, Will, in central Pennsylvania, in a stone house that he built.

Read an Excerpt


Two routes led to Little Lava. The longer one took most of an hour, circling wide through marshy pastureland and traversing a tongue of the lava field that bordered the farm. Now, because the tide was out, I could make a direct approach, straight across the mudflats: twenty minutes' walking.

    my arms through the straps of my pack. Beyond the gravelly spot where I'd parked the car, the ground was sodden; it trembled underfoot. Legs apart to keep my balance, I trod across the spongy turf, then splashed through a shallow pond.

    hummocks ranging in size from soccer balls to sofa bolsters. Such hummocks are common throughout rural Iceland. They are called thufur. A thufa arises when water in the soil freezes: the ice, expanding, mounds the soft upward. I clambered over, stumbled between, and lurched through the field of thufur. Icelanders recognize a form of locomotion called thufnagangar, or "thufa-walking." It is said that a farmer come to town can be discerned, above and beyond his fusty suitcoat, by the manner in which he clambers, stumbles, and lurches over level pavement.

    from the grassy crack between two thufur. Scape! Scape! Scape! it cried. It had a long needlelike bill, a russet back, and narrow wings that crooked halfway out their length--wings that whistled as the bird went off twisting and dodging a few feet above the marsh.


    Litlahraun in parentheses. The X and the parentheses meant that the farm was an eydibyli, a deserted place. It would be home for me, my wife, and our son during the summer to come.

    throaty "hroin," means "lava" or "lava field."


    It had been a farm for at least six centuries. The last residents had departed just after World War II when, like so many Icelanders, they moved to the city, abandoning the struggle of subsistence farming in favor of weekly paychecks, of electric lights, refrigerators, indoor plumbing, phones, roads--amenities that had never made it across that obstructive marsh.

    rewards: solitude, birds on the wing, the healing breath of the wind in my face, and the chance to take the days one at a time, the long bright days of the Northern summer.

    building was small and drab, with unpainted concrete walls. Beyond it stretched a plain of dark lava. To the west lay a gray line: the bay. The house looked like a block of lava tumbled away from the flow, or a box of no particular value washed ashore and stranded by the tide.

    I had flown to Iceland two weeks ahead of my wife, Nancy, and our son, William. In Reykjavik I had stayed with our friend Thordur, an adept and cosmopolitan fellow in his thirties who makes his living selling long underwear that he imports from Sweden. Thordur lived with his mother and father in their comfortable modern house in a suburb of Reykjavik called Seltjarnarnes.

    places. Seltjarnarnes means "Seal Pond Peninsula"; Reykjavik is "Smoky Bay," in reference to the steam that early settlers saw rising from the volcanic earth.

    whose windows looked out on Faxafloi Bay. Across the bay, some sixty miles distant, stood the long chain of mountain peaks that formed the spine of Snaeffellsnes, "Snow Mountain Peninsula." Little Lava lay where Snaeffellsnes attached to the mainland of western Iceland.

    helping me obtain the government documents that I needed, open a bank account, and buy a car.

    filled my backpack with my clothes and some food. I put the pack in the car, along with my collapsible kayak. I drove out of town headed north.

A hundred squelching steps after scaring up the snipe, I roused a pair of more formidable birds: Arctic skuas, about the size of crows, with charcoal backs and pale gray bellies. They came flapping up from the boggy ground and, without hesitating, flew at me. They pumped their long wings. Their webbed feet dangled. Kee-yow! Kee-yow! they screamed. I ducked as one of them darted at my face--its wings sounded like a bedsheet ripped in half above my head. Clearly, the skuas had a nest nearby, but I wasn't about to go looking for it, not with those sooty demons hectoring me. I kept on walking, dodging thufur and ducking skuas. After a while the birds quit harassing me; they flew back and landed on a rock near the car.

    from Little Lava, and I was glad that these were Arctic skuas and not great skuas. The great skua is a dun-colored brute twice the size of the Arctic skua. Defending its nest, a great skua will glide in silently from behind and club you in the head with its beak or talons. The blow, I'd been told, could knock a man senseless.

    the tide flats. A notch led down to the sand. The exposed boggy banks were of peat, a compressed coffee-colored mass dripping with water and flecked with blackened twigs and rootlets. Peat bogs cover a tenth of Iceland, about half the island's vegetated area. In the past, people burned peat for cooking and to heat their homes. More recently, they have gone about trenching these wetlands, draining them to make pastures and hayfields at the expense of the bog-dwelling birds.

    mud. Farther out, the greater proportion of sand gave a firmer footing. Twice a day, the tide came and filled the flats. Twice a day, the sea cut off Little Lava from easy access. Now, with the tide out, freshwater stream channels veined the mud-and-sand expanse.

    took to the air, shrieking. Gulls drifted off with more insouciance at my approach. Above the narrow peninsula extending south from Little Lava, a raven flapped and sailed, flapped and sailed.

    up. The air was chill. I was glad to be wearing a thick wool sweater beneath my parka. Raindrops stung my face. Putting up my hood, I trudged on.

    the pain would subside, but it was always there, always waiting, ready to close in again like the rain on this typically fickle Icelandic day.

    seventy-three years old. She had driven home from a birthday party for her three-year-old grandchild, my brother's daughter. The police believed she had come into her house and surprised a burglar. He picked up a kitchen knife. He backed her into a bedroom. He kept on stabbing until she was dead.

    in central Pennsylvania, and I was the one who found her. Since that day, I had lived with grief, and fear, and hatred for one who could commit such an act: the police had arrested a man within a few days of the killing, a man I knew but slightly, a man who must have been the antithesis of the gentle, wise woman I had loved all my life.

    the following summer in Iceland. We were sitting at her dining-room table. From the tree-lined street, a breeze blew in through the open windows. William sat on the floor in the living room, playing with some painted wooden blocks that I had played with when I was a boy; Mom had been watching him while I ran some errands in town.

    look as she set down her red pen. She'd been editing a technical paper for an engineering professor at Penn State University, the school where my father had taught until a few years before his death. For as long as I could remember, Mom had done freelance editing, often for students and faculty for whom English was a second language.

    an abandoned farmhouse. Some friends of Nancy's own it. No electricity or phone. It's on the coast, and you get there by walking across a marsh at low tide."


    to Iceland in the first place. While doing graduate work at the university, she had become fascinated by the Icelandic sagas, the heroic stories of the land's early settlers written down during the Middle Ages. Together we had visited Iceland three times: once before Will was born, once with him when he was an infant, and once when Mom had taken care of him in our absence. And twice Nancy had gone there on her own, to take guided horseback tours into the deserted volcanic interior and to study the Icelandic language. On those two visits, friends had taken her to Little Lava.

    Iceland. I had come to appreciate the country for its wildness, its teeming birdlife, the purity of its air and water, and the grand views opening across the windswept land.

    Lava. What kind of shape was it in? Would it keep us warm and dry? I didn't know much about the old farm, having only seen pictures that Nancy had taken. "It'll be a lot better than a tent," I joked. Could we be contacted in case of an emergency? I assured her that, one way or another, a message could be gotten to us.


    advised a cellular phone, but I would not consider one. "It's not like the middle of Alaska," I said. "There's a farm about a mile from the house."

    a small house of his own on the floor. "Do you think he'll like it?"



    been close, and we had become even closer after my father died, of a heart attack, on Christmas Day in 1986.

    before Will had been born. Nancy and I had gone over to my parents' house for Christmas dinner. When we got there, no one was home, although the lights on the tree were turned on; then the phone rang. By the end of the day, we three were sitting together in the living room--Mom, Nancy, and me. We were numb. I remember that we opened presents, fumbling with the wrapping paper; I guess it was a way of distracting ourselves. We were in shock. My dad was suddenly, irrevocably gone. He had been with us, full of life, just a day ago. Now we would never see him again.

    lose a parent, just like that, on Christmas? I had found out: to lose a parent through murder.

    mother loved her husband, how deeply his death had hurt her. Nine years had passed, and Mom still mourned him; she would be in mourning, I understood, for the rest of her life. But she also loved life. Life had not ended for her with my father's death. Slowly she embraced an independence that she had never before wanted or needed.

Table of Contents

1The Way to Little Lava3
2Poison Cold16
3The Bishop's Spring37
4Bad Mood Path58
5Sea Eagles71
6Settling In83
7Long Beaches95
8In Northern Waters112
9Fire Fortress125
11In the Company of Birds161
12Under the Glacier174
13Salmon River195
14The Confines of Hell209
15The Waning Light226
17Leaving the North262
18A Visitor from the Heath272
A Note on Icelandic285

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