Sigridur Tomasdóttir: Icelandic Waterfall WonderWoman

Research in Iceland unearths an environmental heroine.

carolCarol Devine

I was about to ‘meet’ an early 20th century change-maker or perhaps Viking, Sigridur Tomasdóttir. Before touching down in the beautiful tiny country on a short flight from Toronto, I read about Sigridur. It was timely to be inspired by the woman known as Iceland’s first environmental activist. I went there to research the melting glaciers and I took along my nine-year old daughter, Veronica.

In Iceland, disaster is a constant threat. Iceland sits on Eurasia and North America’s tectonic plates and is virtually splitting in two. Since early settlement of the land of ‘ice and fire’ it has experienced earthquakes, volcano eruptions, landslides and floods.

But Icelanders are also a nation of leaders and survivors with countless stories of strong women in the country’s Sagas, folk tales and political office. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was Iceland’s (and Europe’s) first female president from 1980-1996.

Sigridur lived on a sheep farm in Brattholt in southwest Iceland (1874-1957). The farm had a remarkable feature: a massive powerful waterfall, Gullfoss (Golden Falls). Sigridur and her sisters loved the falls and guided visitors there, cutting the first paths. She was self-taught, a well-read and talented illustrator and embroiderer.

Iceland’s ice caps, waterfalls and volcano systems are all interconnected. Sigridur may not have known that in detail but she valued the falls not only for their aesthetic beauty.

Gullfoss cascades from the Hvita River in southwest Iceland. The river originates in the glacier lake Hvítávatn at Lángjökull glacier north of Gullfoss. The falls plunge 1000ft into a gorge with approximately 100 tons of water flowing over per second.

falls icelandAt the turn of the 19th century, Sigridur’s father Tomas was approached by foreign investors wanting to dam the waterfalls for hydroelectrical production. They offered money but he famously said, “I do not sell my friends.”

But soon financiers indirectly rented Gullfoss. Sigridur fought to protect it. She often walked or rode on horseback 120km to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, to urge Iceland’s rich and powerful business men and political leaders to let the waterfall be. Sigridur threatened to throw herself over the waterfalls if they were to be dammed.

We will never know if her threat was a calculated risk or if she’d have done it but Sigridur’s story is amongst those of intensely committed women willing to gamble all for their beliefs.

Sigridur advocated to make the waterfall a permanent conservation site, using her own money to hire a lawyer (he later became Iceland’s first President.)

Fortunately the foreign investors were unsuccessful at expoiting Gullfoss, partly due to lack of funds. Before Sigridur died a new law forbade foreign nationals from purchasing a state-owned waterfall. Gullfoss became a national park in 1979.

Sigradur’s memorial, by sculptor Rikhardur Jonsson, sits by the waterfall and is visited each year by thousands of tourists.

In our current struggle to protect ecologically and culturally important places it helps to remember actions of individuals such as Sigridur so we can be encouraged, brave, outspoken and innovative. Not martyrs, not violent, but also not passive witnesses to our times. I think of Julia Butterfly Hill, turning 40 this year, who from December 1997 to December 1999 lived in an ancient California Redwood tree to stop loggers from felling it.

I had the fortune to work in Antarctica and it was only a matter of time that the magnet drawing me south would drive me to the Arctic. On this recent Iceland trip with Veronica, we hiked glaciers, visited waterfalls and stayed on a farm while I studied the impact of Iceland’s glacier melt on our lives and future.

We climbed a steep hill to peer into the gorge of another of Iceland’s gorgeous waterfalls, Skógafoss, meaning forest waterfall. I thought of Sigridur.

Veronica SkogafossVeronica was certain elves were creating rainbows next to the falls. She was devastated to learn the glaciers creating these falls could vanish within 200 years. Veronica said she wants to buy and use less. I must do the same and more.

I’m concerned about the impact of glacier loss and sea rise not only for Iceland but far away places such as the Pacific Ocean’s low-lying atolls. The nationals of Kiribati, for example, are having to move.

Iceland has the second largest glacier in Europe after Greenland. Vatnajökull glacier covers 11 percent of the country. Glaciers from Iceland to Peru, Tanzania to Antarctica are shrinking. There is evidence this is partly caused by greenhouse gas emissions that humans have created – and humans can reduce.

Sigudur’s devotion to Gullfoss and efforts to save it make me hopeful regular people can do good.

With the rabid consumption of the world’s natural resources, with global inequity and inequity for women and girls, I think we risk the suffering of future generations if we don’t defend humankind and nature that sustains us, however we can.

Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh.