Environmental Assessment

Environmental Assessment in regards to Skarðssel by Þjórsá

In recent years Borghildur Óskarsdóttir has made remarkable strides through her work which focuses on the history of common people from the spectacular landscape of Landsveit and Rangárvellir. Her ancestors lived in these provinces on the edge of wilderness where the landscape is constantly being reshaped by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and sandstorms. Many of these homesteads have long since been deserted but in some places remnants of habitation can still be seen with drystacks and overgrown ruins. Borghildur says that many years ago here elderly father sparked her interest in the history of these peoples, the landscape they inhabited and the remnants they left behind.

You can say that, with her work, Borghildur is waging an heroic war against the obliteration of time. A force that is as relentless and unthinking as the ashes of Mount Hekla. Still her works also communicate a friendly reminder that we should learn to know and respect our history. In her own words: “The history of the people is our roots and the roots lie in the land”.

In her work “The threads on the land” Borghildur has traced back the lineage of five generations that lived in these areas spread across 7 farms from 1760 to 1941. She made a map of this historic area noting the locations of the farms. By the ruins she has placed stone landmarks inscribed with a glimpse of their history. The landmarks chronicle the destruction of the black sand from eruptions from Hekla. How the sand decimated farmland and displaced people. We also get a glimpse of a tight-knit farming community where the common people had a short supply of resources, options and freedom.

The name of one of the homesteads is Skarðssel. There Borghildur’s grandparents, Höskuldur Jónsson and Arndís Magnúsdóttir, made their home in 1894 after encroaching sand forced them away from their home north of Skarðsfjall in Landsveit. Sand had spoiled the water supply and turned the once flowing green hills into an even black desert. The ruins of Skarðssel are on the grassy bank of Þjórsá north east of Skarðsfjall. The farm was excavated this summer. It reveled clearly dicernable drystacks that formed obvious living quarters and a stable with three stalls. The dig was a part of a legally mandated environmental assessment preformed in preparation for a dam project in Þjórsá. The so called Hvammsvirkjun will be built in this spot, the top most of three dams in lower Þjórsá. Many local farmers both on the east and west of Þjórsá have protested the project publicly. Their view is that the reservoirs for the dams will damage the fruitful farmland and threaten the rivers fish migration. In addition they fear that, with the dams and the dramatic influence they will have on this great river, the appearance of the area will be negatively affected.

Borghildur’s project, “Environmental Assessment”, now showing in Reykjavík Town hall, reminds us of the people that built their new home 125 years ago, escaping the black sands. To intensify the connection to the history of these people and open our eyes, she lays her own handmade clay bowl in the ruins. It is almost as like she is setting the table for dinner. The piece of course also encourages to contemplate the environmental assessment. To look beyond the technical language and ask what it is that is being assessed.

Text H.S.

Translation V.Ó.