From ambitious concept to international academic institution, Iceland‘s Svartárkot Centre for Research & Education adopts a radical new approach to addressing the complex — often vexed — relationship between humans and nature
At first glance, a lonely farm located in one of the most isolated regions of Europe’s most geographically isolated country would not appear to offer a particularly promising setting for the establishment of an international centre for the study of the complex relationship between nature and culture.
However, thanks to a unique partnership between the Reykjavík Academy and the family and local community at Svartárkot (Black River Croft), a working sheep farm set in the wilds of north east Iceland, what began as a vague idea has now become a living reality, in the shape of the Svartárkot Centre for Research & Education.
Exactly how a group of scholars based in Iceland’s capital came to join forces with a farming community living just below the Arctic Circle to create and international centre of learning is largely down to a mixture of chance and the efforts of literary scholar and critic Viðar Hreinsson, then managing director of the Reykjavík Academy and one of the driving forces behind the project’s launch in 2005.
Born and raised in Iceland’s rural north, Hreinsson has an intimate knowledge of the region in general, Svartárkot in particular, the place where his father grew up there and his cousins still farm and operate a seasonal guesthouse at the nearby Kiðagil school and community centre.
“Svartárkot’s location on the margins of the habitable and uninhabitable world made it an ideal location for studying the relationship between culture and nature, and the fact that some of the basic infrastructure was already in place came as an added bonus,” says Hreinsson,
Formed in 1997 as a grass-roots alternative to the formalised traditions of the University of Iceland, the Reykjavík Academy has since grown to become a vibrant community of independent scholars working mainly in various branches of the humanities and social sciences.
With an established reputation for challenging scholarly conventions and providing a dynamic alternative to traditional universities, the organisation’s notion of extending its activities from city to country was not as far-fetched as it might first appear.
At the same time, the project was given further impetus by proposals for the construction of a hydro-electric dam that could have seen a large part of the area near Svartárkot sunk forever beneath the waters of a storage reservoir.
“The plans for the dam were a real threat and certainly provided an added impetus to do something positive,” recalls Hreinsson. “As things turned out, these plans have now been shelved and will hopefully remain so.”
Idea to reality
Hreinsson and his team now set about turning idea into reality. After knocking on several doors in search of support, the Svartárkot project, as it was now known, secured a modest injection of government funding in 2007.
Although this has since been renewed annually, the limited amount involved and the fact that it is by no means secure means that the Centre has lived something of a hand-to-mouth existence throughout since opening its doors, relying largely on income generated by its own efforts in order to survive.
In the summer of 2007, a group of around 30 leading scholars drawn from universities in Europe, Canada and the US gathered at Svartárkot for a week-long symposium covering disciplines as diverse as anthropology, environmental history, geography, history, literature, philosophy and Old Norse.
Uniting them was a common desire to re-assess their subjects from the standpoint of the culture-nature relationship, and the success of this pilot course served to confirm the potential of Svartárkot as a site for such studies.
The following year, a group of 28 lecturers and students from the Department of Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh took part in a course at the Centre, also pronouncing it a resounding success.
Since then, leading academics and students from several universities in Europe, the US and Canada have participated in courses at Svartárkot, all of whom have described their experiences in highly positive, often glowing, terms.
In terms of location, few places could rival Svartárkot as a setting for such activity. Set against the backdrop of some of Iceland’s most dramatic scenery near the head of the Bárðardalur valley on the banks of the Svartá river and lake from which it takes its name, it stands, quite literally, at the edge of the habitable and uninhabitable worlds.
Black as the name of the river and lake may be, the surrounding landscape is certainly not. To the north lies the sweeping expanse of Fljótsheiði, a large area of heathland that once served as home to several farms, while to the south lie the vast, empty wastes of Ódádahraun, Iceland‘s largest lava field.
This forbidding terrain of sandy deserts, rugged lava fields and brooding volcanoes, some still active, stretches all the way south to Vatnajökull, Europe‘s largest ice-cap, and forms part of Vatnajökull National Park, a 13,600km3 expanse of wilderness covering 13% of Iceland’s total landmass and currently Europe’s largest facility of its kind.
Courses at the Centre come both as customised units designed and conducted by external academic institutions with the assistance of the centre’s specialist team, or as in-house courses designed and implemented by the Centre itself. Injected with an imaginative helping of outdoor lectures and field trips, they are suitable for any student with an interest in the humanities and social or natural sciences.
In-house courses are accredited by the University of Akureyri, north Iceland, and usually count for 10 ECTS credit units, representing an economic as well as novel option for students wishing to earn some valuable credits outside term time.
Over the past five years, the work begun at Svartárkot has grown well beyond the original area, and a network of cultural and educational institutions has now emerged in Iceland, each emphasising different aspects of the culture-nature relationship.
In turn, this has enabled the Svartárkot Centre to offer academics and educational institutions, wherever they may be, a unique service in the form of the customised courses described above. “Customised courses are a vital part of our activities,” explains Hreinsson. “They enable scholars and universities from a wide variety of disciplines, cultures and backgrounds to stage courses of their own at any location in Iceland, without the problem of having to organise them themselves.
“Depending on requirements, we can provide assistance with accommodation, advice on useful destinations, travel arrangements within Iceland, assistance with course planning, and the provision of lecturers, other specialists, and course materials, leaving teachers free to teach and their students free to study. It’s a one-stop, full-service package designed and implemented by academics, for academics.”
At the same time, the Svartárkot Centre also works with several other academic institutions, among them the University of Iceland, the University of Akureyri, the INOR Group, Hólar University College, and the Iceland Academy of the Arts.
In all, around 70 people are now involved directly or indirectly in the Centre and its operations, several of these within the local community. “There’s no doubt that Svartárkot now has real economic significance for the people of Bárðardalur and the surrounding region in terms of the spin-offs it provides from visitor services,” says Hreinsson.
“If universities and academic institutions don’t extend their activities to work with local communities, there’s a real danger that the wealth of knowledge preserved within these communities will be lost forever,” he continues.
“Avoiding this means creating an active dialogue between academically trained and self-taught local scholars in order to pool their knowledge and resources to the ultimate benefit of all involved, and this is one of the basic goals of the Svartárkot Centre.
“Academics may know the lyrics, but locals often know the tune. Together, we can perhaps create a harmony that will shed light on issues of profound relevance to us all, namely the impact of the relationship between culture and nature on our understanding of human history and social development,” concludes literary scholar, author and critic, Vidar Hreinsson. For full information on the Svartárkot Centre for Research & Education, courses and activities, visit www.svartarkot.is.
About the Author
Rab Christie is an Icelandic freelance journalist who has written for several local and international newspapers, magazines and publications on a wide range of topics and issues.
Among other roles, he is currently working as Communications Manager for the Svartárkot Centre for Research & Education.
(ArticlesBase SC #1874182)