The Elf Spoke Theft: A Brief Saga of Climate Change

Skagastrond, North Iceland

A smokestack stands alone and unattached meters from a dull and lightly docked bay backdropped by Westfjords. A person-sized, square hole stands in its base, a postpartum scar from the demolished herring factory it relieved exhaust of mere decades prior.

Well before the fish vanished, before men returned from weeks at sea empty-handed, before the Icelandic way of life itself fell into question; the factory’s owner saw its ill fortune in a dream — that universal space wherein all ill fortunes are made and broken.

He proclaimed to the fellow townspeople of Skagastrond, then a prominent fishing village by mid-century Icelandic standards, that an elf had come to him in his chilly slumber. The elf, whose people were rumored to roam in the hillocks and cliffs behind the factory, implored him to tear down the dark, culling structure, or face dire consequences. Racked with guilt and worry, the man ultimately took the dream-elf’s advice and razed his gray monster to the ground. For whatever reason, its chimney survived.*

Detail of an abandoned prawn factory in Skagastrond.

An abandoned farmhouse some kilometers north of Skagastrond. The atmosphere is composed of a mix of cloud cover and smoke from a bonfire far beyond the structure.

Iceland’s explosive post-war boom brought numerous technological developments to its indispensable fishing industry, namely sonar. Ambitious and motivated, Icelanders fished for Arctic herring with reckless abandon in an effort to compete in a global marketplace in which they had previously held only a marginal share. Neighboring countries met their new competition by expanding their own fishing operations.

Side view of the same farmhouse.

After a few years of record scores in the mid-1960s, fish populations in the North Sea plummeted, and by 1970 the Arctic herring was on the brink of extinction. Undeterred by profit loss, fishing continued for six more years until a 20-year international moratorium was finally put in place in 1976.

The Icelandic government attempted to redirect its fishing industry to other stocks like shrimp and cod, but these initiatives proved too drastic and rapid an adjustment for remote fishing communities in the North. With the nation’s primary source of wealth and international clout all but dematerialized, its economy quickly followed suit. Unemployed and desperate, entire villages relocated to urban sites inland, and with little hope of returning to their old means of subsistence, left the skeletons of their ill-fated industry behind.

One of many abandoned farmhouses in Skagafjordur.

While many of these fishing towns still survive, their populations never completely recovered, and now subsist on a dull alchemy of cod fishing and tourism.

The Northern coast lives in the shadow of its brief abundance, with hollow homes and rusted remains littering the shores of its fjords. Earth and iron mingle as what little can grow in Iceland’s ashy soil outpaces the work of the people who remain.

Herein is a brief, non-exhaustive 35mm photo diary cataloguing details of some bones amidst regrowth, a small reminder of the relentless short-sightedness of mankind and the uncompromising capriciousness of the things which it feigns to comprehend, even still.

All photos captured on Kodak Portra 400 on a Canon FT-b.

*Also, for whatever reason, I neglected to photograph it. Sorry.