As you enter Ísafjörður from the south or east, look up on your left and you will see a house that is not a common sight in these parts: a geodesic dome, and behind that three greenhouses. The house is owned by Ásthildur Cesil Þórðardóttir and her husband Elías Skaftason. He had the idea of a house back in the 80s and initially dreamed of a Mushroom shaped house that you would enter via elevator through the stem, with a living area in the cap that would be painted red with white spots. He saw an interview with the architect who was later to design their place and was sold on the idea of the geodesic design.
The first problem with the house was where to build it. The place they had in mind was expensive, Ásthildur tells us. But she recalls a dream that she had when she was younger in which she saw herself playing on the bank of a creek with a waterfall. And when they by chance drove by the creek that tumbles down their present property, she realized that this was the place. It was only a horse farm at the time, so they bought the land, built the house, and moved in on a Monday in 1987. The house, according to Ásthildur, is a place where dreams have come together, and others have told her that the land is inhabited by elves, black elves for that fact, which are quite mischeivous and like to hide things.
The house, she explains, is full of life, and there is no denying that fact. Walking through the front door, you enter a sort of arboretum, a dome-shaped greenhouse in effect, where the climate is more tropical on a sunny day than it is Arctic (by any standards). Short sleeves are in order. When I ask if it stays warm throughout the winter, she produces a photograph of the dome with snow piled 15 to 20 feet deep around it, and a path leading to one of the panels in the roof by which they entered that winter. But now, mid-summer, the room is full of blooming climatis, betchula, and other plants and hedges, as well as a small pond complete with lillies and qoui fish.
The indoor garden should is not surprising, since Ásthildur is the gardener for the town of Ísafjörður, a position that she has held since 1978. She has worked for the town since 1966, and was interested in growing plants, flowers, and vegetables at the time. People in town often went to her for plants and advice on plants. In 1978, the mayor of Ísafjörður called her, and asked her to do some work with the town´s gardens. He imagined that it would be a part time project, but she explains that with all of the preparation year round it eventually turned into a full time job. Now to help her manage the gardens, she has a crew of students who work with her during the summer planting, mowing lawns, and learning to care for gardens.
Additionally, Ásthildur has three greenhouses that she cares for on the hillside behind her house. Here she grows flowers, some vegetables, and lots of spices. Every year she invites a professional chef to teach a workshop on how to use spices. The greenhouses are half-pipe shaped affairs, probably 70 feet long or so and 20 feet wide. People have visited her houses from all over the world, and she produces a guestbook to demonstrate. What is perhaps most striking about the greenhouses is the orderly manner in which they are kept, pots hung according to size and type, plants arranged accordingly, everything where it can be quickly found.
One might think that it would be difficult to maintain gardens in Ísafjörður, being only twenty or so miles south of the Arctic Circle. Actually several factors work in the favor of a gardener. On the one hand, the climate is relatively warm gived the proximity of the Gulf Stream to Iceland (though nonetheless it is worth mentioning that at this point in time, mid-May, the sea ice is only about sixty miles from town and can create a rather cold wind). Additionally, from May until August there is nearly continuous daylight, which allows plants to grow that are typically seen much farther south. Nonetheless, walking through town, I notice that the tulips take a surprisingly long time to open after the buds have emerged from the ground.
Aside from being a gardener in Ísafjörður, Ásthildur is also the mother of 4 children (plus one from her husband) and a grandmother to 20 grandchildren, or at least to 20 children who are either her blood grandchildren or who refer to her as grandmother. Her heart is truly in the work of raising children, and today she takes care of a sick grandchild, only two years old, while she talks to us. At one point we talked about the recent economic crisis and how it has affected her. She hugs her granddaughter and tells us, "Money is just money; this is the real fortune."
Before we leave, Ásthildur asks if we have time for just one more story, a story about life. We sit on the ground outside the front door to the house and she begins to tell us about her son, and his difficulty with drug addiction in the past. "He made a sculpture in prison out of wire and steel and nails, and it was so full of anger and hate. When he brought it into the house, you could just feel it." And then one day, it disappeared, and he started making statues out of stone and concrete. She produces a sailboat, made from a piece of stone and with a leather sail, and several small sculptures that, when set flat look like fish and when stood on end resemble a human face. Matt asks, "These certainly aren´t full of anger and hatred, far from it. What happened to make the change." "It is hard to say," she reflects, "But I learned that you can´t give up on your children. It´s the drugs that are bad, not the people who use them. They are victims. And inside them there is good that is waiting to come out." Indeed.