The botanical garden in the middle of nowhere


This article originally written in Italian by Sofia Nannini for the University of Bologna Blog has been translated by Nico Borbely.

Sofia Nannini is a doctoral student in architectural history at the Politecnico di Torino. His research interests focus on construction and the history of materials, with particular attention to the history of concrete. For her doctoral thesis, she is studying the role of concrete in Icelandic architecture between the 1850s and the 1950s.

The story of a garden that survives on the edge of the Arctic Circle

There isn’t much on the shores of Dýrafjörður, one of the many deep fjords in western Iceland. Farms, bare mountains with permanently snow-capped peaks, a road that runs along the coast, a church and an old school. The land is dark and barren, flocks of sheep graze freely between the streams, and the north wind does not allow plants to grow very high. “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, all you have to do is get up.” This joke reflects the arboreal reality of the island with a caustic Nordic irony. In fact, only about two percent of its land is covered with trees. But it wasn’t always like that. When the first Norwegians arrived by sea in the distant year 874, birch forests covered almost 40% of the island’s surface. Over the centuries, trees have been slowly felled to build ships and houses and to make way for pasture. It is only in the last 50 years that this trend has been reversed, thanks to political pressure for reforestation. However, it is still strange to spot green spots in Iceland’s almost desert desolation, and for this reason the small oasis of Skrúður stands out even more.

Skrúður is a small botanical garden nestled in a small stone wall on the slopes of a steep, icy slope, founded in 1909 by Sigtryggur Guðlaugsson, a Protestant pastor and teacher at the nearby Núpur boarding school. The purpose of the garden was to educate the pupils of the school, to teach them to work the land, to take care of the plants and to be able to recognize them. This is how Sigtryggur and his students slowly erected an enclosure, removed stones, dug the ground and planted trees which still bloom today. While there is frozen gravel all around, one enters the garden and is surrounded by colorful flower beds and fruit trees.

In the center of the greenery is a small greenhouse, a glass refuge capable of capturing the little heat provided by the arctic sun. This hidden corner of agriculture torn from the arid landscape received the International Carlo Scarpa Prize in 2013, an important recognition in the world of landscape architecture. The jury commented on the motivation behind their awarding of the prize:

“Skrúður is a fortress and a melting pot in itself: its enclosure embodies a condition that seeks a point of contact between two worlds, that of confidence and the confidence to cultivate the land, and that of the conscious gaze on the immensity of the places which accompany the very human experience.

Going through the entrance gate into the garden is, indeed, an unprecedented architectural experience. It’s hard to feel the uniqueness of the place at first, as the presence of fertile land and green fronds above it is easily taken for granted. Slowly, however, one grasps the powerful gesture made by the young students of these valleys a century ago: to seize a small, silent and deserted strip of land, and to make it human, by transforming a tiny enclosure into a place. learning and memory.

Icelandic poet Guðmundur Ingi Kristjánsson described the garden in 1938 as follows:

Skrúður er brosandi blettur
blettur sem er að sjá
sýnir hve sweet og máttug
moldin sem landið itt á.

Skrúður is a smiling brand
who deserves to be seen
which shows how sweet and powerful
the land of your land can be.

Those who admire Skrúður really know, in fact, ‘knowing the creative desire to cultivate’. An activity so old and so human that it can only be fully appreciated in the far reaches of the Arctic. Those who admire and walk in this garden in the middle of nowhere understand the incredible magnitude of the work hidden behind each flower, and are moved by the observation of the eternal confrontation between man and nature, which here , even for a few square meters, finds harmony.

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