November 14

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Life on Surtsey by Loree Griffin Burns

About a month before I was scheduled to fly to Iceland, rendezvous with nine local scientists, and travel with them to the uninhabited, fifty-years-young volcanic island that was their research study site, I had a nightmare. In it, I had fallen into the North Atlantic Ocean while weighed down with hiking boots and a backpack and heavy winter gear. The dream ended abruptly, and I don’t think I’d yet drowned, but I woke certain that this was a premonition of how I would, eventually, die. Like the very next month, when I would fly on a coast guard rescue helicopter over the North Atlantic, en route to the island of Surtsey.

I told exactly two people about this nightmare. The first was my husband, Gerry. “I’m not going to Surtsey,” I told him. “Because I think I’ll probably die over there.” He was dressing at the time, and he didn’t even look up from the buttons on his shirt.” Of course you’re going to Sutsey,” he said. “How could you turn down an invitation to live on an uninhabited island in the Arctic Circle for a week, surrounded by men and women who know more about the place than anyone else. How could you say no to something like that?” I didn’t bother responding.

Instead, I called one of my oldest friends, Christine. “I’m not going to Surtsey,” I told her. “Because I think I’ll probably die over there.” I don’t remember exactly what Christine said, but I know it was colorful. Suffice to say she agreed with Gerry.

So, I went to Surtsey, and had the experience of my lifetime. I’ll never find the words to describe all I saw and felt there, though I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying. It was desolate and raw and wet, inhospitable, unlike any landscape I’ve ever set eyes upon. It was also bright and breezy and alive with the sound of wind, of seabird colonies, and of the ocean, always the crashing ocean. It’s an invigorating place to be, inspiring and puzzling at the same time. Some days the sky over Surtsey was so blue it hurt to look at it. On grayer days, tendrils of steam that flow from dormant volcanoes at the island’s core floated ominously over the black ground. I learned so much there. Like how a lump of smoking volcanic rock can be transformed, in only half a human lifetime, into earth that is lush and green and alive with insects and birds. What we can learn about this process by closing off a new island and watching it meticulously. Who the people are that do this kind of work, what motivates them, how deep their passions run. I made notes, recorded interviews, took thousands of photographs. I spent a lot of my time on Surtsey in something I can only describe as deepest awe.

Which isn’t to say I was suddenly fearless. Not even close.  I had to ignore a fear of small spaces and serious concerns about flowing lava in order to visit the caves underneath Surtsey’s surface. (We slipped a ladder into a hole in the ground and then climbed into the island.) There was the tiny matter of rocky shoreline bathroom facilities. (Pro tip: never turn your back on the ocean.)  And in order to get home, I had to scale the outside of a coast guard cutter anchored at sea from a tiny rubber dinghy bobbing at its side. (No lie. It’s on video!) [Note: hyperlink the parenthetical text here to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQAP3EF3D14%5D

And then, feeling somewhat accomplished and brave, I came home and took up the task of turning these incredible experiences and all I had learned about Surtsey and its scientists into a book. Like all big writing projects, this one was daunting at the start. There were the usual terrifying moments, where I felt for all the world like I was drowning. But then I would go back to the island and remember some incredible detail, like the way silence builds as you descend into a volcanic crater, or a heart lifts at the sight of an eider duck, not thought to live on the island, waddling along the shore with three fluffy eider ducklings in her wake. How could I not share these stories? I didn’t drown, and I finished the book. Which is why today, on the fifty-fourth anniversary of Surtsey’s arrival on Earth, you can read all about it in Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island.

I’m grateful for the twists of fate and turns of great luck that brought me to Surtsey, and for the people who supported my getting there, from Gerry and Christine to my friends at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, Erling Ólaffson and the entire 2015 expedition team. I hope with everything I am that I did the island and the people who watch over her a good turn, and that their story inspires readers to push back fear in search of awe.

Loree Griffin Burns is an award-winning writer whose books for young people have won many accolades, including ALA Notable designations, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award, an IRA Children’s Book Award, a Green Earth Book Award and two Science Books & Films (SB&F) Prizes. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and her books draw heavily on both her passion for science and nature and her experiences as a working scientist.