From the sundrenched Nile to the windswept valleys of Iceland, this month I am paying tribute to a woman not well known outside Scandinavia. She was neither rich nor beautiful, or famous for conquering armies or men. Instead, she championed a cause to preserve a natural wonder from being harnessed for industrial development. Her name was Sigridur Tomasdottir.
Born in the early 1870s in the rural hamlet of Brattholt, in southwest Iceland, she grew up on her family’s sheep farm, the lands of which also contained the stupendous waterfall called Gullfoss. As a child she must have run barefoot in summer under brilliant blue Icelandic skies, and watched as winter turned the land into a frozen panorama of dazzling white. Regardless of the season, she would have been able to hear the thunderous roar of the falls as it cascaded down from the Hvita River. How could one not be impressed with this magnificent gift from nature?
By the beginning of the 20th century, investors started becoming interested in exploiting Iceland’s waterfalls for hydroelectric power. Several financiers were able to actually rent Gullfoss from her father, while planning its use for industrialization. When it appeared that the waterfall might actually be sold to far-off investors, Sigridur started making numerous trips to the capital, Reykjavik, to speak to government officials of the potential loss were Gullfoss to become owned by foreign industrialists. It is interesting to note that it was a 72 mile trek for her to reach the city.
Year after year, she championed for the falls to be put into conservation, and used her own savings to hire a lawyer to represent her. That lawyer went on to become the first President of Iceland. By the time she died in 1957, she was almost 87 years old and had lived long enough to see laws passed that excluded foreign nationals from being able to purchase a state-owned waterfall. The Gullfoss Waterfall was finally put into permanent conservation in 1979 and still remains one of Iceland’s most spectacular natural sites. It is within the top three tourist destinations for travelers visiting Iceland.
I chose Sigridur because even without the benefit of a formal education, or political clout, or family money, she followed her passion, believed in her cause, never gave up, and pursued her quest without regard for fortune or fame. Her legacy is our access to the falls. Go to http://www.youtube.com and click on any button for Gullfoss. I hope you enjoy their majestic beauty.