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Beauty from Ashes

 


“To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit
of despair.” — Isaiah 61:3

Seven years ago, a mountain in southern Iceland called Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This caused an enormous emission of smoke and ash that covered large areas of northern Europe. Consequently, the majority of European flights from April 14 to 20, 2010 were cancelled, creating the highest level of air travel disruption since the Second World War. Twenty countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic and it affected about 10 million travelers. By April 21, the eruption had ended. Since no further lava or ash was being produced, the crisis was declared over and flights returned to normal.

But life would never be normal again for the many homes and farms in the countryside around Eyjafjallajökull. The toxic ash had killed their livestock and crops and rendered their soil useless. Many families moved away, others sold all their holdings and changed their livelihoods. But a small, enterprising number of Icelanders stayed. Rather than curse the ashes that had obliterated their former lives, they took them and turned them into new sources of income. One of the most successful was soap.

Soap made from volcanic ash is actually an ancient practice. It is rich in minerals and antibacterial sulfur which helps slow down the aging process. The ash in the soap remains active and provides a mild, natural exfoliation while absorbing toxins. I find that intriguingly ironic – the substance that was so toxic to a land can turn and help alleviate the toxins in our bodies.

I was able to visit one of these farms-turned-soap-centers last year during a January trip to Iceland. Even in the midst of a frigid winter, business was good. I bought about a dozen bars for friends and family and I can attest to the cleansing properties. I was especially intrigued by the fact that this region named their soap after the deadly volcano; they even put a picture of the eruption on the label. The woman behind the counter gave her explanation: “It has become part of our lives. Once it was bad, but now it is good.”

Once it was bad, but now it is good. Seven years later, this lesson from Iceland still resonates with me. And I continue to wonder: what do we do with the ashes in our lives? May we find a way to find the hidden beauty in the ashes – and to redeem them only for good.

Published in Group Writing
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Members have made 21 comments.

  1. Profile photo of Scott Wilmot Member

    Great story. Thank you.

    • #1
    • August 9, 2017 at 6:13 am
    • Like3 likes
  2. Profile photo of Susan Quinn Contributor

    Lovely, I.M. Fine. I remember that eruption and its effects. I can so appreciate the industriousness of the people to find a new path following the devastation. But was it a good idea to name the soap after the volcano? That’s quite a mouthful! Thanks for the very special quote and the story.

    • #2
    • August 9, 2017 at 6:13 am
    • Like3 likes
  3. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    Well, it’s better than what happened with the Móðuharðindin after 1783. Modern transportation and technology certainly can help more in a disaster.

    • #3
    • August 9, 2017 at 6:34 am
    • Like2 likes
  4. Profile photo of Dan Campbell Member

    Within the last year or so I read a book about the history of concrete that said the Romans used sand from areas with volcanic activity in their concrete mix. The author attributed the volcanic ash with making the concrete extra permanent, which is why Roman concrete constructions are still around and more or less intact, versus modern concrete that is crumbling after less than 100 years.

    Perhaps ConcreteVol could comment?

    • #4
    • August 9, 2017 at 7:21 am
    • Like9 likes
  5. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    Perhaps ConcreteVol could comment?

    @concretevol, please call your office.

    • #5
    • August 9, 2017 at 7:28 am
    • Like2 likes
  6. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    The author attributed the volcanic ash with making the concrete extra permanent, which is why Roman concrete constructions are still around and more or less intact, versus modern concrete that is crumbling after less than 100 years.

    But that is the theory I have seen as well.

    • #6
    • August 9, 2017 at 7:29 am
    • Like1 like
  7. Profile photo of Isaac Smith Member

    Very nice article. And interesting discussion too.

    • #7
    • August 9, 2017 at 8:42 am
    • Like3 likes
  8. Profile photo of I. M. Fine Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Lovely, I.M. Fine. I remember that eruption and its effects. I can so appreciate the industriousness of the people to find a new path following the devastation. But was it a good idea to name the soap after the volcano? That’s quite a mouthful! Thanks for the very special quote and the story.

    You’re right, Susan. It is such a mouthful, I still can’t figure out how to pronounce it. Someone in the farm-turned-soap-center told me the size of the soap bars had been dictated by the sheer length of the name of their product.

    • #8
    • August 9, 2017 at 9:44 am
    • Like5 likes
  9. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):
    It is such a mouthful, I still can’t figure out how to pronounce it.

    If you speak Icelandic or most European languages that did not experience the Great Vowel Shift, it’s not that difficult. It’s pronounced just as it’s spelled: Eyjafjallajokull. The Js are pronounced like Ys, So: I ya fyall I eh kool

    • #9
    • August 9, 2017 at 9:58 am
    • Like5 likes
  10. Profile photo of I. M. Fine Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Well, it’s better than what happened with the Móðuharðindin after 1783. Modern transportation and technology certainly can help more in a disaster.

    Yes. The “mist hardships.” I heard a number of Icelanders refer to this tragic period during my time there. The long-term effects of volcanic eruptions on livestock are still a concern in Iceland, even with their technology. I remember one gentleman said it often takes years for the effects to become evident.

    • #10
    • August 9, 2017 at 10:23 am
    • Like1 like
  11. Profile photo of I. M. Fine Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):
    It is such a mouthful, I still can’t figure out how to pronounce it.

    If you speak Icelandic or most European languages that did not experience the Great Vowel Shift, it’s not that difficult. It’s pronounced just as it’s spelled: Eyjafjallajokull. The Js are pronounced like Ys, So: I ya fyall I eh kool

    I wish you could attach an audio file so I could hear you pronounce it! 🙂 (What you say makes sense, Arahant. Icelandic is a beautiful language – it is just visually so intimidating.)

    • #11
    • August 9, 2017 at 10:29 am
    • Like3 likes
  12. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    Wikipedia has a sound file:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/75/Is-Eyjafjallaj%C3%B6kull_%283%29.oga

    They transcribe it differently than I do, but I speak with a Southern dialect.

    • #12
    • August 9, 2017 at 10:44 am
    • Like7 likes
  13. Profile photo of Randy Webster Member

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    Within the last year or so I read a book about the history of concrete that said the Romans used sand from areas with volcanic activity in their concrete mix. The author attributed the volcanic ash with making the concrete extra permanent, which is why Roman concrete constructions are still around and more or less intact, versus modern concrete that is crumbling after less than 100 years.

    Perhaps ConcreteVol could comment?

    John Walker put up a post about the difference between Roman and modern concrete and their relative durability a couple of months ago.

    • #13
    • August 9, 2017 at 3:56 pm
    • Like3 likes
  14. Profile photo of Concretevol Thatcher

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    Within the last year or so I read a book about the history of concrete that said the Romans used sand from areas with volcanic activity in their concrete mix. The author attributed the volcanic ash with making the concrete extra permanent, which is why Roman concrete constructions are still around and more or less intact, versus modern concrete that is crumbling after less than 100 years.

    Perhaps ConcreteVol could comment?

    It wasn’t just the volcanic ash that made the Roman concrete so strong, but the combination with seawater and lime. Seawater apparently had a chemical reaction with the volcanic material and sea water create some sort of silica based crystal that forms throughout the concrete, binding it together. The reverse is basically true with modern concrete which is made using Portland cement past to bind the aggregates together. Sea water deteriorates it.

    • #14
    • August 9, 2017 at 8:31 pm
    • Like7 likes
  15. Profile photo of Grosseteste Member

    I love this anecdote, and thank you again for taking the initiative to post!


    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Beauty”, planned for the whole month of August. If you follow this link, you can see the links to other August posts, which will be updated as the month goes on. While you’re there, please sign up! There’s plenty of room.

    • #15
    • August 9, 2017 at 10:17 pm
    • Like3 likes
  16. Profile photo of Songwriter Member

    Great post, Ms. Fine. You should consider writing a travel blog. :)*

    (* An inside joke – as Ms. Fine is already working on said travel blog. She writes so well that her readers will want to go to the locale, but will not need to because her blog so successfully describes it.)

    • #16
    • August 10, 2017 at 6:02 am
    • Like3 likes
  17. Profile photo of Hang On Member

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):
    It is such a mouthful, I still can’t figure out how to pronounce it.

    If you speak Icelandic or most European languages that did not experience the Great Vowel Shift, it’s not that difficult. It’s pronounced just as it’s spelled: Eyjafjallajokull. The Js are pronounced like Ys, So: I ya fyall I eh kool

    I wish you could attach an audio file so I could hear you pronounce it! 🙂 (What you say makes sense, Arahant. Icelandic is a beautiful language – it is just visually so intimidating.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSo_ND41-6g

    What I like about the video is you can see how he is using his tongue in his mouth to make the sounds.

    • #17
    • August 10, 2017 at 1:03 pm
    • Like3 likes
  18. Profile photo of Hang On Member

    Concretevol (View Comment):

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):
    Within the last year or so I read a book about the history of concrete that said the Romans used sand from areas with volcanic activity in their concrete mix. The author attributed the volcanic ash with making the concrete extra permanent, which is why Roman concrete constructions are still around and more or less intact, versus modern concrete that is crumbling after less than 100 years.

    Perhaps ConcreteVol could comment?

    It wasn’t just the volcanic ash that made the Roman concrete so strong, but the combination with seawater and lime. Seawater apparently had a chemical reaction with the volcanic material and sea water create some sort of silica based crystal that forms throughout the concrete, binding it together. The reverse is basically true with modern concrete which is made using Portland cement past to bind the aggregates together. Sea water deteriorates it.

    Here’s an article that makes sense to me about the chemistry.

    • #18
    • August 10, 2017 at 1:19 pm
    • Like3 likes
  19. Profile photo of Randy Webster Member

    I couldn’t get past the heading. Mortar and concrete are two totally different things. Mortar holds bricks and blocks together. You build things out of concrete.

    • #19
    • August 10, 2017 at 2:47 pm
    • Like1 like
  20. Profile photo of Skyler Member

    I lived there for two years from summer of 1975 to summer of 1977, and went back for a brief visit back in 1991. I hope to get back there again and see all this first hand. It’s so pretty there.

    • #20
    • August 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm
    • Like4 likes
  21. Profile photo of Trink Reagan

    I. M. Fine:

    And I continue to wonder: what do we do with the ashes in our lives? May we find a way to find the hidden beauty in the ashes – and to redeem them only for good.

    This was simply – beautiful. Thank you.

    • #21
    • August 11, 2017 at 2:25 pm
    • Like3 likes