July 20 2024

How to Fall in Love with a Glacier: Teaching Environmental Humanities in Iceland

by Shannon Grimes, Meredith College

Row of students with umbrellas blocking the sun walking alongside a pond at Tetsugaku-no-Michi in Kyoto, Japan

Setting the Stage

When my colleague from the English department, Eloise Grathwohl, approached me about teaching a study abroad course with her in Iceland last summer, I didn’t need much cajoling. She told me we’d be living in a glacial valley where wild horses roam, with magnificent views of active volcanoes, hot springs a short hike away, and that we’d each get our own cabin with a private hot tub on the deck where we could relax after a long day of teaching and hiking, reading novels by light of the midnight sun. I had never been on a study abroad trip, either as a student or as a professor, so I jumped at the chance. Eloise and I both have a keen interest in environmental issues: I teach religious studies and environmental ethics, she teaches medieval and contemporary environmental literatures; and we are both members of an environmental teaching circle at Meredith College. We decided that our central goal for this Iceland trip would be to understand the different ways that Icelanders relate to and find meaning in the natural world.

The Iceland program consists of two courses, one that is interdisciplinary, and the other a cultural course that involves visiting places of cultural importance and asking students to reflect on their travel experiences and cross-cultural encounters. For the interdisciplinary piece, we designed an environmental humanities course that examines Icelanders’ relationships with land through the lenses of literature, history, and religious studies. We read Norse myths to get a sense of Viking cosmology; Icelandic folktales about elves, trolls, mermen, and other creatures that reside in hidden places in the landscape; and two contemporary novels by Icelandic authors that weave together social, environmental, and magico-religious themes: Under the Glacier, by Nobel-prize winner Halldόr Laxness; and The Blue Fox, by Sjön, a novelist and long-time lyricist for Björk. For the culture course, we arranged for a variety of guest speakers to talk with us about environmental issues in Iceland. We met with government officials, eco-tourism experts, and environmental activists; we visited Sόlheimar eco-village, toured a geothermal power plant, and had dinner at the homes of local farmers. Our students particularly enjoyed a service project where we teamed up with members of a local Lion’s Club to plant over 1,000 trees in an area of the highlands that is suffering from desertification. Meeting Icelanders and hearing their stories was an invaluable part of our study abroad experience. We quickly learned about pressing environmental issues in Iceland and heard first-hand how politics, business, and love for the land can motivate people to protect the environment in various ways.

The courses and guest speakers helped set the stage for another kind of learning to unfold. We wanted to go further into our study of environmental connectedness by encouraging the students to deepen their own relationships with the land. To that end, we had many field trips and breaks in the day where we could hike around and immerse ourselves in the geological wonders of Iceland, and we asked students to intentionally make use of these times to reflect on the natural world and their place within it. Much of the magic of this study abroad trip happened during the time we spent outdoors, where we could simply be present with nature.

Falling in Love

Environmental theorists and educators often promote place-based approaches to learning. These typically involve being outdoors, listening to and learning from the landscape not just with our rational minds, but also with our bodies, our senses, and our imaginations. The goal is to develop a deeper connection with place, to let nature teach us that we are a part of the ecological whole, and to instill ecological values like interconnectedness, preservation, and sustainability. Since we were headquartered in a rural area of Iceland, we didn’t have to do much prodding to get students to pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the landscape. It became part of our daily routine, and each of us entered into communion with nature in our own ways. One enjoyed nature photography and became a champion for the small things she noticed, like tiny flowers or patches of lichen. Another would sit in meditation in a small grove near our cabins, contemplating the magnificent beauty all around her. Others loved to walk to the hot springs and visit the herd of friendly brood mares that roamed nearby.

It was especially powerful when these moments of enchantment with the natural world happened collectively. One occasion that stands out for me—indeed, it stood out for all of us—occurred during a three-day trip to Snaefellsnes Peninsula. On a whim, we decided to stop at a churchyard located at the foot of Snaefellsjökull glacier, thinking it would be a perfect introduction to the Laxness novel we would soon be reading. It had been a cloudy morning, but the sun had come out and we could finally see the glacier. What a spectacular sight! A lenticular cloud was hugging the mountaintop, making the glacier appear as if it were resting beneath a soft, fleecy blanket. We spent nearly an hour meandering through the cemetery in the back of the church, surrounded by gravestones and patches of purple lupine. All of us were transfixed by the glorious presence of the glacier. Several of us were even moved to tears.

Earlier that morning we’d visited an information center on the coast where a park ranger spoke to us about the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and was lamenting that Snaefellsjökull glacier, one of Iceland’s beloved treasures, is receding so rapidly that it is expected to disappear within the next two or three decades. We’d heard this sad news from several people we talked to in Iceland, experts and laypeople alike, but it didn’t really sink in until that day in the churchyard. When students wrote about this in their journals, several noted how deeply moved they were by the beauty of the glacier and the knowledge that it wouldn’t be around much longer. Climate change, they said, seemed more real to them now. Something about this embodied encounter with a dying glacier had penetrated our hearts in ways that rational discourse could not.

There is a concept in environmental theory called biophilia, which posits that humans have an innate tendency to connect with other life forms, but this connection, or love, needs to be cultivated and nurtured. When we love something, we are more inclined to protect it—that is the hope, anyway, and I hope that’s what our students felt that day at the glacier. Iceland provided a model place to cultivate biophilia, because on the one hand, it is so breathtakingly beautiful, but on the other, the arctic climates can be inhospitable, and the ecological degradation there is tragic. Biophilia is an unconditional type of love that includes respect for the harsher aspects of the natural world. While our group didn’t experience anything as severe as an Iceland winter or volcanic eruption, we were outdoors rain or shine in all kinds of terrain—hummock-hopping through iron bogs, climbing mountains, and exploring lava-tube caves—and there were times when we were wet, cold, muddy, and miserable. The physical and even emotional challenges of our outdoor excursions complemented the intellectual rigor of the environmental humanities courses we’d designed.

Teaching across Borders

This study abroad trip taught me much about teaching across borders: I traversed the lines of interdisciplinary subject matter, international and cultural contexts, intellectual and embodied forms of education, and anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives. Since my return from Iceland, I have been lingering on two pedagogical questions. The first is more practical: I’ve been thinking about ways to further develop the intercultural piece of teaching environmental humanities abroad. During our discussions with Icelanders, we learned a lot about their environmental concerns and some of the cultural differences between Icelandic and American environmentalisms, but I am especially curious about different cultural expressions of biophilia. Place-based education is typically inspired by North American environmentalisms that value the local, whereas we were doing place-based education in a foreign country. I am certainly no stranger to thinking about cultural difference and global systems, but doing this from a place-based environmental approach required different theoretical frameworks that I didn’t have at the time. Ursula Heise’s concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” (2008) is proving fruitful for thinking about the global dimensions of locality, identity, and environmental world citizenship, and I would like to incorporate some of her work into our course readings (or at least into course planning) for next time. As for method, storytelling has been used by environmental educators as a means of celebrating place and connections to nature; I think we could use storytelling with great effect since it fits well with our curriculum of literature, guest speakers, and outdoor experience. Some of the Icelanders we met shared these kinds of stories with us, even without our asking, but next time we could be more intentional and have students ask our guest speakers, or any people they meet, to share a story about a time when they felt inspired by, deeply connected to, or even overpowered by the natural world. We could reflect critically on these stories together and also share stories of our own. This would give us more insight into cultural and geographical variations of biophilia, and listening to personal stories would also reinforce the kind of emotional and sensory engagement that we’re encouraging outdoors.

The Iceland trip has also caused me to reflect on the boundaries I hold as a professor, because they shifted in ways I wasn’t expecting. Living in close proximity with students provided more opportunities for us to get to know each other and to see different sides of each other. Developing these personal connections with students was one of my favorite parts of the Iceland trip. But place-based education is what really brought me outside my comfort zone as a religion professor. Meditation and entering into communion with nature is an important part of my own spiritual practice, and I’m unaccustomed to sharing this side of myself with students, let alone asking them to do it for a class. I have always drawn a line between teaching and preaching; it’s an ingrained part of my teaching ethic. I monitor myself carefully so that I make room for critical engagement with multiple viewpoints instead of privileging my own religious or political views. But working with place-based pedagogy, I found that the “preacher” side of me was often at the forefront, telling my teacher-self to let go of authority so that students could enter into communion with the landscape in their own ways. For example, there were times my teacher-self wanted to point out intellectual connections with our course material, but this voice was silenced by my preacher-self so that it wouldn’t disturb the ritual of quiet reflection and sensory engagement. Whenever students described their outdoor encounters as “spiritual experiences,” my preacher-self was elated because I want students to “see the light” and become more emotionally and ethically invested in environmental protection; and I know that spiritual reverence for nature can be a powerful inroad (though, as my teacher-self points out, it’s not the only inroad). It felt good to be able to share my most passionate concerns with students, and finding ways to teach from that place seemed to strengthen my integrity as a professor, not compromise it.

The many types of pedagogical border-crossing we did in Iceland has me thinking more about the lines I’ve drawn between teaching and preaching and the ways I’ve privileged traditional academics over transformative learning. I’ve come to realize that I can better serve myself and my students by bridging some of these divides between the head and the heart.



Heise, Ursula K. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lutterman-Aguilar, Ann and Orval Gingerich. 2002. “Experiential Pedagogy for Study Abroad: Educating for Global Citizenship,” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 8 (Winter): 41–82.

Moore, Janet. 2005. “Is Higher Education Ready for Transformative Learning? A Question Explored in the Study of Sustainability,” Journal of Transformative Education 3 (1): 76–91.

Orr, David. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Payne, Philip and Brian Watchow. 2009. “Phenomenological Deconstruction, Slow Pedagogy, and the Corporeal Turn in Wild Environmental/Outdoor Education,” Canadian Journal of Education 14: 15–32.

Tooth, Ron and Peter Renshaw. “Reflections on Pedagogy and Place: A Journey into Learning for Sustainability through Environmental Narrative and Deep Attentive Reflection,” Australian Journal of Education 25: 95–104.

Shannon GrimesShannon Grimes has been teaching at Meredith College, a women’s college in Raleigh, North Carolina, since 2006 and has served as head of the religious and ethical studies program since 2012. She teaches courses in biblical studies, early Christianity, world religions, and environmental ethics, and she won the Pauline Davis Perry Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009. Her research interests focus on religious views of nature and the cosmos, particularly in Greco-Roman and late antiquity, and she has published on alchemy and astronomy in the ancient world. More recently her research efforts have focused on contemporary environmental issues; in 2013 she won a Cargill Grant from her college to design a long-term undergraduate research project that investigates how different religious groups in Raleigh are incorporating environmental beliefs, practices, and policies into congregational life. 

Image: West Virginia University 2014 Study Abroad Students. Tetsugaku-no-Michi, Kyoto, Japan, 2014. Photo Credit: Alex Snow