Like a Lamb to the Slaughter

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Hver er sinnar gæfu smiður. – Every man is the smith of his own fortune.

I am sitting in steamy Hong Kong, writing these last posts. Imaging those last few days, where the snow fell in large soft flakes sideways, covering the landscape in a smooth white blanket. I had a magical final few days, again I have to thank Jón for this. After the exhibition I began the task of making my farewells, packing up my work, shipping some things home and getting organised. Jón came and visited me on the Island; there were some heartfelt goodbyes to my lovely new friends, hugs from all the kids and then Jón spirited me away for good from the beautiful and remote Hrisey; back to his family farm (the scene of the infamous sheep herding incident). It was Friday and a blizzard had begun, with threats of the weekend weather going below -20°, the snow was falling heavily- I was hoping perhaps the weather gods were trying to keep me in Iceland and perhaps there would be no way to make it back for my Monday flight.

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With the snowy conditions, the roads were becoming much more dangerous, but Iceland’s Stig was as cool and confident as ever and masterfully navigated icy bends and snow… there was a prize awaiting him. It was the first day of the ptarmigan hunting season (or Rjúpa as they are called in Iceland) and thousands of hobby hunters would be heading out attempting to catch their Christmas roast. There are 12 hunting days in total, over four weekends, Fridays through Sundays. The ptarmigan is the only species of gallinaceous (meaning ‘chicken-like’) bird living wild in Iceland and it is the main prey of the Icelandic falcon. Icelanders are keen hunters, most I talked to liked to hunt- but all only killed what they would eat, many also participate in a survey by submitting information on each bird killed to a national body to help monitor numbers.  

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Despite the snow, Happy the dog.. is always happy and keen to play!
Despite the snow, Happy the dog.. is always happy and keen to play!

After a warming cup of tea at the farm, we layered up, and prepared for the hunt, I was quite excited, as clearly this was an adventure. I had visions of myself being some sort of human gun dog, and showing Jón how useful I could be on a wind blown snowy mountain- I only had 2 more days to prove to him how truly useful a middle aged Australian woman was. Armed with his trusty 12 gauge, Jón and I went in search of the Rjúpa- conditions were not fully in our favour with a howling wind and heavy snow falls. Luckily for me these conditions ruled out a full ascent of the mountain, and we had to be content with 1/2 way up (huge sigh of relief.. still it was far enough to have great views).. Jón bounded up the snow covered hillside like one of those irritating sheep we had chased, zig zagging back-and-forth looking for the enemy (yes the pretty little white Rjúpa had taken on the role of James Bond villains- fairly sure I saw one with an eye patch on) I steadily pottered up behind, with the odd break to “take a photo” (get my breath back). With the howling wind covering any noise, Jón didn’t need a complex ruse de guerre before he was successful in his mission. With him ruthlessly trawling the hillside focused on his enemy, I realised my usefulness was actually non existent, and if anything tottering about on the hillside was more hindrance than help.

*a one-off plan or action to trick the enemy in wartime

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not blood... squashed berries under the snow
not blood… squashed berries under the snow

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So after entertaining myself for an hour or so further up the mountain, traversing across & taking some fairly average photographs, I decided retreat was the best option, and that if I went back down the mountain, I could walk up the road we had come in on that looked so pretty with its river and mountains in the back drop. I managed to call him- yep we had mobile range on the mountain, and “yes he was very focused, and no I would not be missed for the near future whilst he waged war… Christmas lunch would go ahead….and we would meet up in a few hours”. Climbing down the mountain was actually trickier than going up the mountain… the wind almost knocking you off your feet, which wasn’t helping my dexterity. I did toboggan down the mountainside numerous times much to my chagrin. Once down the hillside I met some lovely albeit cold ponies who were keen to model for me. Then I walked with the wind behind me as far down the road as I could towards some very spectacular looking mountains, which the setting sun was just hitting- I am like a moth to a flame when it comes to nice light in the landscape. Luckily my Nikon toy is very entertaining so I managed to wile away the hours- without talking to the flowers (Wizard of Oz reference- anyone too young to remember), the walk back was not as enjoyable- walking into the gale force wind was actually quite challenging!! Anyway by the time I made it back to where we had parked the car Jón could be heard- well his shot gun could at any rate, and he reported in that he would be not long after me. A successful hunt was had with 13 Rjúpa departing this world. A hot bath, dinner and an early night entailed….tomorrow was a new day and I had to prove my usefulness somehow….

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Saturday dawned, with a thick white blanket over everything. The morning was spent catching horses- I did manage to prove useful at this luckily, and once we caught them, we took them to the sheep barn, where Jón took their shoes off and readied them for their winter holidays. After a lovely lunch of slow roast lamb, which I fervently hoped was one of the sheep I had chased that day weeks ago on the mountain it was time to cut up one of the already slaughtered sheep and then head back to Akureyri for Jón’s sisters 40th birthday. It was a fantastic celebration- plenty of laughter, large amounts of singing Icelandic classics (which I did a poor attempt at humming too, even after the nice lady sitting next to me gave me a printed out song list…really must improve my Icelandic!), dancing, good food and wine, with some bad dancing at the end.. 🙂

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At the time of my visit I was in the process of reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (a young Australian author), it is a wonderful book a dark love story to Iceland… it is based on the true story of the last woman executed Iceland..

“In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.Agnes is sent to wait on the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson and his family, who are horrified and avoid Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the summer months fall away to winter, Agnes’s story begins to emerge.”

Through out the book, I connected with the descriptions of the landscape, and ways of life and ironically when Jón asked me to the farm and said we were to cut up a sheep or two, they were just doing exactly that in the book… It’s something they have always done before winter comes, the meat is kept for the family. They use every part of the animal: the skin, the head, the heart and the fat to make sausages. Waiting at the farm were 14 sheep, slaughtered earlier in the week, these were hanging in the shed- refrigeration isn’t a problem here- in fact we left a small blow heater on with them to stop them freezing (with Jón’s 5 siblings, children and large amounts of extended family nothing would be wasted)!! The sheep roam free from late spring, sustained by the Icelandic moss, wild grass and berries that grow on the loose volcanic soil and which lend the meat its unique, almost gamey taste. Come late autumn they are rounded up on horseback (more successfully than when I tried to herd them… luckily as otherwise everyone would starve) the way it has been done since the time of the earliest settlers. This centuries old free range tradition explains why the Icelandic lamb tastes so lean and delicate.  For a long time, Icelandic food culture was driven by necessity. Icelandic food was local because of both the country’s and the individuals isolation, it was organic because large-scale agriculture and factory farming was difficult, it was free range because it seemed the most practical way of using the sparse vegetation spread out over large distances… not too much has changed.

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The landscape and its monumentality is echoed within the strength and resilience of the Icelandic people, there is almost a primordial streak that runs deep within the Icelandic psyche. Despite such a small population of 330,000 and their quirky belief in the realms of elves and trolls they are a strong people, educated, well versed in foreign affairs, well travelled and fiercely proud of their country. In summer the sun stays high till after midnight, and in winter, the winter solstice falls on the 21st of December, with sunlight only between 11.30am and 3.30pm, the darkness of winter and the brightness of summer posing challenges in themselves. The small population who live within this land of Fire & Ice is faced with the ever present possibility of catastrophic volcanic activity, earthquakes and floods. The Glaciers started coming and going around three million years ago, even before the global ice ages began. These days they’re shrinking fast but still cover the tallest volcanoes. When a fjall erupts under a jökull, it produces a jökulhlaup—a torrent of meltwater and ice that races to the sea, knocking out bridges and flooding farm fields, which soon thereafter may be buried in ash. So through necessity Icelandic people have evolved to be these strong individuals who unite as whole communities & family units for celebration and adversity. I was lucky enough to be included in a number of local events. The atmosphere was celebratory when I joined the locals for the horse muster, in that unique way where people are working together towards a common goal, it has made my time so special to be able to be part of these events. An animal lover, hunting has never been an activity I’d choose, but I eat meat, have had family members with farms and am aware of where our food comes from- there is a honesty in the Icelandic way of life and in many ways a more real and grounded existence. I have been incredibly lucky that Jón chose to share a different side of Icelandic life with me, and perhaps if my luck remains he will show me some more… Jón if you are reading this, you did promise me a number of things you are yet to deliver… including fine dining on Rjúpa… remember your civic duty 🙂

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