Sarah Thomas is currently writing a memoir about the time she spent living in remote northwest Iceland, where she was involved with a family of sheep farmers. In the following extract, she recounts her participation in the annual round up and slaughter.
The summer has been silenced. Outside the sheep house the snow is deep for miles around. Its whiteness heaps at every vertical intrusion in the landscape. The farm buildings, the smoke house, the old tractor, the plough wheel, the knife grinding stone – all are reduced to a bare suggestion in monotone, like a quick charcoal sketch. The details erased back to merge with their canvass. It is only at the back door of the sheep house that this pervading blankness is punctuated by a daub of deep, wild red.
It is the first week of October. We are back at Ögur, the farm where my partner Orri’s best-loved aunty Mæja, with her husband Haddi, has raised six children and many hundreds of sheep since she moved here as a young woman from the neighbouring farm, around the headland at Kálfavík. It is a week since we gathered the sheep here from the mountains, and now we are back for the slaughter. In this short time, winter has come like a full stop to a lyrical sentence.
It happened rather incidentally that Orri and I had been able to participate in the round up of the flock. It was a fitting ritual end to the month long road trip we had embarked upon, brought on by a change of weather. Or rather, the weather change determined that our road trip was a month long. We had set off on an anti-clockwise circumambulation of Iceland in our camper van after a summer season of hard work in the highlands. Orri had done this once one his own, and now, newly in love, he had wanted to show me his country while we had the time and flexibility to explore. At the beginning of the trip in early September, I had stood in a bikini in the south of the country, seeking solace in the shade of a cave. We had slept with all the doors of our campervan open that night, such a balmy evening it was.
A week ago, the 27th of September, we awoke in the north of the country, outside a town called Siglufjörður. I was fully clothed in woollen underwear, helmeted in a balaclava, and had slept with my head under the duvet. I turned and drew back the makeshift curtain in a cloud of my own breath. Just when I had thought the mountains could not get any more beautiful, draped in blueberry ling and shrubbery steeped in autumn colours, a dusting of snow had fallen overnight, highlighting every contour. September is a month of ambiguity: it can be fine, it can be cold. Though we had lined the cavities of the van wall and ceiling with sheep’s fleece from one of Orri’s uncles a month prior, this was the first time it had felt essential.
We decided to call an abrupt end to our journey and do the remaining 500km to Ísafjörður, Orri’s home town, in a day. Orri had called his parents to tell them we were coming. It had snowed there too, they said. And when the snow comes it is time to bring in the sheep, who roam free in the mountains all summer. Every year since they can remember, they have helped Mæja to round up her sheep to Ögur. The farm is an hour and a half’s drive south of Orri’s parents’ home, so we would pass it, and them, on the way.
I had not expected to be any more than an observer at the round up, and wished I was equipped to film it. I soon realised that, with two arms and two legs, I was expected to muck in like everybody else. Though I had been nervous, as nobody seemed to think it necessary to explain the procedure, I relished the opportunity to participate in a practice the family had engaged in for generations, and upon which Icelanders had depended for food since settlement. I appreciated their apparent belief that the way to learn was simply by doing it.
It was a two day affair, and the weather on the first day was awful. The night before we started, Orri and I slept in the attic room of his parents’ summerhouse, halfway down the fjord along which the gathering would take place. It shook with gusts of wind. The next morning we looked out of the window with slight trepidation over steaming cups of coffee. Snow whisked at the window and the wind howled through the cracks in the house.
“This will be hard. The wind is blowing in the wrong direction,” Orri’s mother Bogga said. “The sheep like to have the wind in their faces.”
An advance party had gone out early. Fortunately the news came in that the bad weather had compelled the sheep to make considerable progress down the fjord by themselves, which would make our job easier.
Our job was to drive the the sheep, which belonged to all the neighbouring farms in the area, on foot down the steep- and craggy-sided fjord, down to the road and around the headland to Ögur. There they would be separated out in a réttir (a segregated pen) according to their ear tags, to be returned to their respective farms.The team consisted of Mæja and five of her six adult children and their families, Orri’s mother and father, Orri and I, the neighbouring farmer Aðalstein and some locals from Ísafjörður who rather enjoyed participating in this ritual and returned year after year. Mæja’s husband Haddi, who had always been the aðalbondi – the main farmer and the man who gives instructions to the gathering crew – was elderly and suffering from dementia, in the final stages of decline. He remained at the farm.
There are no sheep dogs here: the gathering is done just once a year, and it would be too costly to feed dogs for the whole year just for one weekend’s work. The group formed a staggered line from the top of the mountain down to the road – the elders, women and children staying on or near the road, which had only an occasional passing car. The younger men, fit and intimate with the terrain, made their way up to the craggy heights and heathland on top of the mountain. Clapping and hooting occasionally to spur the sheep on, this line moved slowly down the fjord and throughout the day sheep began to accumulate on the road. The snow blew hard from behind us and the sun could not penetrate the clouds. Everywhere was dim. Though sheep had initiated their own head start the daylight window was short and we could not make it all the way. Cold and invigorated, we had stopped for the day near Kálfavík and gone to Ögur for kjötsuppa – meat soup – a reward for the helpers, made from last year’s lamb.
On the second day, a generous sun reflected in the snow made the home run dazzlingly beautiful. I found it difficult to take my role seriously as I was distracted by the luminescent red of the blueberry shrubs in the low sunlight, and the blue shadows that clustered around them. I had my camera as I always did, and I wanted to stop and photograph every detail of this new landscape. Though winter had only just begun, this much snow was such a novel phenomenon to me. I could not simply walk on by. I stopped to snap off an icicle that dripped beside a stream and sucked on it. Of course in that moment, two sheep decided to bolt back towards me. I had dropped back from the line, creating a larger gap than was ideal. As they ran towards me I had a slow motion fantasy about grabbing one in each hand, being the hero of the round up. Throwing down my icicle I stood ready, my limbs outstretched, my bent legs twitching wondering which way to move. The sheep bolted either side of me, and were retrieved by a gatherer of much more experience.
As we neared Ögur, the sea of faces and fleeces – brown, white, black, grey – moved in a hypnotic undulation around the colourful uprights of the gathering crew. The children skipped excitedly towards the réttir. The bleating of six hundred sheep was cacophonous and the satisfaction of the gathering crew tangible. Another year’s gathering was almost complete, and Aðalstein would write a poem about it, as he did every year, to be read out at Christmas. I wondered if my inexperienced antics would be immortalised. The hoots increased in frequency and everyone was together now, on the tufty fields either side of the road. We could see the gate to Ögur. A few sheep turned up the track as they should, but the majority continued on.
“The Aðalbondi isn’t with us!” I heard someone cry. Mæja’s sons Leifur and Haddi junior made a sprint. Every year that this group had gathered the sheep together, it had been Haddi, their father, who had stood by the farm’s entrance to guide the sheep in. This year he was lying in bed, trapped inside his own mind and waiting to die. The ritual was so ingrained, and everybody’s place in it so implicit, that nobody had been able to imagine Haddi not being there. The sons were too late. Too many sheep had passed the entrance. Through shouted messages, and the continued forward motion I deduced that it had been agreed to press on to Aðalstein’s farm – the next one along – where half of these sheep were destined anyway, and segregate them there. I was relieved that even after generations of practice, mistakes could be made, and mine paled into insignificance.
After another hour of trudging along the almost carless road in the lowering light we arrived at Aðalstein’s farm, Strandsel. The sheep were herded in to his réttir, and separated out. A trailer was brought to literally drive Mæja’s sheep back to Ögur, where we had just come from. There was much laughter at the scale of the omission of an Aðalbondi replacement. I felt somehow that the hilarity masked the sadness of their recognition that this was the dwindling end of an era. Mæja and Haddi’s children all lived in Reykjavík and Denmark; they were not interested in being farmers. With Haddi’s imminent demise Mæja would not be able to keep this flock. They had been her purpose, all her life. After a few runs with the trailer packed with sheep, we returned to Ögur for cake and coffee, Orri and I getting a ride standing in the back of the empty wooden trailer. I looked out across the sea, my down jacket hood pulled tight around my face in the cold blue evening.
Inside the sheep are skittish.Their hooves scuff the wooden slatted floor, matted with a fragrant mix of hay and shit. They press against each other, penned awaiting their fate. Not to reveal it too bluntly to those beasts still alive, Orri and his father Hjalti take a sheep out of sight to the back door of the sheep house. Hjalti straddles it to the ground, points a gun at its head and shoots. He slices open its neck with a knife. Deep red blood trickles out onto the perfectly white snow. It is exquisite and it is violent. I do not know how to feel, but I am deeply moved. For a long time the sheep’s fleecy bulk continues to jerk beneath him. “It’s the death throes”, Orri explains, reading the concern on my face. I am impressed and a little disturbed that he knows this expression in English. When the body finally gives in, the head is cut off and taken inside. There it is placed alongside the others, upturned, and salt is sprinkled on the open neck flesh.
The sheep’s body is brought in and placed belly up on a trough table to be worked. Bogga slices along its belly and hooks a rope to its front legs which feeds to a pulley in the roof. She moves to the other end of the rope, with Orri, and Orri’s cousin Leifur stays at the trough to grip the fleece. Mother and son heave, and Leifur pulls down. The fleece slips off like a jumper.
I was inspecting this winch a week ago, when we gathered the sheep into the sheep house. I pulled down gently on the hook, following the rope up to the ceiling. Suddenly it yanked upwards attached to my arm. Hjalti was at the other end, chuckling. He embraces every opportunity to test my demeanour.
In the sheep house the thermometer reads exactly zero. It is best to be working. We all wear thermal lined overalls, or fisherman’s rubber dungarees – bright orange and impermeable. This is messy work. We fall into a neat rhythm. Orri and Hjalti grab a sheep, kill it, carry it to the trough. Bogga sprinkles salt on its decapitated head, slices open the fleece, tugs on the rope. Mæja hangs up the stripped carcass and slices along the length of its torso, reaching into its insides with her arms and scooping the glistening grey and pink innards into a wheelbarrow, aided by her five year old grandson Einar.
Leifur’s wife Steinun and I wash down the carcass with a hosepipe, and scrub at the blood spots with a brush. The carcasses accumulate on the rail, like a new line of visceral clothing in a factory. In this role my arms are mostly raised, and cold bloody water trickles under the elasticated cuffs of my overalls.
By the fifth carcass I scrub I am no longer upset when I hear the gunshot at the back door. I see it for what it is: a process in which these sheep’s lives and deaths have been overseen by the same family from start to finish. They are engaged in a practice that has kept them and their forebears alive for hundreds of years. Though it is no longer ‘essential’ for survival, this gathering and slaughter connects them to something archaic, done this way since the settlement of Iceland. It is cyclical. It is a gathering of sheep and also a gathering of people in a sparsely populated land. I am going to eat this meat. I feel instrumental in the fact of my own existence and it is thrilling.
“We love these sheep,” Bogga had explained earlier. “But when they’re in this pen, they’re meat.”
They had frisked around as she bent over the railings, touching their noses affectionately and inhaling their scent. I knew that they had been given names and could see they had been well cared for.
As the snow drinks up the last of the late afternoon light, the red pool at the back door blots outwards. The sheep house fills with pink carcasses and disembodied upturned heads – the eyes fixed now on an imaginary distance, clouding over. The plucks (the conjoined form of heart, lungs and liver) are nailed to a wooden beam suspended by their tracheae to keep them clean for later processing. They are wet, pink and burgundy like grotesque tropical flowers. Each of us who has helped with the gathering, and the slaughter, will be rewarded in meat. At each meal, which will also be a gathering of people, I will know exactly what I am eating and will know that I have walked across the vegetation that sustained it.
The chill of evening pries at us. The cold carcasses are slipped into heavy duty black bin bags, tied shut and loaded into a trailer.