To Live and Farm in Iceland. FIRST PERSON: DEFYING NATURE
HV'IT'ARHOLT FARM, ICELAND
A FARM. Eleven p.m.Skip to next paragraph
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The cattle are reclining in the fields, and the day's haying is done.
But this is Iceland, and despite the late hour, the sun is still shining brightly, and the cold, relentless wind that lays the high grass low in the fields is sweeping down from a glacier, clearly visible on the northern horizon.
The landscape is remarkable for its lack of trees. Dark, jagged mountains rise abruptly from expansive green meadows and heaths, with that glacier cradled against their slopes like a newborn in its mother's arms.
From the heart of this glacier flows a river, the Hv'it'a (White River), its bone-chilling water, milky with suspended sediments, brimming with salmon and trout.
It is a land that looks as if it were never meant to be inhabited. Indeed, the Icelanders, in their thousand years of occupation, have had very little physical impact on it.
If they were imaginarily erased, and their Viking ancestors put in their places, the old ones would immediately recognize the landscape as home.
I am spending five weeks at Hv'it'arholt, a farm in the south of Iceland, hard by the Hv'it'a. The house in which I stay contains three generations of Icelanders.
The patriarch, Sigurdur, has lived at Hv'it'arholt with his wife, El'in, for 46 years.
``But this place is much older than that,'' he confides.
He takes me to the spot on his land where an archaeological dig was once carried out, unearthing artifacts of immense historical value from an ancient settlement of some 700 years ago.
I wake up one morning to tremendous winds howling about the farm. In the sky, low, dark clouds roll fiercely toward the west. A spray of rain will persist the whole day. Weather is so capricious in Iceland that the Icelanders have richly endowed their language with particular words to describe its grades and appearances. A light breeze is gola, but a stiff breeze is kaldi.
The howling gales of this morning are referred to as kvast, and they are nothing unusual. Their constancy has lent a tattered, faded look to the shrubbery about the farmhouse. But the farm work goes on, in spite of the uncooperative elements.
THE Icelanders don't rise particularly early in summer because for several weeks the sun will never set. The work, therefore, can continue late into the night.
I look out onto the field bordering the river and see Thorhallur, Sigurdur's son-in-law, driving his Swedish-made tractor with attached baler.
In the enclosed cab his six-year-old son, Gestur, sits by his side. He's too young to work, but his 10-year-old brother, Thordur, is anxious to emulate his father. Already Thordur drives the tractor that pulls the hay wagon and does his share hoisting the heavy, unwieldy bales.
His sister, Ragnhreidur, 8, picks up a bale, tumbles over it, and gives up. She will ride the hay wagon for now and act as the inspector of finished work.
Almost no crops are raised on Icelandic farms. The latitude and climate forbid it. Livestock are the main emphasis, and at Hv'it'arholt, as on most farms here, horses and sheep are the staples.
One morning I go down to the river and watch as Sigurdur tends one of his nets. He hoots, for he has caught a 20-pound salmon. For reasons of conservation farmers are allowed to place their nets only four days per week.
So intense is the government's emphasis on this precious resource that a license to fish salmon with a rod and reel costs upwards of $1,000 a day. For farmers, though, salmon and trout are two of the fruits of the earth. We ate these fish three or four times a week.
No matter what the meal, it was always accompanied by milk and by potatoes, the only crop which has been successfully raised on a large scale here. Only rarely did we eat anything not produced on the farm itself.
It is Saturday. There is a horse competition on the other side of the river. I can see dust clouds rising from distant, invisible dirt roads as people from surrounding farms head to the staging area.
Halla, Sigurdur's daughter, and her 15-year-old daughter, El'in, are dressed in their black-and-white riding outfits, crops in hand. I watch as they turn their mounts toward the river and ride off to join the general procession.