To Live and Farm in Iceland. FIRST PERSON: DEFYING NATURE
| HV'IT'ARHOLT FARM, ICELAND
A FARM. Eleven p.m.
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.
Something like a horse competition is a real event, but an external one. Life normally centers around the farm itself. It is home and hearth and the primary source of one's entertainment - whether that be watching the latest American film on the VCR or engaging in the simpler pleasures of life close to the soil.
I watch as Birgir, the 19-year-old hired hand, grooms a stallion. ``I love being out in the country,'' he says as he caresses the animal's withers. Although his home is in another part of the country, in a ``city,'' he plans to spend the entire summer at Hv'it'arholt, ``and perhaps the winter as well.''
Nearby the smaller children toss clods of turf into a drainage ditch. Tiring of that, they hurry off to fly the kite Gestur has received for his sixth birthday.
The wind is still blowing, colder now. Laden with a light rain, it makes it wearisome to remain outside for long.
I RETURN to the house and see Sigurdur at his desk, perusing a Spanish novel. Sigurdur taught himself Spanish from a book. He has a passion for the language and is at work on translations from Spanish to Icelandic.
Iceland seems to have more than its share of gentlemen farmers. It is a combination of the isolation, the emphasis on literacy (100 percent in Iceland), and the pride every Icelander feels in the sagas - the magnificent writings of a thousand years ago, part history, part creation, telling the lives and stories of the early men and women of Iceland.
Sigurdur is an acknowledged scholar of ``Njal's Saga,'' the greatest of these epics.
Sigurdur's wife, El'in, is in the kitchen cooking dinner: boiled trout with potatoes and bread. Her weathered features bear testimony to a long life in a harsh land. And yet the girl underneath surfaces in the lightness of her movements and the quickness of her eye: Not much on the farm escapes her attention.
Once during my stay the horses got off the pasture, and she was the one to go out into the kvast to drive them home with her walking stick. But the kitchen is her main base of operations: She raises a suspicious eye whenever someone enters and pretends to know what he is doing there.
In a few days she will depart for a conference on women's issues in Oslo. And so she leaves ample instructions on how the men are to fend for themselves during her absence.
IT is 10 p.m., and the day's work is finally done. In back of the house there is a square plastic wading pool the children call ``the pot.'' Even on this cold, windy night it steams with the geothermal water being pumped into it from the earth's recesses.
The smell of sulfur pervades the air. The children run from the house and jump into the hot water. This is a pleasure Icelanders have enjoyed throughout their history. It is one of the small constants in a place that looks so tentative, as if it were thrust up from the sea only yesterday.
When I look back on my experience on an Icelandic farm, I see so much that would be familiar to any American farming family: the long hours, the modern equipment, the sights and sounds of livestock being tended, and families gathering for meals.
Many of the problems are the same as well, most notably overproduction leading to depressed market prices. Icelandic farmers produce so much milk, for example, that the government must subsidize their efforts to give them a respectable income.
Most farmers sell their milk to dairies and then buy it back because they cannot afford to keep it for personal consumption.
But things become strictly Icelandic when one considers the merciless climate, the unforgiving landscape, the cycle of six months of darkness followed by six of light - and those magnificent Icelandic horses charging along, pummeling the earth, their husky figures silhouetted against the surreal whiteness of the distant glacier.
To live and farm in Iceland is to live a life in defiance of a less-than-trustworthy environment.
Sometimes, when one looks about, it is easy to wonder what keeps the Icelanders in a land that has so long resisted their impact.
But in the quiet moments, when the sun skims that glacier and the wind dies down, it becomes peculiarly difficult for a visitor to leave.