The Iceland Diaries, Part Three

Returning after so long, I found that life on the farm had changed dramatically and yet it is the same. Imba and Steini no longer keep cows (I discovered this is true of many farms) but they still have sheep and also she has many more horses than before. She has always loved the horses. […]

By Edie Clark

Jul 18 2010

Returning after so long, I found that life on the farm had changed dramatically and yet it is the same. Imba and Steini no longer keep cows (I discovered this is true of many farms) but they still have sheep and also she has many more horses than before. She has always loved the horses. I recall there were four or five on the farm back in 1969. Now she has about fifteen of them. Some, she says, are for meat. “But these ones, I don’t get to know them,” she told me, meaning, I’m sure, that they are the young ones, sent off to slaughter after six or eight months. That she would eat her horses surprised me but I had heard that horse meat was now somewhat common in Iceland, like beef, which is rare. Horses are simply what they have, which counts for a lot in this island nation, so dependent on imports. And on the farm, they will do most anything to stay profitable. Frodastadir has been in their family for many generations.

Just like farms in the U.S., and probably all over the world, they are doing what they can to subsidize their existence. One of the new enterprises there was the growth and sale of sod. Steini was out in the field cutting sod when we arrived. This must have been quite profitable when the economy was booming and there were so many wealthy residents of Reykjavik, building lovely homes at the edge of town. I don’t know but assume that, since the economic downturn, the need for this ready-made lawn has plummeted. Another, perhaps more resilient, effort is hosting tourists. Many farms have built what amounts to motels on their farms and provide lodging and breakfast — some even provide dinner. Undoubtedly, during these lovely summer months, this provides new and necessary income, especially in these troubled economic times. We stayed at several of these farms and found them superior. In any case, the effort here to keep these small family farms afloat seemed quite creative.

The only car on the farm when I was there in 1969 was an old Russian jeep, open in the back. Daniel and Unnar sometimes took me with them to Borgannes, a coastal town about thirty miles west of the farm, to shop for groceries. It was a day-long excursion, across rough, rutted roads. I loved the chance to get out and see other places but it was cold, riding in the open back of the jeep. Now, we all piled into Imba’s relatively new Toyota Land Cruiser and she took us on a tour of the valley, which I was so looking forward to. The valley, when I was there, felt like a great range, a place that was the only place, so far from anything else. The farms were widely spaced and the valley was divided by the river. I don’t remember any bridges but I do remember the horses that ran free on the other side.

Our first stop was the church at the end of the road. Imba wanted to show me Unnur and Daniel’s graves. We walked together to the corner of the churchyard and together looked down at her parents’ place, what looked like a single wide grave, with a single wooden cross to mark both graves, even though they died many years apart. I studied the brass marker and realized that Daniel was born in the same year as my father and he died in 1994, the same year both my parents died. When I looked a little closer, I noticed that Daniel and I had the same birthday. I wish I had known that years ago.

I remember the inside of the church was bright and colorful, unlike any church I had ever been in. The pews, like benches, are wooden, painted a soft pink. All the churches in Iceland are Lutheran — at least they were at the time that I was there and now, they tell me, it is about 90% Lutheran. This church, of course, was no exception. From a distance, it looks like a church on the prairie and on the inside, the sternness made me think of the work of Grant Wood. I could picture the people he would paint in here, hardworking, sinewy, sober. Mainstays.

From there, we went to a boiling spring which she told us was the largest spring in the world — like many such Icelandic attractions, there was barely a sign at the entrance and, as a safeguard, only a low wooden fence between these bubbling waters and ourselves. The spring was more like a brook, the surface of the running water leaping up with the explosion of heat. In some places, the waters burst three or more feet into the air. The waters steamed like any boiling pot would. We stood in the steam and took photos of each other beside this natural wonder. Nearby, there was a pipeline, stout like the Alaska oil pipeline, which carried the hot water into Akranes, for their heating purposes. It was as simple as that.

In the little dirt parking lot, a woman, a friend of Imba’s, had parked a big old city bus which she had converted into a shop. Board the bus and there were her wares, hand-knitted sweaters, hats, small trinkets, and in the back, used paperbacks. Outside, she had a table loaded with fresh produce for sale, including red tomatoes. Forty years ago, you could not have paid enough to get a fresh tomato at this time of year. None grew and no one could afford what it would cost to import them. This woman had a greenhouse and was growing good produce inside the glass enclosed space, heated with the water from the hot springs that bubbled up from underground. I bought a hat from her for 4,000 kronur ? that’s about $30. A bit pricey, but I would pay that in a store after it had changed from many hands so I might as well pay this lovely, enterprising woman directly. She had knit it herself, out of the wool of the Icelandic sheep and knitted into the pattern, across the front, was the word, Island, in a beautiful blue — Island, pronounced eeslant, is the Icelandic word for Iceland, possibly where the original word for island originated. And possibly responsible for the confusing fact that Iceland is not a land of ice but a land of green and surprisingly moderate temperatures. They may never live down this unfortunate name.

Imba then took us to some amazing waterfalls, which emerged from a field of lava and included a frightening story about lost children. (In Iceland, there is always a story, often a frightening one.) This was so much like the little tours I remember from my time there in 1969. When work on the farm slowed, they would take me to a fantastic waterfall or lava caves or a geyser, nothing marking the attraction, no one else there, just an amazing natural wonder out there for God to see and maybe someone passing by.

When we returned to the house, the aroma of the roasting lamb filled the house. Imba pulled the oven door open and the big leg crackled and spat. Steini joined us for dinner. He speaks not a word of English and so he sat silently at the table, big Viking head, hair gone white from the earlier photos I had seen, short soft feathery beard, white also. Watching him watch us, I remembered so well sitting at the table with the family, not understanding anything that they were saying, just a kind of music going on all around me. When I thought of it as music, I was in a happy place. Otherwise it was the most intensely isolated feeling I had ever had. With the platter of lamb were potatoes, of course, and salad and the amazing red cabbage slaw that I recalled with great pleasure when I sampled it. Sweet, just pickled red cabbage, jarred. I recall that we had that sometimes at the table. “Unnur’s recipe?” I asked Imba. I don’t think she understood the word ‘recipe.’ She just smiled. I almost ate the whole jar. She put the platter with the partially consumed lamb leg on the table and, as we scraped our plates, we all picked over the bone like little savages, cutting off hunks at a time.

My companions decided it was time to go to their accommodations, a place about ten miles down the road. Imba and I led them there, to what turned out to be a little cottage off by itself in the tundra. We left them there and headed back to Frodastadir. The valley was so familiar, Imba and I talked about the times we would ride out to meet her friends for a Sunday ride, or sometimes we’d race our horses along the river, which usually turned my blood to ice. Once, I just deliberately fell off Blessa as she was going way too fast for me and I was hanging onto her mane as hard as I could but was slipping anyway. I didn’t quite know what else to do. The Icelandic earth is soft and the ponies were low to the ground so I just eased myself off and rolled, walking home a bit sheepishly. “But Bless was winning!” Imba said, clearly, even all these years later, confused as to why I had chosen to do that.

Another time, riding on the road, an enormous Mercedes truck came barreling at us. Blessa reared up and tossed me into the gutter and ran home. Another sheepish walk back to the farm. Imba remembered it all as well.

As we drove, she slowed and pointed to farms that I had known or visited. They looked remarkably the same, though some had a new house near the old one, like Imba’s. At Hvammur, she slowed, “Do you want to go in?” This was the first farm we had gone to, looking for work. I had hitchhiked out there with Jane. For me, it was a very special place. It was, in a sense, where it all began. I knew that Gudlaugur had passed away and wasn’t sure that any of the children would remember me. They were very young then and many years had passed. With a bit of hesitation, I said, “Yes, yes, let’s go in.”

To be continued…