Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lambing Time in Greenland

Our neighbors' lambs are being born here in Vermont now, and soon it will be lambing time in Iceland too. I remember one Icelandic friend of mine, sad that they were giving up sheep-farming, say, “But it won’t be spring without lambs bouncing around.”

I’ve never been in Iceland during lambing time, but when I went to Greenland to see Eirik the Red’s Viking settlement there in May 2006, the people who lived on Eirik’s old farm, Brattahlid, were in the middle of lambing season. They had learned their craft—and bought their sheep—in Iceland, and were trying to recreate (with government help) the Viking economy.

Jacky of Blue Ice Explorers warned me, when he rented a cottage for me on a Greenlandic farm, that I wouldn’t see much of the farmers, and I didn’t. They were hardly sleeping, two needing to be in the sheep house twenty-four hours a day. But one day I did get a tour of the barn. My hostess, Ellen, was small and patient and proud of her sheep. When she spoke—to me in English, to her kids in Greenlandic—her voice was soft and even, and she raised it only slightly in surprise when a young ram butted the housedoor with a bang. She slipped out and grabbed his horns before calling to me to follow.

The ram, nearly as big as she, was a yearling, bottlefed last May because he was born too small. “Now he won’t stay with the other sheep,” Ellen explained. “He likes to come in the house. Watch out he doesn’t hurt you.”

Holding tight to both of his impressively curled horns, she dragged him off the porch and through a muddy stream to the barn, then waved me inside before shooing him away.

The high, wide barn was divided lengthwise into five aisles, each about six feet wide and filled with sixty jostling, curious, pregnant ewes. We walked between two aisles on a raised boardwalk, which was also where the sheep’s noontime hay was piled (and the dogs were napping). It smelled very sweet. Ellen’s husband Carl and a helper were busy in the aisles, both slim, short, dark, sweaty, and tired. Carl had a wide, open face and a brightness to his expression, as if he’d like to speak to me but couldn’t, knowing no English. Instead he merely smiled, hopped nimbly up out of the pen in front of me and stretched up to the rafters to fetch down a wooden grate that he then slipped into grooves in the sides of the aisle to separate off a ewe and her two lambs. The far end of the aisle, I noticed, was already divided that way all along its length into little ewe-and-lamb-sized pens.

“There,” Ellen nudged me and pointed toward our feet.

A birth-slick white lamb lay sprawled on the aisle floor, glistening, two ewes competing to lick it dry. “Will the others step on it?” I asked.

“Only if they are scared,” she said, and I held very still until Carl reached it. The new lamb’s fleece by then was just starting to curl. Carl lifted it carefully by its head and carried it down the aisle to make it a pen, both ewes anxiously trotting behind him. He held the grate high for a moment until only one ewe was on the lamb’s side, then quickly slid it into place, leaving the second ewe trapped, baahing miserably, outside.

“How does he know which one is the mother?” I asked.

“Its rear end is bloody. And the other one is fatter.”

Off the back of the barn was a spacious shed carpeted with hay, to which the lambs graduated in groups of ten or so when they were strong enough. There, Ellen said, they “learned to find their mothers” before being taken up to the mountain pastures and let loose until October, when they are rounded up, sorted, and sent by boat to the slaughterhouse.

It’s a short, but sweet, life for mountain-raised lamb.

If you want to visit the Viking sites in Greenland, I recommend Blue Ice Explorer at in south Greenland. Greenland doesn’t export lamb, as far as I know, but you can often buy Icelandic mountain-raised lamb at Whole Foods; on their website, read “The Tender Story of Icelandic Lamb.” It’s the wild thyme and other herbs they graze on all summer that makes it so delicious.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A 19th-Century Traveler in Iceland

When I write about Iceland--or wherever I travel--I try to avoid sounding judgmental. I'm there to learn, to see something new. I hate the current fashion of snarky travel-writing and had always thought it something rather modern. 

It's not. Here's a description of the inside of an Icelandic turfhouse--especially the main room or badstofa--from a report on leprosy in Iceland filed in 1895 by Dr. Edward Ehlers. (Thanks to Jack in Colorado for sending me this):

"The Badstofa has six to eight fixed bedsteads, or rather large wooden boxes, each box intended for two or three persons, who usually sleep head against feet and feet against head.
"If you enter this Badstofa when 13 to 14 persons lie sleeping there, first of all you feel a temperature which certainly both summer and winter reminds you of the tepidarium of a Roman bath, but surely here the likeness ceases. A suffocating stink and an unwholesome smell meets you. It is the smell of the mouldy hay, of the sheepskin quilts that are never dried or aired; it is the smell of the dirt which is dragged into the house on the clumsy Icelandic skin shoes that want double soles, and are quite unqualified to keep out the dampness. 

"In this dirt a confused mixture of cats, dogs, and children lie reeking on the floor, exchanging caresses and echinococci; it is the smell of the wet stockings and the woollen shirts which hang to dry next to a slice of dried halibut ("Rekling") or the dried cod's head--this dreadful irrational favourite dish, for which the Icelander pays four kroner (4s. 6d.) a hundred. And if you poke your nose into the corners of the Badstofa, you will find a bucket in which the urine of the whole party is gathered; it is considered good for wool-washing.

"I shall never succeed in picturing all the details of such an interior, which, in addition, you may imagine as being heated in the winter, at the places where they have no turfs, with the sheep's dried excrements, a kind of fuel which spreads a penetrating smell of nitre and burnt wool."
Dr. Ehlers was in Iceland to research the causes of leprosy. His conclusion: "It is the absolute want of cleanliness plus Armauer Hansen's bacillus, which in such an interior finds its true paradise." You can read his whole essay in Newman, Ehlers, and Impey, Prize Essays on Leprosy (London: New Sydenham Society, 1895), pp 169-70, available on Open Library.

If you want to visit a badstofa, I recommend the one pictured above, from the Skagafjord Heritage Museum at Glaumbaer in northern Iceland. It was the home of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, heroine of my nonfiction book, The Far Traveler. If you visit Glaumbaer, be sure to say hi to Sirri for me. And don't miss the opportunity to try the fish soup in the museum restaurant.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Visit to Greenland

I stayed in Greenland’s tiny capital city, Nuuk, for two weeks in 2006, while researching my book The Far Traveler. My hosts were Kristjana, an Icelander, and her husband, Jonathan Motzfeldt, an Inuit known as the “father of his country” for having negotiated Greenland’s semi-independence from Denmark. Jonathan was prime minister of the Home Rule government for many years and remained a significant voice in politics when I met him; he died in 2010. Here’s how I remember him:

One night over tea and cookies, we watched a Greenlandic TV program about independence, on which he was featured. I asked if he was in favor of it. “Someday,” he replied, “but not in my time.” Although ninety percent of Greenland’s people are indigenous Inuit, Danish subsidies, he explained, built Greenland’s airports and public buildings, including the new university complex going up next to the Institute of Natural Sciences, where Kristjana works. Half of the Home Rule government’s expenditures come from Denmark—and nearly half of Greenland’s workers are government employees. Initiatives the Danes are backing include mining for gold, extracting low-temperature enzymes from glacial lakes, bottling glacier water, tourism and archaeology, and—harking back to the Viking era—sheep farming.

For dinner, Jonathan had boiled a joint from a sheep raised on Eirik the Red’s farm—an old sheep, he said, his dark face lit with a cartoonish grin. He repeated it several times, with emphasis, “Eirik the Red’s ooooold sheep.” He seemed to be testing the extent of my American fussiness (later he would serve boiled eiderduck and noisily enjoy sucking the duck’s feet). But I knew he was teasing. I had taken to him the first time we met. Trim and neat, he turned Kristjana into a giant: he hardly came up to her ear. His smile was as sunny as a child’s—and as apparently irrepressible. Appropriately solemn-faced discussing the eight suicides Nuuk had seen in the two weeks since I had arrived in Greenland, he was beaming again as soon as Kristjana changed the subject. Now, he served the sheep broth first, tiny potatoes and rice floating in it, then  put the big, dry, chewy hunk of grayish meat and bone, glistening with little white globs of fat, on a platter. He handed me a penknife and a glass of red wine.

One perk of Jonathan’s position was the Motzfeldt’s house: high, glass-fronted, it overlooked the bay like the prow of a ship. At the breakfast table one morning, his pipe curled in a meaty fist, Jonathan shouted out, “There!” and “There!,” picking out herds of seal as they swam by. Through binoculars, I saw a flurry of little triangular flippers and smooth black backs before they dove again. Another day, reading a book on Greenland from the Motzfeldts’ excellent library, I was startled to my feet by the Hoosh-Wash of a whale breaching. Hurrying outside, I hung over the cliffside with a neighbor and her two children to see four more jets and a pair of flukes.

Each morning before the fog burned off, a flotilla of small boats would etch silver lines away from the harbor. There was no other way to get out of town, I’d soon learned, unless you flew.

“Do you notice all the boats are going into the fjords?,” Kristjana said wistfully one day. She ran a hand through her blonde, boy-cut hair and took a drag on her cigarette. “That’s where spring is.”

I had been introduced to Kristjana by an Icelandic friend, a botanist who worked with her in southern Greenland on a project to stem erosion caused by the sheep farming. Learning of my plans to visit the Viking sites near Nuuk, Kristjana had immediately volunteered to take me there, but the Motzfeldts’ boat had gone in for repairs in November, just after we started planning our trip, and being “father of your country” doesn’t unfortunately get your boat fixed any sooner in Nuuk. Greenland, Kristjana agreed, was mis-named. It should have been called “Maybe-Land.”

“Maybe you can go to Sandnes with Georg on Tuesday.” Georg Nyegaard, a Danish archaeologist working at the National Museum of Greenland, was going to inspect a farmer’s potato patch near the Viking site: Greenland has no private property; every individual use of land is approved and monitored by a government committee, and the museum officials suspected this potato patch was encroaching on the archaeology.

“Maybe we can go with the Swedish ambassador,” Kristjana said another day. “He said he’d like to see Sandnes. His yacht is luxury, much better than our boat—except that one motor is broken.”

Tupilak Travel had a boat going to a different spot known for Viking ruins—down the fjord just north of Nuuk—but the trip was cancelled at the last moment: The wind was too strong.

By the time the Motzfeldt’s boat was finally ready, Jonathan had been called away to Copenhagen and Kristjana was drowning in things to do before she herself left for Italy a few days later. So she turned me and the boat over to Tobias, whom she introduced as Jonathan’s chauffeur.

“You have a map, you know where you want to go, good, good,” she said, brushing away my doubts. “Tobias will get you there”—despite the fact that he spoke no English (or Icelandic) and I spoke no Greenlandic (or Danish). His wife Rusina would be going, too, I learned when I met them at the boat early Saturday morning. “Beautiful!” she said, with an expansive wave of one hand, as we passed the dramatic mountains that marked the harbor mouth. It was her favorite (and almost her only) English word.

But we did get to the Viking ruins at Sandnes—you can read about it in The Far Traveler—and we did, in spite of the strengthening wind and the growling sea, get safely back.

If you want to visit the Viking sites in Greenland, I recommend Blue Ice Explorer at in south Greenland. Jacky can do everything. If you make it to Nuuk, don't miss the Greenland National Museum, I also recommend Tupilak Travel,

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Eye for Horses

Did you know it's "Read an e-book week"? To celebrate, my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, published in 2001 and long out of print, is now on sale for 50% off at That's $4.99. Can't pass it up at that price.

A Good Horse Has No Color has always been popular with Icelandic horse owners. But much of what I write applies to any breed of horse. This excerpt, for example, about my first ride on my horse Birkir in Iceland, was reprinted in the coffee-table book Heartbeat for Horses by Laura Chester and Donna Demari in 2007:

...Behind me I heard a rise in the conversation, then hoofbeats. The woman rode up on the darker horse and handed me her whip. I had seen other Icelanders ride with one, longer than a riding crop but a bit short for a dressage whip. This one had an engraved silver cap on its handle. I took it like I had expected it, and gave the horse a tap. Immediately he picked up a nice slow tolt, as if he’d been merely waiting for me to ask. It was a confident gait: His back felt soft and rounded and comfortable beneath me, his head was high, and his neck arched. His forelock blew back past his ears, and his dark mane rippled over my hands. He seemed to be enjoying himself, glad to be about, though not in any great hurry. I must have been smiling too, for the woman looked at me and beamed. She said something I didn’t catch, and suddenly we were cantering up the hill. The horse had a fine, rolling canter. At the crest, we resumed the tolt, turned, cantered up the near hill, and tolted back to the barnyard. The horse stopped easily next to its fellow, and we got off. The rain was picking up again. Someone took the two horses into the stable. Another suggested coffee, and we all dashed for the house.

When we came back out, the rain was still steady, but inside the barn it was warm and brightly lit and comforting. A raised center aisle separated two large pens full of horses, each haltered and clipped to a rail. They stirred and stamped when we entered, and I looked along their orderly ranks for Birkir. Amazingly, I picked him out at once, the light bay with a star, and walked down the aisle toward him feeling as if he were already mine. Sigrun approached him from the rear, and the horses parted, leaving room for me to step into the pen and join her. We stood at his flank, looking him over, and he turned his head to watch us, his neck arced high, his ears pricked with curiosity. He had a dark, liquid, inquisitive eye, soft and friendly. Unlike Elfa, he was completely at ease around us. He did not sidle away when I reached to pat him—on the contrary, he poked his nose forward, dog-like, to the limits of his rope, as if looking for attention. I scratched behind his ears and ran my hand down his neck and along his smooth wide back. His mane and tail were thick and dark, his black stockings neat, his hooves well-shaped, his coat a glowing red. He seemed larger and sturdier than most Icelandics I’d seen, and it was clear he was in excellent health.

“He’s beautiful,” I said, and meant it. I was filled with desire, suddenly, to own this beast—filled with awe that it was possible to own a creature so fine, so alive—surprised that anyone would actually let me take him away…

Birkir fra Hallkelsstadahlid has been part of our family now for fifteen years. You can visit his home farm on the web at To learn about Icelandic horses in general, go to the Icelandic Horse Congress's website at or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson's video blog, Another good way to get to know Icelandic horses is by reading my friend Pamela Nolf's blog about her horse Blessi:

Finally, a nice surprise in my email this week was a note from 16-year-old Asha Brogan, who created a book trailer for A Good Horse Has No Color as an assignment for her high-school journalism class. Watch at As she explained in her note, she was unable to borrow an Icelandic horse, and so had to make do with a Welsh pony. Not quite the same, as anyone who has ridden an Icelandic horse will tell you.

(Middle photo of Birkir fra Hallkelsstadahlid by Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang.)