Heida- the solitary sheep farmer
Translated by Phil Roughton
My farm, Ljótarstaðir, has been occupied continuously since the twelfth century, as evidenced by the tephra layers revealed in excavations. One other farm in Iceland has the same name, Ljótarstaðir in Landeyjar, on the south coast.
There are various theories about the farm’s name. One is that it’s named after the original settler Ljótur, who is supposedly buried in a mound here. Another is that the farm name is a variant of the female name Ljótunn.
But the loveliest theory, and the one that I’m going to stick with, I heard by chance recently at a district museum in the north. A staff member there connected the farm name Ljótarstaðir with an old expression that I hadn’t heard before, and that has to do with light. The expression is: Birtunni ljótar yfir: the light brightens, shines over; that is, in the sense of drawing slowly over the land, as at dawn.
This makes sense, as the terrain surrounding Ljótarstaðir is open, and the sun comes up early here. At Snæbýli, the other farm in the valley, the sun appears later, at the foot of the mountain to the north.
So, Ljótarstaðir means: The farm where the light is. That’s my farm. ** *
On the way home, I always like coming to Fitarholt Hill. I stop there sometimes to look over at Ljótarstaðir and my royal-blue rooftops, across the valley called Krókur. From Fitarholt you can see quite far into the interior, to the mountains beyond the Tungufljót River. The view extends to Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, behind the mountains west and north of Ljótarstaðir— the tallest being Kvalningshnúkar and Fjalldalsbrún. Also visible are the highland pastures in Skaftártunga and Álftaver.
The buildings at Ljótarstaðir stand at an elevation of just under two hundred meters, and the terrain rises sharply behind them. So my land, which is vast by Icelandic
standards, is mainly wilderness, beyond the boundary of the highlands. The local place names testify to how snowy it is here: Snjóagil (Snow Ravine) at Ljótarstaðir and Snjódalagljúfur (Snow Valley Gorge) at Snæbýli (Snow Farm)… and the grass turns green late in the spring. It’s hardly what you’d call sought-after to live and farm in this rugged area, let alone on your own. I read on a blog that my farm was on the “border of the inhabitable world.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a remark— which is usually followed by the comment that nothing else could survive here but foxes and ravens.
So it’s quite remarkable, and actually ironic, that I’ve had to fight for my right to be here from the very start. The last and by far the toughest battle, with the energy firm Suðurorka over the Búland Power Plant, has been going on since 2010, and was what pushed me into local politics. To defend the countryside and defend my own land… and more. The planned construction, and the effects that it would have, extended over the entire Skaftártunga area, from the Hólaskjól Highland Center in the north to the Ring Road in the south, with a stop at Ljótarstaðir: a sixty-meter high dam in my gorge. As high as the tower of Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral in Reykjavík. A ten-square-kilometer reservoir was to be located approximately four kilometers as the crow flies from laundry- room door. On my best pastureland… where the grass grows first in the spring.
It’s not high on the wish list of a solitary farmer with five hundred sheep to take on the time-consuming and virtually unpaid responsibility of a position on the local council. Because farming is often a full-time job, to say the least.
This battle has cost me an almost inhuman amount of effort. SUMMER
Summer is a fantastic season, with its growth, its light. But I have no time for rolling naked in the dewy grass, which the old folktale says can heal you of all sorts of ailments, particularly at midsummer. I have to sleep at night, and would be too tired for such a thing. In fact in the summer, I’m inside a lot— in the cab of my tractor.
I pretty much grew up on a tractor. A brakeless Massey Ferguson. Naturally, it was cabless as well, meaning I was under the open sky… the sunlight poured straight into my veins and made me completely, radiantly suntanned. But no chance for that in the tractor cab.
I really like driving tractors. They’re useful for more than just raking and mowing. For instance, I enjoy coming up with verses while at the wheel.
We sisters can all compose poetry. My sister Arndis, who died when she was seventeen, was also an enthusiastic, clever poet. Ásta, Fanney and I frequently attend poetry meetups. And we have fun trading verses with each other.
Mom and Dad methodically taught us girls verses and poems. The rhythms became fixed in our memories.
Bjarni from Vogur is me and my sisters’ great-grandfather on our mother’s side. That’s where we get our poet’s blood. There are also good poets on my father’s side of the family, and Dad was particularly sharp-witted and sarcastic. Mom is a bookworm, and has a deep love for the Icelandic language. She also enjoyed composing verses, but says that she gave up once my sisters and I started really getting into it.
I’ve always been good at arranging words, making verses click. I started as a kid, and even then, I could hear whether a poem was composed well or poorly. You either have it, or you don’t.
When I’m in the tractor, I do more than compose poetry. A dance maniac like me dances there, too. But for that, the cab could actually be a bit bigger. My neighbor has a big tractor that he loaned me once… it was perfect for dancing in— a real luxury.
I do a lot of multitasking in my tractor, when possible. I spend a lot of time on my phone, sending e-mails, while raking, tedding, and mowing, but only in my fields, of course, not out on the road. Local council work demands a lot of phone time, as does the fight against the Búland Power Plant. Nor did my phone load lighten after I was asked to add my name to the list of candidates for the Left-Green Movement in the Southern Constituency in the parliamentary elections of October 2016.
I’ve also figured out how to post on Snapchat while driving the tractor. I eat fruit in the cab, too… I just toss the banana skins, orange peels, and apple cores out the window. It decorates the hay, of course.
I drive a Valtra A 95, 2007 model. My good old Gray is an economic-boom tractor, as the model year indicates. It’s one of many on Icelandic farms. It’s my main tractor, used for everything except tedding the hay. For that, I use my other tractor, a Massey Ferguson 165, 1974 model. It goes by the name of Grimur, and is the only one left of the old tractors from when I was a kid. The others were sold— the last one to pay for a complete overhaul for Grímur, which was in pretty bad shape.
I take good care of my old Gray. It’s usually clean and polished and in decent shape, but naturally, it’s an old tractor. It’s nine years old and has a lot of mileage on it. Most important for me is to keep it well maintained; it’s my workplace for hours and days at a time. It’s what’s called a Harlem tractor: a cheap and simple variety, jouncy and lacking in luxury, but at the same time, robust, reliable, and low maintenance. It runs and gets the job done, and that’s fine, but I really wouldn’t mind having a more comfortable, more perfect tractor. For example, a new and bigger Valtra. Or any other dependable, low-maintenance model with a hydraulic reverser. A shiftless transmission would be tops, along with a sprung front axle and an air seat. Just the thing for a very-soon-to-be middle-aged woman. A stereo with a USB port, and slightly more room for my darling Fífill would be a real bonus.
According to the hour meter in my Gray, it has run an average of five hundred and seventeen hours a year for the past nine years. That’s approximately twenty-one days and nights or forty-two twelve-hour workdays. Of course, my usage of it varies greatly depending on the season… but summer takes place mainly in the tractor.
The amount of work with farm machinery done by women in Iceland seems to vary from district to district, but here in Skaftártunga, it’s always been common for girls to drive tractors. In this area, there’s generally no distinction between man’s work and
women’s work. I didn’t even recognize these terms when I heard them first at the Agricultural University in Hvanneyri, and thought they were a joke. But no one laughed besides me.
Long shifts in the tractor take a definite physical toll. I can put up with twelve- hour working days in the tractor, but beyond that, and I really start to feel it. There’s so much stress involved in getting the hay all cut, baled, and gathered that I don’t leave the tractor unnecessarily— only to fill its tank or stop and eat. Mom drives the SUV out to the hayfields to bring me food. For haymaking, I work together with my neighbor Pálli from Hvammur; like me, he farms on his own. When we’re cutting his grass, his mom and dad do the cooking and bring us meals— if his wife is at work, that is.
Hours spent sitting in an inflexible tractor are, of course, bad for the back. A good counteraction can be to hang from the loader, like laundry on the line.
It can also get uncomfortably hot in the cab when the sun is shining. Mine isn’t air-conditioned, like perfect tractors. I can’t normally have the windows open, because it’s very loud, especially when pulling heavy machinery and at high rpm’s. More expensive tractors have better engine compartments, whereas ones like mine make quite a racket. I do love its engine, though, despite its loudness. It’s dependable and powerful, which is great, as long as it starts and does its job.
Fífill, my German Shepherd, whom I’ve had for almost a year, has accompanied me in the cab since he was tiny. Now he’s so big that he takes up practically all the floor space. But early on, he learned the right way to position himself so that things keep running smoothly. Though it went a bit south the other day, when he was so tired that he turned and ended up on my throttle foot. He’s so heavy that I had to powerlift him with my leg. But he’s no danger to my driving— the tractor is slow and has a long response time, and I have decades of experience driving it.
I also let Fífill out of the cab now and then, and he runs alongside and has a look around. He hops out himself, and I’m sure he could get in on his own, but I like to make things easier for him. So he puts his front paws up on the step, and I lift him in. He has just enough room to turn around. I get in and sit down and he crawls under my legs toward the door, and then lies there with this tail on the throttle.
He isn’t full-grown yet, but is well on his way to his forty kilograms. I feed him twice a day; a half-kilo of offal each time, twice what the old dog eats. But he’ll start eating less when he’s full grown. My friend Adda at Herjólfsstaðir tells me that Shepherds keep growing until they’re two.
There’s a long history of breeding behind this handsome dog; he’s been bred to be completely free of defects. The woman I got him from, who runs Gunnarsholt Breeding, has been breeding Shepherds for twenty years.
Fífill is quite the special creature: gentle and fun, and a wonderful companion. He has recovered fully from his lack of appetite in the spring, and the accompanying weight loss. Naturally, I’m out working most of the time during lambing, and he takes it badly not being able to go along. He didn’t sleep enough, overexerted himself and dropped quite a few kilos. Now he’s back at his ideal weight, and is beautiful once more.
Fífill doesn’t get in my way when I dance, and in any case, I can dance just with my hands in the tractor. And he doesn’t seem to mind when I sing at the top of my lungs.
I love singing and it’s great to sing in the tractor.
There was a lot of singing when I was little. We sang and sang and sang, at home
and in the car. Dad had an incredibly beautiful tenor voice. He had a wide range— high up and far down. If he had pursued singing, he could have gone a long way. He was also a master at reciting ballads and was sought-after to do so at gatherings. And Mom is a very fine soprano. She was always in the church choir, and still is. None of us sisters has her beautiful singing voice.
I listen to a lot of music, all kinds of music, including male choirs. Pretty much anything, really, from AmabAdamA to Páll Óskar. Not to mention the old heavy metal dudes in Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and AC/DC— they’re the best.
Mom knows endless amounts of song lyrics, from revues and whatnot. My sisters and nieces and I all have “Jukebox syndrome,” as my aunt Birna calls it. If we hear a name, we start singing a song connected with it. Rhythmical sounds such as hammering or hoofbeats can also get me singing. I particularly enjoy Christmas songs. For some reason, I’m always singing them during lambing!
My head is full of lyrics, revue songs and poems. On the other hand, I can never remember what number oil filter the tractor has.
I have no clue when it comes to what men think of me, whether they’re attracted to me or not. I don’t give it a second thought; don’t notice it unless I’m told directly. But I’m not on my own because I’ve been sitting crying into a handkerchief or an apron over a lack of interested men. I’ve been made every offer imaginable over the years. Men offer themselves, their sons… drunk fathers sometimes call me up and say things like: “Do you need a farmhand?” “I can lift the hay bales.” “I can repair your tractors.” Sometimes they send letters, jewelry and all sorts of other things. Best, though, was when an uncle of mine sent a man to court me. Knowing his niece, he didn’t send the fellow with a gift of flowers and chocolates, but with a hammer and a pair of jumper cables. Still, I didn’t realize it until much later that he was interested in me. I just thanked him for his gifts, got Dad and asked him to chat with the visitor… and went to do my work.
I do realize that men can feel inferior around me, saying, for instance: “You’re so independent.” I’ve also heard the same sort of thing from people who feel compelled to give what they consider good advice: that I should be more yielding, look at them with submissive, Bambi eyes— and definitely not act so independent, which can even be threatening, because it makes men feel inferior, and I’ll never get a man like that. Because that, after all, is the only purpose in life— oh, absolutely.
Apart from the independence problem, I’m tall— and there’s such a strong tradition that the man should be the taller one. There’s simply no end to adversity in this world!!
If men feel threatened by me, it’s their problem… I really couldn’t care less. Maybe I’ve become so thick-skinned that nothing can get through.
I once heard a definition of “romantic” that I really liked. It apparently comes from the Eastfjords: Mental extravagance.
I often say, both jokingly and seriously, that I’m as romantic as a block of frozen cod. Matters of the heart aren’t a priority for me, and I’m very cautious about commitments. When I was at Comprehensive School in Selfoss, I noticed that most of the other girls thought far more about marriage and childbearing than me. My priorities were always different: what sort of work I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, what I wanted to accomplish.
At the same time, I enjoy knowing that family life can be fantastic, as it is for my friend Linda. In a certain way, it keeps me connected to reality, and I find it wonderful to witness how happy her family is, and how great her kids are. So I do believe that there is such a thing as a good, traditional family life, and I’m well aware that people can successfully live their lives differently than I do.
But I remember thinking, when I was little: why does life have to be so sad when you’re an adult? I found it so strange that life was supposed to fit into a specific framework. Maybe it was the attitude here at home that adults shouldn’t be gallivanting around, following whims.
I never understood what I was told when I was little, that I could make my own home after I’d found a husband. Why should I find a husband? Why did I have to have a husband in order to make my own home? It was also assumed that I would have children. I didn’t get it.
But I have no trouble being around kids. They seem naturally drawn to me. The kids that I was responsible for in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, both as their phys. ed. teacher and class mentor, were loads of fun, and I had a blast with them. They liked me so much that I usually had three or four of the rug rats hanging onto me when we went for walks or played outside.
I was younger than the other teachers and liked goofing around with the kids. The big boys sometimes formed a line in the hallway, blocking it, and I had to break through their line. But there was no lack of discipline; they obeyed me readily when they had to.
HEIÐA AT A SYMPOSIUM
My view is that I have no right to sell off Ljótarstaðir’s land or water and thereby permanently damage the portion of Earth that I’ve been entrusted with for a single lifetime. I wouldn’t have wanted Mom or Dad or Grandpa or Grandma to sell off the land in order to buy new lipstick and a Farmall tractor. We humans are mortal; the land outlives us, new people come, new sheep, new birds and so on, but the land, with its rivers and lakes, vegetation and resources, remains. It undergoes changes over the years, but it remains.
The history of human habitation at Ljótarstaðir is long, but is far from being continuous. Over the centuries, my neighbor, old Katla, has tried over and over to ruin Ljótarstaðir and other farms in Skaftártunga with ash and embers. But Katla’s ash blew away and settled into the soil, and over time, vegetation always managed to regrow from it. When the vegetation returned and the water ran clean once more, people returned with their animals— sometimes the same people that fled an eruption, sometimes new ones. But
they settled in, put their livestock to pasture, grew grass and gathered hay. Lived and died.
Ljótarstaðir didn’t go anywhere, despite its having been rendered uninhabitable for a time. The catastrophe passed and the land recovered. Power plants don’t pass; they’re irreversible and nothing recovers from them.
Let’s not go trying to outdo old Katla.