There is a farmer on the edge of Neskaupstaður who sees no point in herding his sheep. Why chase newly born lambs and their mothers to the top of a mountain in May only to chase them back down again in September?
By August his flock has tired of the low slopes and meandered brazenly through open gates to take up residence on either side of the only road into town, licking the salt and huddling on the warm tarmac from dusk to dawn. At five every morning sheep cover the road, blinking in the dull light at any car coming their way.
One old dame is locally renowned. Her short horns stick-out like ice-cream cones and clumps of dirty white wool hang from her back, trailing the ground as if she were wearing a fox stole. A hapless driver will spot her a kilometre away and think, she sees me, she’ll move.
Closer, the driver slows assuming she’s frozen in the headlights, two meters away the driver stops, confronted by the self-righteous stare of an unflinching mother; two lambs peeking around her weighty behind. Neither car horn nor threatening engine revs will make her move. The driver has to swerve around, shouting obscenities out the window at her implacable face. Some years this flock eats down all the grass on the edges of town and comes creeping into gardens and playgrounds. One day they’ll reach the supermarket.
Sheep are the farmer’s calendar in Iceland. A rush of births signals the end of winter and when farmers open the paddocks filled with bounding, bleating lambs to herd them into the mountain peaks, or over into abandoned fjords, everyone knows spring is truly here. Spring herding is slow and easy, farmers push their flocks gently upwards until, destination reached, the sheep are allowed to spread, free for the next five months, only an occasional hiker to startle them into a run.
When the mountains paint themselves in warm red hues of autumn the time of free roaming is done and family, friends and random guests come together to bring the flock back. If the family mountain is level enough this is done on horseback or ATV. If the grazing grounds are steep, with shale rockslides or cliffs that tear the valley like bite marks, herding is done on foot.
Either method, every farmer herds the same weekend. To an outsider it feels as if this happens by magic, with no communication, just an internal understanding of the seasons. In reality, telephones are also involved.
For the farmer on the edge of town autumn herding is a half-day effort, started anytime of day. For his neighbours it starts early Saturday morning. Groups meet at summerhouses or on the sides of roads, backpacks filled with rainproof gear and food. Over one last coffee the farmer peruses the mountains for telltale woolly mounds, well camouflaged against boulders and rocks. Satisfied, s/he hands out 2-ways, gives final instructions to plans made the night before, and the day begins.
High up, where the landscape splits, anyone still together divides in order to cover more ground. Walking alone, hearing only occasional shouts, it is easy to get lost in the romantic notions of living here 200 years ago. But, the rasp of Gortex as you swing your arms, or the lightness of your boots as you scramble up a rocky outcrop, are quick reminders of the comforts you’d rather not give-up.
By midday you start seeing clumps of sheep trotting over rivulets and wet moss, diving off what seem to be cliff edges but are really thin paths to another plain where the sheep stop running to stare at you, laughing or hating.
At some point you lose your hesitation to run across screed slopes, to scramble down steep, slippery ridges, you’ll do anything to prevent that one ram from going back up the mountain.
As everyone comes back together, following the jolting blanket of black, brown, white and grey flowing towards the home paddocks. You feel the exhausted satisfaction of achieving something tangible, and it reminds you, you are capable of so much more than the modern world allows.