On The Road: The Faroe Islands ‘Grind’

Here’s my most recent travel column for 3QuarksDaily, as published there a couple weeks ago. It’s a look at the Faroe Islands’ whale hunting tradition called the grindadráp. 

Last month, local people drove fourteen hundred dolphins to the end of Skálafjordur Bay near the capital of the Faroe Islands and killed them. It is a tradition called the grindadráp.  In Icelandic, one of the neighboring languages, “Good luck” is hvelreki, with an idea something like “may a whole whale wash up on your beach.” The Faroese don’t wait for luck to produce whales. They sail out and find them.

When a fishing boat or a ferry spies a pod of whales (dolphins in this case but usually whales), a call goes out and word races through the village. Even in the middle of a work day people drop what they are doing and muster. Fishing boats form up in a half circle behind the whales and, banging on the sides of the boats and trailing lines weighted with stones, press the whales into a shallow bay.

Townspeople wait on the beach with hooks and knives. Mandated under new regulations, two devices, a round-ended hook and a device called a spinal lance are designed to kill the whales more quickly and thus, grindadráp proponents say, more humanely.

The hunter plunges the hook attached to a rope into the whale’s blowhole. Men line up tug of war style to pull the whale onto the beach. It takes a line of men to haul them out, for pilot whales may weigh 2500 pounds. The grizzled fisherman, the mayor, the hardware clerk with a bad back, all the townspeople fuse in common cause, shoulder to shoulder on the shore, harvesting the meat, dividing the spoils.

The harvest is distributed evenly, for communal benefit. This is real, retail, hands-on constituent services for the mayor, who works out what size the shares should be and hands out tickets. People go to stand beside the whale indicated on their ticket. Those sharing each whale butcher it together, right there, right then. The municipality is mandated to clear the remains within 24 hours.

The animals are cut and pieces laid on the ground skin down, blubber up. Then the meat is cut from the whale and laid atop the blubber, the whole take is divided, and the shareholders gather up their haul and carry it home. There is no industrial processing.

Even today whale accounts for a quarter of all the Faroes’ meat consumption. Custom and tradition tip the scales against the advice of the then-Faroes’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Høgni Debes Joensen, who declared in 2008 that no one ought to eat whale meat anymore because of the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat.

Heðin Brú (1901-1987), perhaps the Faroes’ most important novelist, describes life in the village of Sørvágur, now adjacent to the airport on the island of Vagar, in his The Old Man and His Sons. Set in subsistence era early twentieth century Faroes, it describes the generational strains on a rural society being dragged into modernity.

Brú works to show the grindadráp (‘the grind’ for short), as vital in feeding the islanders. In 1928 a Faroese medical officer wrote, “…it cannot be emphasised enough how important this [pilot whale meat] is for the population, for whom the meat, be it fresh, dried or salted, is virtually their only source of meat.”

•••••

Once the grindadráp was a quirky cultural asset, but not anymore. In a time when people are quick to pass judgement, the grind pits the world against the Faroes. A tinge of the exotic attaches to today’s grindadráp, a summoning of vestigial heritage and pride, a suggestion that these quiet, unassuming subjects of the Danish crown fall into some bloodlust frenzy wild and savage, like Viking wildmen in helmets with horns only more authentic than horned Trump Sturmtruppen.

Now the Faroese live in a society modern in every way, right down to their efforts to find more humane ways to kill the whales, and whale meat is no longer required for the diet as it was in the days of Heðin Brú. The subsistence era was a different time. So the question arises, must the tradition continue?

Last month’s photos of the crimson harvest are revolting, and the idea of slaughtering some of the world’s most intelligent creatures is unsettling no matter who you are. But it must also be said that the Faroes’ intent is to be sustainable. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (apparently yes, that is a thing) reckons the annual Faroese slaughter takes less than 0.1 percent of the pilot whale population, the grind’s usual target.

Proponents call the grind socially adhesive, a big bundle of sport, tradition and a way of obtaining cheap food. It is also a direct link to the islanders’ past. Opponents assert that none of these justifications hold up in the 21st century. Yet in a place not very accommodating to agriculture, fishing – and pilot whales – have always been central to the Faroese diet.

You can be sure that isolated people will always mix resourcefulness with resistance to change. Pride, too. Pride in the ability to live and flourish in an outpost. Pride in the traditions that make the place unique.

Tjørnuvik

Traditions like the Stakksdagur festival. Every year in spring outside the postcard-perfect village of Tjørnuvik at the far end of Streymoy, strong men drive a few rams up into the hills to roam wild. On a Saturday as autumn approaches, islanders converge, out for a bit of tradition and a day of drinking and playing Viking, carry spiked wooden poles into the mountains, find the rams and use the poles to make a pen to confine them. To fanfare, commotion, camaraderie and traditional song, they herd the rams back into Tjørnuvik for slaughter and auction.

Call it the Faroese equivalent of tailgating on a college football Saturday. It’s as vaguely exotic as Scottish pole tossing, Swedes around the Midsummer pole or the Shetland’s Up Helly Aa.

When you’ve repeatedly been to the brink of starvation, when you live on a spot of land as precarious as the obstinate Faroes cliffs of slippery basalt, when your heritage reaches to Odin and Thor, when you have come through all this and more and today you thrive, perhaps there’s room for the stout view that your culture is worth preservation.

Elin Brimheim Heinesen, a Faroese musician, sharpens the point: “What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them. People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand.”

She wants the casual visitor to understand that life still is really different on this small archipelago in a vast ocean, “that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time is ripe to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go bird-catching, or go hare-hunting – or participate in pilot whaling – and, additionally, to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. This food constitutes a large part of the total food consumption and is completely indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% in the Faroe Islands who live at or below the poverty line.”

Activists battle the grind and the Faroes’ legislature battles back. The parliament, called the Løgting, briefly voted in 2014 to ban members of the marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd from sending protesters. That legislation was dropped when Denmark determined it would likely be illegal.

But try, try again; a 2016 proposal to keep anti-whaling activists out equates actively protesting for an organization with work, for which foreigners require a work permit.

Hapag-Lloyd and AIDA, two big German cruise lines, have suspended or lessened arrivals in the Faroes to protest the grind. (This may be devastating to waterfront vendors but it has its appeal for those of us who believe there is a special place in hell for the inventor of the mega-cruise ship.)

The Faroese point out that the grind is an opportunistic hunt, not commercial, the meat is not exported and is shared across the entire community. The distribution of the spoils generally happens without money, and on the spot.

In the conservative British magazine The Spectator, Heri Joensen, the lead singer of the Faroese band Tyr writes, “In the Faroes, it is not uncommon to kill your own dinner — be it sheep, fish, bird or hare. I have slaughtered many more sheep than I have cut up whales and no one seems to care. I find that strange. Why the double standards? Because whales are endangered? The ones we eat aren’t. There are an estimated 780,000 long-finned pilot whales in the Atlantic. In the Faroe Islands, we kill about 800 a year on average — or 0.1 per cent of the population. An annual harvest of 2 per cent is considered sustainable: compare that with the billions of animals bred for slaughter.” Joensen says that buying the same amount of cow meat he got in a grindadráp would have cost more than £800.

So much discourse these days is about listing things one person or another ought not do. But I think most people don’t mean it, or at least don’t mean it deeply. Passing judgement on social media is a cheap way to signal group identity.

It’s fair to say that one look at the business end of Skálafjordur Bay last month, crimson and slick with dolphin blood, turned legions of foreigners judgmental against the Faroese. The islanders counter that most of their critics, who live entirely apart from the source of their food, eat animals who suffer every bit as much as a grindadráp whale. Factory farming, they say, is an industrial scale horror for profit, while the grind has no financial motive. Who are you, they ask, to pass judgement on the people of a small group of islands far away?

•••••

There were some thoughtful comments added to this article at 3QD. Have a look at the comments here. Also see more photos of the very photogenic in the Faroe Islands gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

New Column Today at 3QD

There’s a new edition of my monthly travel column posted at 3QuarksDaily today. Read it here for now, and later this week I’ll post the whole thing here on CS&W. This month we take a look at the Faroe Islands.

The Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands Photo Essay

Spend five minutes – or an hour – with this fabulous photo essay about one of my favorite places, the Faroe Islands. Really nicely done.

Faroe Islands

Finding local.fo, “the only English-language news media in the Faroe Islands reporting Faroese news” is a plenty good reason to share a couple of photos of one of earth’s most beautiful places. Local.fo is also on Twitter @faroesenews. Above is the famous waterfall at the Faroese village of Gásadalur. Below, the capital, Tórshavn, and at bottom, the village of Tjørnuvík. Click ’em to make ’em bigger.

There are a few more Faroes photos here, and here’s an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about a trip to the village of Saksun.

Weekend Reading

This is how it looked here on the farm in late October a few years back. We’re not there yet, but it’s close. Wile E. Coyote has run past the cliff’s edge but has yet to fall. The leaves are set to change, summoning up traffic jams of flatland gawkers, but just now we’re in silent suspension, hanging in the air, waiting for the start of the race to autumn.

I see this morning that larger news organizations have picked up the article I found yesterday in a little website called TheLocal.se. It’s a feel good story. If you skipped over it then, go back and check it out.

That discussion of the post-Cold War world that’s been missing for years is suddenly wide open, so it’s mostly political theory in this weekend’s reading, kind of academic. If you’re deep in an absorbing novel, permission to skip over this week’s list. But given the roiling unease in the Western democracies, the state of our political systems is worth some thought.

The unapologetic American interventionist Robert Kagan has published one of his periodic little books, this one called The Jungle Grows Back, and to support it, here is Kagan’s The World America Made – and Trump Wants to Unmake in Politico. (The American president not falling into any of the academy’s self-defined niches adds a little spice to all the arguments here).

Graham Allison says Kagan’s world was never thus in The Myth of the Liberal Order from Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom in an ungated article at Foreign Affairs (and Allison has been around just about since the creation of the post WWII order).

David Frum and Stephen M. Walt separately suggest the implausible this week. Frum writes that The Rebublican Party Needs to Embrace Liberalism in The Atlantic, and Walt chimes in with Socialists and Libertarians Need an Alliance Against the Establishment at ForeignPolicy.com.

There’s lots more, across the spectrum. See Peter Beinart’s call for a new Democratic foreign policy (hint: rehabilitate Finlandization), Hal Brands in Bloomberg and Daniel Larison in The American Conservative (who’s not buying Kagan). That ought to get you started.

In case you’re not enamored with political theory, here’s one more thing, completely different. Check out Norwegian Knut Arne Gjertsen’s blog. He has been to the gorgeous Faroe Islands and come back with a bunch of photos and fun tales.

And I’ll leave you with an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about the Faroese village of Saksun.

See you next week.

 

Faroe Islands Photo Essay

New this month, bbc.co.uk has a really nice exploration of the Faroe Islands by author/photographer Christian Petersen, premised on the far-flung islands’ postmen. Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Then come back and read an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about a visit to the Faroese village of Saksun (below).

Click to enlarge. There are more photos in the Faroe Islands Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and you can buy Out in the Cold from Amazon.com by clicking the cover, or from your home country’s Amazon.

Weekend Reading

The village of Tjørnuvik, Streymoy, Faroe Islands (above) has no connection that I can think of to the articles listed here. But it sure is pretty, isn’t it? This weekend, you could set a slideshow of Tjørnuvik and the 580 other photos from all over the world in the HDR Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Otherwise, here are a few articles worth your attention on your day off this weekend:

How Netflix works: the (hugely simplified) complex stuff that happens every time you hit Play by Mayukh Nair at Medium.com.

The Infinity of the Small by Alan P. Lightman at Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s allows a free article a month. If this is your first this month, you’re good.

The Exhilirating Art of Landing Planes in Crazy Crosswinds by Alex Davis at Wired.com.

When a Reporter Crossed the Kremlin’s Borderline by Shaun Walker at codastory.com.

We Are Living in Parallel Societies by Nick Ottens at Quillette.com

and some entertaining photography at TheAtlantic.com. Alan Taylor takes virtual tours with Google Earth, then shares what he finds. Here are what he calls Human Landscapes of Germany, Mexico, Canada and the American Southwest.

Cheers, everybody.

Photo Safari North

In his work as a landscape and advertising photographer based in Hamburg, Jan Erik Waider tells me he spends up to half of each year on the road, much of it in the Nordic countries. We all benefit from his time investment.

Click through and enjoy Jan Erik’s portfolio. I think it’s beautiful.

Book Excerpt: Arriving in Iceland by Ship

A short excerpt from my book Out in the Cold:

PART THREE: ICELAND

Norröna

Time at sea is balm for the soul, respite from the workaday, a chance to contemplate the great wash of water upon the Earth. The sea is fluid; change is the sailor’s constant companion, and today we change countries aboard an obscure ferry across the north Atlantic to Iceland. A proper shipborne adventure.

Surely the passenger manifest holds no names of any ethnicity tied to terror. Here is a ship of Sigurds and Sigurdssons, Johanns and Johanssons. Still, when you change countries you offer your passport. In Torshavn’s little harbor, though, the young woman in the window just smiles and flutters her hand. “Never mind.”

Arriving at Iceland, no passport control. It’s not that no one wants to stamp your passport. There is no one to size you up at all.

Years ago I arrived at Stockholm on the party boat from Helsinki. That is what everybody called them (at least us young people), the Silja and Viking Line ferries that set out between capitals in each direction every night, their promenades overfull of food and drink and shopping, and a telephone in every room so you could call the United States if you wanted.
In my short-lived role as a businessman peddling my wares, I walked off the Viking Line onto a ramp into Sweden, where I expected someone to nod in recognition of my gravity. Nobody cared. Same thing. Nobody was even there.

A couple of days from now, flying from tiny east Iceland for the tiny capital, there will be no security. No x-rays, no walk-through machine, no questions. Just press a button on the counter to summon the clerk from the room behind a window where they can see you but you can’t see them, to take your ticket.

•••••

The Norröna, the flag ship of the Faroese shipping line Smyril (the Faroese name for a type of falcon), runs this route between Denmark, Tórshavn and Iceland. Packed, it carries 1,500 people and 800 cars. In winter between Tórshavn and Iceland, it is never packed.

Up in the heated, enclosed outdoor view point a husband and wife knit together as we take our beers to the window and watch the spray spin off north Atlantic waves in a frosty, freezy way.
Spume slaps the window while the bartender allows that the Tórshavn to Seydisfjordur leg, she is the roughest. True enough; the red LED numbers read three a.m. sharp when buffeting rearranges the interior of the cabin in the dark. The Norröna sails with all the aerodynamics of a shoebox.

The Norröna tries to nestle into Seydisfjordur in the morning, but it is more of a wedge than a nestle. Seydisfjordur, where the sun sinks behind the mountains in November not to be seen again until the end of February, is a community of houses opportunistically assembled around the inside of a fjord steep and narrow, an entirely Arctic place with cliffs covered with snow, some buildings half-buried under drifts, with a wind across the Norröna’s deck that will drive you straight back inside.

A man down at the docks, just the bundled form of a man really, claims Seydisfjordur should have been the main town in Iceland. No one but he makes that claim. When wild men ruled here, a long time ago before governments, Seydisfjordur started life around a herring fishery set up by Norwegians and they say it thrived. For a time the world’s largest whaling station, also Norwegian run, stood on the shores of Mjoifjordur, today a village of 35 people just four or five miles over the ridge, the next fjord south.

Telegraph first connected Iceland to Europe from Seydisfjordur in 1906. Engineering feats like this buck up pride out at the far end, and this one helps Iceland insist it is part of Europe. Europe is like, whatever.

•••••

Seydisfjordur has scant relation to the Faroes. It is colder and meaner, harder core, smothered by snow, an outpost at the end of a water trail, cliffs along either side narrowing onto the dock.
It takes some time for the Norröna to find a fit. The husband and wife tag team knits unconcerned on deck. Faroese and Icelandic men used to knit of necessity. Now it is sport, or perhaps chivalry. During endless winters people learn to entertain themselves. Fun is where you find it.

These Norröna passengers might not enjoy the Helsinki to Stockholm party boat. Not that kind of crowd. Neither do they exhibit any of the bovine wobble of Americans on a Caribbean fun ship.

Imagine history, long and dark. In living memory northern Icelanders read without electricity, learning their heritage, the Sagas, by the light of oil lamps. Because of Iceland’s great isolation the original Norse language has held so fast that Icelanders can still read the original Sagas like they were last week’s newspaper.

In this context the Sagas are not only the great historical epic of the northern peoples, but also social glue, nation-building tools, and in the living, breathing life of even a hundred years ago they were sources of wonder, fascination and high entertainment. Just those few years ago, you might never meet anyone you hadn’t known from birth.

Consider that while settlements sprouted on the island more than eleven hundred years ago, only for about 170 years have people in this world had effective pain killing medicine. Prior to 1846 there was no anesthesia. Before the last century rudimentary medicine served to comfort the afflicted until they healed, or they didn’t.

Before the invention of the telegraph in 1837, information could travel no faster than a sailing ship or a man on a horse. In Iceland’s earliest days killing had not yet been outsourced to the gun, to a machine. It relied on hand tools and the brute application of pressure.

•••••

WELCOME. NOW GO! HURRY!

See each place with child’s eyes and embrace the moment you do. For the strange grows fast familiar, nevermore wondrous and new.

There is a lovely blue Lutheran church in the center of town, dramatically backlit by the sun’s bounce off a snowy backdrop. In summer Seydisfjordur touts itself as an artists’ colony. An arts camp in July, musicians at the church on Wednesdays. In summer there are 4×4 tours, bird watching, biking, sea fishing and kayaking and a nine-hole golf course over the hill in Egilsstaðir.

The Blue Church at Seydisfjordur

In winter it is tough. Home-bound knitters do their best to snare the passing tourist dollar. Buy a mitten, buy a bootie. A ski lift once ran up the hill, but it is closed tight this winter. The Norröna delivers its passengers, but only once a week in winter, and today despite cerulean skies, the buses hurry straight over the pass because the captain advised passengers by public address to leave the Seydisfjord straight away, forecasting a debilitating, road-closing storm.

Nodding to the wisdom of skating quickly over thin ice, we follow. Beyond the blue church and the ship from the Faroes is just the road out, over the hill to Egilsstaðir. Up toward the pass a Scania truck that was hauling fish lies on its side, a stark admission of failure.

Happened yesterday. Driver unhurt, fish still inside. They are frozen and unlikely to melt.

I scoff at the idea of a storm under these brilliant skies but by 14:30 the world is reduced to white and shades of gray, as snow sweeps the road. The horizon winks out. By then we have run up to the foot of Snæfell, “snow mountain,” the ancient volcano that reigns over the highlands at 1,833 meters.

•••••

EGILSSTAÐIR, EAST ICELAND

We are in the hearty care of a big man named Agnar. First time I see him I feel he isn’t my kind of guy. Something about his slouch against the wall. Nobody slouches when the air is below zero.

Maybe Icelanders do.

Agnar is imposing, a ruddy man, ample and not naturally affable. He strikes me as a “from my cold dead fingers” sort and maybe he is, for he is an avid hunter, enumerating at length and in considerable detail the requirements for reindeer hunting – and his techniques.

Iceland’s reindeer have no natural enemies. Their population is managed by government-controlled hunting between July and September. Reindeer meat is an Icelandic delicacy and there is demand enough for hunting permits to require a lottery.

Agnar wears a black turtleneck of thermally appropriate fiber, tight enough to display his girth. Flitty eyes in a big head suggest a distrust I don’t think he means. Half me, half his lifetime among few strangers.

His on-and-then-off black wool cap and black fleece outer layer lay against his ruddiness to make him out as a confident outdoorsman. Might be just the guy you want around here, on second thought.

He has a Super Jeep. If super means how far off the ground you must step to climb in, it sure is super. It comes with its own Italian air compressor en suite. Essential equipment, for we haven’t made it up to the glacier by the time we slide and our back end wobbles around in one place until Agnar hops out to let air out of the tires.

Lower tire pressure flattens the tires. They relax a few inches, spread out and get a better grip. And it works. Eventually you’ll need to re-inflate the tires, and that’s where the air compressor comes in. Once we attain the main road back to Egilsstaðir toward the end of the day, Agnar stops at a junction with a billboard for us to regard in the whipping wind. It explains how geo-thermal power works around the region while Agnar sets about re-inflating the tires with the compressor.

It makes a lot of racket and he goes round to the tires one at a leisure time as if it weren’t minus eight degrees, the wind howling like a penned sled dog.

•••••

Largarfljót, the longest lake in the country, flows down from our destination, so we run alongside it on the way up. We’re headed to the great Vatnajokull, (“jokull” is “glacier”) up onto the edge of Europe’s largest glacier. The national park around it covers 14 percent of the country.

What is it about narrow northern lakes and worms? Lagarfljot has its own Loch Ness-style monster, 300 meters long with scaly humps and revolting spikes and a very, very long life. It has dwelt beneath these waters since 1345, spotted as recently as 2012. In legend its appearance augurs ill for the local folk.

It is just as well to contemplate a legend, for the landscape reveals little beyond the sweep of barren land and Iceland’s largest organic vegetable farm. Four-foot trees, a reforestation experiment that I expect isn’t destined to reach new heights, admit their discouragement in mangy patches on the road out of Egilsstaðir.

They hope the old saw about what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest (put the cork back in the bottle, stand up and look around) may one day get a challenge. The Forest Service claims 130 square kilometers of birch forest have taken hold in the past twenty-five years. That represents one and a half percent of the country, although you’d be challenged to find the first tree on the flight from east Iceland to Reykjavik. Still, they’re hoping for 25 percent birch coverage one of these days.

They reckon birch forests in valleys and willow scrub along the coast covered about a third of the island at the time of settlement. Iceland’s fate doesn’t run as raw as Easter Island’s, where the colonizers appear to have cut down every last tree, but the temptation to cut down trees in the Arctic for warmth and shelter must have been at least as mighty as on Rapa Nui.

Climbing toward Vatnajokull, sheep folds, circular pens for gathering and sorting sheep, line the Largarfljót flood plain. The herder might sort sheep into any of half a dozen pie-shaped low stone sections that comprise the circle, with a commonly accessible further circle in the middle.

Iceland has no passenger rail, and automobiles only found their way here in the 1920s, so horses were the main means of transport until very recently, especially for distance. Meghan O’Rourke, in The New York Times: “The Icelandic horse … is unique with its quick, short-steeped gait, so smooth a rider wouldn’t spill a drink.”

The horses in the valley of the Largarfljót graze at quiet farms on either side of the road, long manes and tails waving with the wind down the valley, white manes with dark bodies or the mirror of that, light bodies and dark manes. The river flows turbid and steady, scarcely a hundred meters wide, even less as it snakes through sand bars.

•••••

To read the rest of Out in the Cold, get yourself a copy right now. Here in the U.S., here in Europe.

Out in the Cold Audiobook Available Now

Get yourself a copy of this just-published audiobook, written and narrated by me. I am not the actor with the same name. Get it: On Audible. On Amazon.

Here are several written and spoken excerpts.

Get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.