30 May 2020 A short story: The Scent of Angelica
The Scent of Angelica
The day begins on the quay at Tvøroyri on the southernmost island of the Faroes. Held by their horns, rams are loaded into the make-shift wooden pen that occupies the stern of a fishing vessel. These dozen or so rams belong to part-time farmers in Tvøroyri, and they are on their way to Hvannhaga (hagi being the ‘summer grazing land’), a lush spot on the east of the island where angelica grows. Angelica, a plant native to the sub-Arctic region, was the main source of Vitamin C for the Faroese in the past. A small number of selected rams are taken to Hvannhaga in May of each year, and collected again in September when the farmers slaughter them in the basements of their own houses. Grazing over the short summer on remote cliff edges, their meat is said to have an entirely different taste. To get them to their new pastures, the sheep have to be hitched in plastic bags up the vertical cliff faces that hem the shore. Nowadays, such a practice of transporting sheep to the most inaccessible spots on the islands is part animal husbandry, part cultural tradition and part sport. It is a tradition that the Faroese have maintained for centuries and is a time for a cooperative of smallholders to come together, travel the ancestral paths and sail the channels of their forebears. It is one of the ways by which the Faroese seek security in the memory where they come from.
Waiting at the dock, there soon assembles a welter of elderly men dressed in patterned sweaters and short wellies who have come to observe the goings-on. Everything quickly becomes a group effort. The work involving sheep, especially the royting or ‘gathering of the wool’, is shared. It is a time for community, an opportunity to show the next generation how to work the land. On board the vessel, Sjóriddarin, congregate a dozen men of very different ages, but of related countenance. They each own one or two rams on the boat, each sheep has a name but is referred to by its colours and markings: framgráur (‘grey front’), fóthvitur (‘white foot’) morreyður (‘reddish brown’) etc. One of these steely-eyed men from neighbouring Hvalba grabs my hand, saying:
‘Welcome. Einar. I work in offshore drilling, 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off. We Faroese cannot live from sheep’, he adds.
Although the morose characters of Danish detective thrillers that fill our television screens may be clad in Faroese jumpers, there is no money in sheep wool these days.
‘No longer færøysk gull ‘Faroese gold’’, he shouts above the sputtering engine.
The knitwear companies do not even pay farmers in cash for the wool. They are paid in jumpers. These jumpers known as troyggjar pile up in their homes, overspilling from farmers’ wardrobes.
‘Yes, it is difficult to make a living from sheep’, an older cousin of his continues. ‘Sheep-farming is full of uncertainties. Sometimes when we have a felli (‘a high mortality of sheep due to a harsh winter’) we might lose a third of the flock’. No good’, he says. ‘No good’. ‘Our future is in the sea now. Mackerel and herring’.
Aboard Sjóriddarin, we leave the safety of the Tvøroyri harbour and I grin at the prospect of the unknown adventure that beckons. The boat bobs up and down and the dots of light in the distance begin to wobble and shake. Through a splintered window, I spot tube-nosed fulmars, once oil for the islanders’ lamps and the staple food for the people living on the now abandoned Scottish island of St Kilda. With stiff wings, these birds undulate in time with the turf-coloured sea. Some Faroese still eat fulmars, and speak of the foul smelling oil that they spit at intruders to their nests on the cliffs. Fúllmár in Old Norse meant literally the ‘foul smelling gull’. I think of the gritty men who dined more regularly on such catch and who amongst coiled ropes and wave-washed gulls worked on diesel-scented boats such as this. Their faces and idioms were surely shaped by the wind, sunken homilies and the infinities of the sea. Some of them were washed up on rocky outposts such as Stóra Dímun where “sons died in the fast currents”.
Stóra Dímun lies just north-east of Suðuroy, the island where Tvøroyri is located. Before us, it rises several hundred meters out of the sea in Celtic isolation (Dímun is almost certainly a Celtic name). At the top of this barely habitable rock measuring just one square mile and in the shape of a squashed hexagon lives a family of four amongst tens of thousands of storm petrels and puffins. They manage a wind-swept farm, nestled behind a two meter thick stone wind-breaker and anchored down with steel ropes. Without these reinforcements, the farmhouse would be totally exposed and ripped to pieces in the storms. With a lighthouse for company, the farm clings to the austere and implacable shadows of the unfeasibly green escarpment. The family is alone here; alone with the echoes of the past and the radio voice on those soot-black nights of winter. Fertilised by the guano of millions of birds that have for thousands of years made it their home, the soil offers excellent grazing for several hundred ewes. But, sheep farming on Stóra Dímun comes with an unusual set of challenges. Farmers and visiting ministers have been blown off the island to quick deaths. It used to be the case that a Lutheran minister had to visit the island twice a year to hold a service in the church that once stood there. In 1874, the visiting minister of Sandoy fell from the rocks whilst climbing up from the landing stage and died. I had overheard many such stories whilst travelling back and forth to Tórshavn.
Beneath scribbles of cloud, our boat follows the coastline round to the east, past Froðba, a mysterious cave and headland named by Scottish sailors. Kittiwakes pursue us effortlessly on either side of the boat whilst guillemots and puffins skim the edge of the water. Ahead, on the outskirts of Froðba, an orange windsock marking the helipad blows in the whirring wind. On deck, men dressed in knitwear saw off the pointed ends of their sárningur’s curling horns. A sárningur is a ram whose long horns have grown very close to the face. My gaze shifts from the sheep to the cliff tops where they are headed. All along the coastline, sheep graze implausibly on sixty degree cliff edges that appear almost vertical from the vantage point of the prow-shaped deck. I am relieved to hear from my companions that the sheep seldom lose their footing and drop into the sea that lies a couple of hundred meters beneath them.
I join the skipper in the cabin of the boat. He speaks in an archaic local dialect cutting off the ends of words and gluing them together. He revives metaphors in a slow, raspy voice.
‘Yes, the dialects are fascinating. But they disappear slowly’, he shouts above the engine noise. ‘Almost there now’, he says with renewed concentration.
He aims the boat for a slope by the cliff edge, stained white with guano, and lying just behind a peaked islet with mythical shaped edges. From the cliff summit, two bemused sheep stare down at the trespassers. Fifty meters or so from the rocky shore, Gudmund who organised today’s outing, loosens the cleat hitch and hops into the aluminium rowing boat that we have been towing. The tidal current is strong, and with five passengers he rows with all his might to the shore. He gestures to the sky and the barely visible moon which is almost full.
‘Fast current. It is the moon’, he laughs. I watch the excitement scatter across his face.
Gudmund’s family have been the pillar of Tvøroyri society for generations. They were ship-owners, landowners and men of letters. He is a kind man, always willing to help and contribute. He likes to bring people together and do what he can for the community. Gudmund talks endlessly of the small-minded politics and jealousy that characterise the more remote, outer settlements. Somehow he manages to rise above it all, even the arguments created by the arcane land-ownership laws that can leave busy village halls awash with sunken glances on chalky faces as information is whispered nervously from ear to ear. Known for his coruscating wit and shunning the theology of personal success, Gudmund subscribes instead to ‘the religion of kindness’. I remember meeting Gudmund in the silhouettes of early summer after one of the rowing regattas. He dropped everything to show a stranger every crook and cranny of this island that his family has called home for centuries.
Five sprightly men well into their sixties hop out of the dinghy that Gudmund is rowing and start to climb deftly up the slippery rocks to secure the rope at the top of the cliff edge fifty meters or so above them. It seems to be just a matter of minutes before the men reach the top. Judging by the way they scale the rocks, it is obvious that these Faroese are at home on these shores defined by their arches and sea-stacks. Then, onboard our boat, anxious rams whose rectangular pupils scan the cliffs for fellow members of the flock, are turned upside down, their legs are roped together and they are lowered into the rowing boat bobbing around on the swirl. Ferried to the shore, the manacled sheep are each placed like hostages into a sturdy bag and then these heavy parcels are hitched up the rocks by those waiting at the top. The tugging of the rope is perfectly synchronised, and the sheep are granted a relatively smooth passage up the rock face. Prized out of their bags, and unshackled, the sheep soon clamber up the vertiginous, knife-like edge of the cliff and start grazing. Grass is grass.
The job is soon done and the doughty climbers pile into the tiny cabin to joke with the skipper and share Faroese food. They warm themselves with black coffee from the Thermos, some of it slopping on the floor in the swirl. The skipper with his undefeated eyes sermonizes the virtues of enacting such old traditions.
‘We have always done it this way’, he says. ‘I remember as a boy watching my grandfather climb the cliffs’. We might be no longer farmers, but part of us still belongs to the old ways of doing things, you know’, he continues.
There is much agreement and mutual back-patting. These men, each bearing a nickname, take small slices of bread, spread goose fat on the bread and then cut a thin piece from the leg of skerpikjøt which we have brought with us. This shank of wind-dried mutton has the colour and texture of venison, and smells pungent. As is tradition, it has been hanging in Gudmund’s drying shed for 8 months.
‘The secret to good skerpikjøt is to kill the sheep early, at the beginning of September’, he says with a gleeful face, before looking around and laughing ‘ja,ja, but not everybody agrees with me…’.
The Faroese love their food to taste of nature, and lamb and fish is often left to dry in the wind. It is home-slaughtered and home-prepared. But preparing skerpikjøt is an intricate art form governed by day and night air temperatures, the wind, salt content in the air, position of hjallur (‘a drying-shed ventilated by the wind’), type of wood the hjallur is made of, how close the wooden panels are to one another, when the meat was hung, how the weather was after the first week it was hung etc. Knowledge of sheep and food preparation is refined and encyclopedic, but there is seldom consensus. It is generally agreed for instance that lamb or mutton from the west coast of Kalsoy which is a long, narrow island in the northern part of the archipelago, tastes better than the meat from the east coast. It is thought the west coast of this island gets slightly more sunshine. But, if you want to eat tallow, a hard fatty substance made from rendered mutton fat, and the Faroese do, it is said that it is best to pasture your sheep on the east coast (in the northern islands). I ask Gudmund why.
‘I am not sure. It is just that way’, he says shrugging his shoulders.
Whilst some of the men chew on skerpikjøt, a few others smoke roll-up cigarettes. The cigarettes hang precariously from the corners of their mouths. The silver-haired men grin and start to air concepts of justice. They like to interrogate the world. Talk turns to fishing politics as they start to spread the kidney-shaped cod roe from Gudmund’s cousin on their bread.
‘There are too many chiefs, and not enough Indians’, offers Gudmund. Ja, ja. Mutual nodding. ‘Fish is all we have, you know’ […] ‘The cod and the halibut…They have been overfished. It is not good’ offers Peter, a close friend of Gudmund whose sunken eyes are almost hidden below a great surge of eyebrow.
After a silence, the conversation moves on to the intricacies of boat-building; a skill that seems to be in their blood. The traditional clinker-built Faroese rowing boats are tar-coated and have that distinctive Viking shape, shallow hulled and made for rough seas with long, slender blades. These wooden boats pummel against the waves in all weathers. They seat eight people coated in sea spray and sweat, two by two by two by two on four planks of wood. At the Ólavsøka (the national holiday), traditionally dressed men and women, bards and preachers, fishermen and shepherds scramble down to the shore for the best view of the races. The competition between the villages is fierce and shaped by moderate jealousy.
‘We build the boats just as our ancestors did, you know. The art has not been forgotten’, says Peter contentedly with one eye on the sea.
The remaning men hover around the cabin and they agree that we should start to head back. On our way back to Tvøroyri, we stop off to explore a nearby sea cave of shadows where ringed seal are to be found in September. The cave is perhaps 30 meters deep, a damp, dripping chamber full of folklore. And then, Gudmund decides that the two of us should walk back to Tvøroyri together over the mountain instead of taking the boat round the coast.
‘It is a beautiful walk. You should see it’, he says.
We head ashore in the rowing boat to negotiate our path up the spongy slopes and through a dream-like landscape of gorges, exposed hilltops and empty valleys that fill quickly with candyfloss-like-cloud. Pausing for breath, we watch as cloud sweeps in, enveloping us in seconds. The temperature plummets. Some minutes later, the clouds are gone. That is how it is here.
We follow cairns, piles of rocks that mark a network of ancient paths across the islands once used by shepherds, postmen, traders and merchants of meat, grain, wool and whale oil. These tracks trace narratives, relationships and historical events. The path rises sharply. Gudmund picks up the pace, telling stories in broken-breath about the huldufólk (‘the hidden people’), the spirits or genius loci that live beneath the rocks. Here, the supernatural remains a possibility; the wondrous interplay between the seen and the unseen has not been lost. Listening to Gudmund, I scribble down a few words in my notebook. It is said that the ‘hidden people’ dislike electricity; they don’t like it when the wires hum.
‘There are huldufólk here. Oh, yes. That is for sure’, says Gudmund.
The truncated conversation turns to framsíggin who are the people with special powers to see and hear huldufólk. It is said these people can also see others’ futures. Gudmund thinks that many people dream of huldufólk, but few would admit to being a framsíggin.
‘But, they exist’, he insists. ‘They exist’.
This network of paths marked out by cairns were put in place all over the Faroese archipelago to link the 100 or so villages. Nobody knows by whom or when. Our path meanders through the alternating dark and softer shelves of grass on the stepped cliffs rising to a few hundred meters. These shelves of grass on the slopes of the cliffs are called hamrar. The distinctive hamrar give the mountainsides a tiered appearance and are home to fulmars’ nests. The crevices (gjaír) in these stepped cliffs are particularly lush, full of woodrush, wild celery and wood cranesbill. On such hamrar and in a pale northern dusk, whimbrels can be heard calling to one another in a high-pitched frenzy. Behind me, the surface of Vatnið í Hvannhaga as the lake at Hvannhaga is known, is glassy and perfect. We stop. A nacreous sky skims overhead. Gudmund has heard something. He holds his index finger vertically to his lips.
‘Listen, can you hear it?’, whispers Gudmund.
From somewhere on the surface of the lake, the mournful haunting wail of the great northern diver beckons us back. We stop in a square of sunlight, mesmerized by the call of solitude. First the yodeling, and then the ghostly, transcendental echo of the wail that resonates through the valley as the bird seeks its mate. The sound nails you to the ground, tying sinew and soul together. We listen, waiting for the eerie, descending call that torpedoes the silence every thirty seconds or so. I could imagine these birds that live for decades calling to me in those drenched evenings conducive to introspection, calling me back again and again to this heavenly place.
The wail is broken by a spray of birds that appear from near the lake’s edge. More and more appear and then what has become a thick cloud of birds bank and rise above us before plunging in looping, acrobatic formations. As unexpected as the call of the diver, this murmuration of starlings pulsates quite suddenly across the sky, contracting and expanding in the shape of a jellyfish. The sky becomes dark with birds as they make their preparations to roost. Moments of grace unfold before us as thousands of birds move in perfect unison fluidly across the sky. We sit amongst the musky scent of angelica to watch this bewitching and calming display of somersaults, twists and turns.
The birds eventually weave around the bay and disappear from sight. The sky is blank again. Gudmund and I share a smile and contented with this candescent memory we pick ourselves up from the moss cushion and move on up the hill. We pass disused gróthús (‘stone sheds’) where in olden times meat used to dry, and a damaged hoyggjhús (‘hay shed’) long devoid of hay. Gudmund talks of how in past years men have lost their lives abseiling down nearby cliffs to collect gulls’ eggs to eat. There are just a few that do it now. The cairned path climbs further, leaving the mother-of-pearl cloudscape behind, and then we reach a plateau and look down into the Trongisvágsfjørður, as the fjord is called. The view is that of a promised land in a world of miniature: a place of bird calls, ridges, edges and corniches, where humans are fenced in by nature and not vice versa. Gudmund looks back, staring down into the empty valley and across the verdant knolls:
‘The Google people have been here’, he says. ‘I don’t like it’. ‘I thought there might be somewhere free of satellite imagery’, he sputters before walking on.
We descend into the valley through patches of cotton grass, cuckoo flower and marsh marigold and immediately come upon an oystercatcher mating dance: a military parade more or less as six tuxedoed birds march in tandem at great speeds with their flame-coloured beaks pointing to the ground. Beneath the oystercatchers, small pick-up trucks pass by with attentive border collies as passengers, navigating the narrow, looping lanes which extend like tentacles from tiny villages. Vikings used to carry out heathen sacrifices in these villages. Tonight, there is a festival in one of them, Hov, and ring-dancers dressed as Vikings start to sing outside under a rising moon. Warmed by the fire, men and women of all ages look up to the sky, hand-in-hand and facing inwards, as they sing the words of the old Faroese ballads (kvæðir) which speak of lost kings and mythical battles. These ballads form an unbroken chain of learning as they were passed down orally from generation to generation for centuries. And the words of the better known ballads are known by everybody.
As we approach Tvøroyri and the quay where we started out from, we hear a screaming coxswain on the fjord, his traditional clinker-planked rowing boat darting impressively across the top of the water. They are preparing for the Ólavsøka regatta to be held next week in Tórshavn. We walk down the steep tracks to the village and the cox’s bellicose voice recedes into the distance as the boat pushes away from us and the voice is gradually replaced by the warm, local sound of the Tvøroyri church organ.