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An Icelandic Family Farm Finds Roots in Their Traditions

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Helgi drives a tractor across Glaesibaer farm down to the lake where he fishes.

It’s a beautiful mid-September day. The sun is not covered by clouds, the biting winds have the mercy to cease once every half hour or so, and I am on the bumpiest ride of my life with a growing herd of me-ing companions. (My fellow tractor rider, Þuríður Kristjana Þorbergsdóttir, informs me that in Iceland sheep “me” instead of “ba.”)

VIDEO: Ride along on the herding through the mountains of northern Iceland

I came to Glaesibaer farm in Sauðárkrókur, a town in northern Iceland, with my co-worker, videographer Gabriella Garcia-Pardo, to help make a video for National Geographic News about Göngur, which is the annual herding of horses and sheep back to the farm after their freerange summer mountain grazing. I, however, had not ridden a horse since I was 14, when I earned the nickname “Poofy Eyes.” Turns out I’m allergic. So the wise people of Glaesibaer offered me an alternative mode of transportation for the herding—the sheep tractor.

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Sheep exit the trailer (aka, my ride for the herding) after they are brought down from the mountain to the round-up, where they will be sorted and taken back to their farms.

When someone invites you into their tradition they usually brief you on it beforehand, which is good. Otherwise I might have been foolish enough to forego the tractor to attempt the 10-hour horseback ride. But even if you’re given a play-by-play, you can’t know how something feels until you’re in it. And did I ever have a full-sensory experience that day—I acquired bruises from the tractor, tasted celebratory lamb’s leg with pepper sauce, and witnessed more adults wearing sweaters of the same pattern (called Lopapeysa) than I had thought was possible.

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A boy helps his family herd the sheep after they are brought down from the mountain

Part of what’s special about the Göngur is that it’s not just one farm bringing home their horses, but the whole community. The atmosphere is celebratory in that unique way where people who know each other well are working together towards a common goal. That said, it also felt like a special day for the family at Glaesibaer—They had three generations present. The grandfather, Freidrick Stefansson, has been riding in Göngur for over half a century.

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Svenja Linder, a German university student studying biology, helps out with the horses on Glaesibaer farm during breaks from school. She hopes to become a veterinarian one day.

This family’s traditions, I discovered, are rooted in practicality and performed in sync with the rhythms of the environment. From my perspective as an urban American, that’s rare. I wanted to see more, so I decided to come back to Glaesibaer a few weeks later to spend more time witnessing those rhythms.

When I returned, about 20 sheep had just been slaughtered. It’s something they do in the fall. Most of the meat is sold, but some is kept for the family. They use every part of the animal: the skin, the head, the heart. Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, Freidrick’s wife, uses the fat to make sausage that she serves to her family (she has 11 grandchildren) through the biting days of winter.

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Sheep fat collected by Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, which she uses to make sausage.
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Hardly any part of the slaughtered lambs are wasted. The family even eats the face of the sheep after burning off the hair.

One morning at 7:00 am, Helgi, one of their family friends, knocked on my window, gave me some galoshes, and we took to the nearby lake in a red canoe. The sky felt thicker than normal as it sprinkled us with light rain. Helgi’s actions were so repetitive—the oars dipping into the water, his hands pulling us across the surface as he tugged the submerged net, stopping to cut out a fish caught in the green webbing. Repeated 73 times, it was hypnotic. He does it every day.

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Helgi, a family friend of Glaesibaer farm, fishes in the nearby lake nearly every day, selling his catch.
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The yield from a Saturday morning fishing trip, which brought in 73 fish, was enough to overflow the containers that are normally used.

And then there was the predictable chorus of the clinking dishes each day around noon and six, as the family reunited at the table after they’d completed their various tasks. There was always, always coffee served with a pitcher of milk from a neighbor’s farm and quiet conversation that was consistently peppered with laughter.

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Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir looks out the window of her home on a blustery day. She has lived on the farm since she was 18-years-old.

When I first arrived in Iceland, Ragneighdor Erla Bjronsdottir, who shares a name with her grandmother and is one of the 11 grandchildren of Glaesibaer, told me that a popular Icelandic poet, Einar Benediktsson, is known for saying that the lack of trees in Iceland doesn’t matter because they make up for it with their knowledge of their family trees. It’s true that Icelanders value their lineage. But beyond that it seems that many Icelanders see themselves as being a part of the landscape.

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Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir and her granddaughter who is also named Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, point to family photos on the wall as they discuss their history

And so I was reminded, on a little farm in Sauðárkrókur, that by following the lead of the land—by shoeing horses and making sausage—ordinary tasks, it seems, can become traditions that ultimately remind us of our place in a larger and ongoing narrative.

Becky Harlan is an assistant photo editor working for the digital side of National Geographic. See more of her work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

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