Long Overdue Post Written When I was in Iceland / by Diana Khoi Nguyen

Time travel: Vermont > Boston > Reykjavik > Being illiterate in the only grocery store in the small coastal town of Blönduós, Iceland. A day of travel in which the plane fast-forwarded night. The sun didn’t set until nine o’clock, and I could identify only 35% of my groceries with 98% certainty.


• • •

That first week, as if my body was still stuck on fast-forward, a button that hadn’t fully unclicked back into place.


I learned how to use the knitting machine: Like a rowing workout, with interchangeable colors. I’ll make wool leggings!


The grocery store had limited food items, but an impressive supply of yarn in every color, spun and unspun. What is “kitten mohair”?


A local ceramicist invited us for tea. “Do you enjoy the tea? I picked it from fields around this house.” It’s delicious. What kind of jam is this? “We make that jam from berries that grow in the field as well.”


The ceramicist’s son stops by and we all ask him about his university studies. Turns out he speaks better Vietnamese than I do, due to four years of living in Vietnam where many didn’t know what “Iceland” was, or thought he was “Irish.”


Cathy, one of the artists departing the next day showed me her woven piece using ‘ponytails’ from the nearby abattoir.


How can I get some ponyhair?


• • •


There is a rumor that Iceland has almost no trees and that kindergarten classes take field trips to a “forest” in order to see trees for the first time.


This is untrue. But there are not many trees in relation to every other land-object. House, hut, human. Automobile, abattoir, horse. Hay bale, sheep, hot pot.


There are no tall trees, and when the wind blows (and it blows often), it empties the contents of my bag as I walk to the town pool. Upends the pink basket with a blue loofah. Inflates the plastic bag. The white towel flies as fast as, if not faster than the greylag goose.


The body is a kite of bow and string. Sailcloth skin.


I tilt my body at an angle so I can walk straight. Stand straight.


• • •


The nature of any arts residency is freedom. Freedom from clutter, freedom to the steadiest self-sustaining peace I’ve ever experienced. Freedom to trot to the pool every time the low sun bares itself from the low clouds, flooding the town with bright.


Freedom (or captivity) to the geo-thermal pools with no one in them, steam rising from their blue tables.


The repetition of each stroke, each lift of elbow, pull of wrist. The typewriter carriage returning to its starting point. And the light, scattering across the tiles like schools of fish. A leaf there, a hair tie.


Yesterday as I was leaving, the pool employee tells me, “You swim very well. You swim so straight.” His arms demonstrate a flat line.


He shows me the pool security cameras. In addition to the entrance, lobby, and hallways, there are cameras not only overlooking each pool, but inside the pool as well. You can see everything that is happening in the pool. “Yes, if anyone is drowning. This is how I see your body is straight. A straight line across the screen.” From camera to camera.


“Where are you from?” he asks.


• • •


Haylage: hay + silage.


The weather is often rainy year-round, so it is impossible for hay to ever dry fully.


To prepare for winter, grass is gathered into cylindrical bales, wrapped in plastic so that all air is let out. Then the bale is left alone so the grass can ferment.


These fermented bales preserve the nutrients in the grass so that sheep continue to eat well throughout the winter. 


All over Iceland, wrapped bales dot the fields. Sometimes the wrapping is white, and my eye mistakes them from afar for sheep.


• • •


In one of those fortuitous eclipses of luck and good timing, I was invited to participate in an international sheep and wool conference—hosted in Iceland for the first time (in Blönduós, no less). Northern lights (green) the evening the conference bus arrived, filled with sheep farmers, scientists, and wool aficionados from Greenland, Norway, Shetland, and other cold sheep-bearing countries.


“Where are you from?”


The United States. Pennsylvania, a small town with lots of farms, like this one.


“What is your involvement with sheep?”


None, really. I’m one of the artists living at Textilsetur for three months. I am here, now the conference is here, and I work with wool, so here we all are.


• • •


Most of the lambing occurs in the spring and when green earth emerges again, farmers release their sheep into the mountains and valleys, where these sheep and other farmers’ sheep spend the endless summer grazing in the wild highlands. They relish in the bounty of light and grass; they grow feral. In Iceland, sheep outnumber humans 3:1.


Every September, farmers and horse(wo)men trek into the wilds to herd the sheep down from the highlands to large sorting corrals. Each sheep ear bears a tag marking which region, which farm, which farmer.


Réttir is an old cultural tradition and farming practice, whose literal meaning is ‘gathering,’ a sheep round-up that occurs annually. A major event on the sheep farming calendar.


How to sort sheep at the réttir?


  1. Grab the sheep by its horns.
  2. Mount the sheep (optional, I think).
  3. Drag them into the corral corresponding to the sheep’s tag.


Sometimes you recognize your sheep by their faces.


• • •

After the sheep are sorted at réttir, the gates to the appropriate pen are opened and the sheep are shepherded via the architecture of the corral maze to a plank leading into the dark cavity of a truck that transports them to their home farms for the winter.

Two years ago, snow arrived early at the end of August while the sheep were still in highland pastures. Two to three meters fell overnight in this part of North Iceland. Thousands of sheep buried alive in snow. Farmers, rescue workers and volunteers armed themselves with long sticks used for locating people buried in avalanches.

Many sheep were lost, many sheep were found.

The residency director, Jóhanna told me of the sheep she found in the Highlands that summer. One lone lamb survived in an ice-grave of sheep—all the sheep in that hole suffocated but created a wool igloo-like dome over this one lamb and so she survived.

• • •

At the round-up, I followed the outer perimeter of the corrals, studying its maze. I tried to imagine being let loose in the endless grasses of the highlands for a summer longer than any of my American summers. Because summer daylight hours are longer here, grasses grow lusher faster and lambs become sheep sooner. 

The wildlands and its inhabitants fatten quicker.

The sheep circadian: graze, wander, graze, wander, graze, rest, trot, graze.

Do Icelandic sheep sleep?

As I approach each pen in various degrees of fullness with sheep, the sheep all turn to watch my approach. All their horned heads turn in unison, and the “baas” fade out as if by the hand of a theater tech. I did not speak (what could I have said?) but moved slowly to the wood.

They pressed closer to the gate, but when I approached the gate, they all took one step back. We stayed that way for a while, unattended to, undisturbed. Neither of us coming or going.

Unlike some of my closest poet coterie, I don’t often think of Wallace Stevens, or carry poetry around in the monitor of my mind. Not usually. Instead there is this newborn quality of eyes first learning how to focus, and on what (of the possibilities of things to see!) to focus. What is the math of this life, how is it woven? Who makes this? Can I make (something like) this? May I have the right?

But here among the sheep and the treeless, Stevens attends to me: 

“I am what is around me.” 

Arny, a woman from the abattoir, tells me to come on Monday around ten, because they should be finished slaughtering four horses, she says. The first time I met her, she said it was such a shame I hadn’t arrived earlier because they had already thrown out all the horsehair from their day’s work.

From my desk window, I see not only where the river merges with the ocean, but also across the river, where Icelandic horses are grazing or running, manes whipping in the wind. The window behind me overlooks Blönduós, and just a street away are the red roofs of the slaughterhouses for sheep and horse.

When I arrive at the abattoir, Arny gives me a white cleanroom suit and rubber boots. She leads me into a series of rooms where she hands me some plastic blue bags and stainless steel scissors. The men in the room are still processing that morning’s horses, who are hung on hooks as they methodically break down the creature. It’s difficult to watch, not because these are horses, but because I have never witnessed the slaughter of any animal.

“Do you want the head hair?” she asks. Let me see, I reply. And she takes me to a bin of just severed horse heads, their eyes seeing nothing, seeing all of this. No, I don’t think I’ll be needing any head hair.

Wallace Stevens also wrote: “It is never the thing but the version of the thing.”

After the réttir, the conference was taken to Vatnsdalur Valley to see the sheep being driven down from the mountains to the roundup paddock at Undirfellsrétt. We waited for hours in the cold, downing Brennivín and beer.

The horses came first, galloping down the ridge, sheepdogs guarding the line. Then the sheep, thousands of sheep streaming down like milk spilling over the mountain side.

As they came closer to where I stood at the paddock, I heard them calling and some stopped to graze until shepherds spooked them into taking the path to the corral. Some ran, some sauntered—for some, a mere trot. And to our delight, a few leapt (up high!) when they crossed the portal, as if in unfathomable grand feeling.