By Bryndís Víglundsdóttir
Mid July 1961. The days were still fusing with the nights and the nights with the days. We had been working all day at planting trees in a valley, Laugabólsdalur that stretches inland where the fjord hit its limits. The fjord Ísafjörður is the innermost fjord in the huge Ísafjarðardjúp of the West Fjords. When Iceland was being settled around 900 this valley is said to have been covered with trees, mostly birch. For various reasons most of the trees have disappeared.
The family at the major farm in the area owned the valley and they offered it to the Reforestation Association of Iceland on condition that reforestation would be done there in the correct way.
So we were there, the first summer of many. My husband, Guðmundur oversaw the project and I took on the job of providing food for the group of twenty young men who were all of the age when there is never enough food to fill the empty stomachs!
The first part of the project was putting up a sturdy fence around the area where the seedlings were to be planted. The fence would have to be sturdy enough to withstand the heavy snow that fills the valley in the winter and also keep the sheep out. Otherwise they would eat the seedlings the very first spring of their presence there.
In order to get to the area a heath had to be crossed and it was not open until a week of July and the crew of young men was available until the end of August. So everyone had to work long hours, the crew completing the fence and then planting the seedlings and I doing the cooking! There was no electricity in the old house where we stayed so I cooked on a huge ancient cast iron stove. Keeping the fire going was a challenge for me as I hadn't done that before. The first task each morning was to get the fire going and I soon found out that I needed kindling, wood and coal. The kindling I got by gathering dried horse and sheep droppings (last years production) and that worked well. There was very little wood anywhere to be found and the coal I ordered from the village Ísafjörður. A boat would bring provisions around the Ísafjarðardjúp once a week. Fish and meat we got from the fiord that gave us abundantly. I would prepare and cook this wonderful food for the boys and send them off to do their part in reforesting our country!
Yes, the working days were long but who wants to go to sleep when the sun is still shining at midnight? We would walk along the beach, listening to the symphony sounding all around, the eider ducks calling their úa-dú, the other sea birds peeping as they do, seals stretching up their head to look around, the arctic terns, lively as they are diving to fetch the small minnows in the sea to feed their chicks. They will soon have to make the long flight over to Africa. And as if to gather all these sounds into this Symphony of Nature the waves play a steady continuous cello cord as only a master knows how to.
We came upon a field of the greenest grass where a few cows were grazing.
“There is a sea cow in this group”, said he, “the grey one is looking at us. I will go and have a closer look”.
The black cows were all for the close encounter but the grey sea cow didn't want to come close to the man. I took the picture of Guðmundur having a moment with the black cow, Dimma (the Dark one) on July 15th 1961 right at midnight.
There are several stories of how farmers have come by sea cows. They are as a rule very good cows, milking well and being very manageable. This story is from Þjóðsögur, (Folklore) collected by Jón Árnason.
There once was a man named Bjarni, known as Bjarni the Strong, who lived in Breiðavík by Borgarfjörður in the county of Múlasýsla. One summer day, Bjarni was out in the field in overcast and foggy weather when he heard the sound of cattle from the shore below the farm. He gazed into the fog and saw a herd of no fewer than eighteen cattle. A small boy ran behind the herd, followed by a calf. Bjarni took off and ran in front of the herd, as he suspected that these were sea cattle.
When the boy saw this, he began egging the cattle on. Bjarni saw that first among the cattle was an ox with rings on its horns, which rattled as it ran. Bjarni and the boy raced until they came to the shore, by which time Bjarni had overtaken the calf. As the herd and the boy disappeared into the sea, Bjarni turned to the calf and burst the bladder between its nostrils, said to be present on all sea cattle, thus preventing it from returning to the sea. Bjarni then took it home. The calf, which was a heifer, became a fine cow from which a great breed descended in Breiðavík.
Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri I, p. 129.