Whistling at the Northern Lights

An Icelandic sheep roundup and the lost aimlessness of youth.


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Friends often accuse me of being too nostalgic. By afternoon, they say, I’ve become misty-eyed over what I’ve eaten for breakfast. That’s not completely true, I tell them. I’m sure there’s been a few bowls of cereal that have been unremembered or unremarked upon. But my protests are half-hearted, because I know my friends are right. Case in point: On a recent trip to Iceland, I became weepy at the sight of three sheep grazing in a grassy field underneath the summer midnight sun.

Let me explain that this was my first trip to Iceland in several years. In my 20s, over the course of nine visits, I spent what some might consider to be an eccentric amount of time in Iceland. I would like to tell you that I had a grand purpose — that I was translating the ancient Sagas or convincing the Icelanders not to hunt whales. But no, when I was wasn’t driving aimlessly on gravel roads shooting photos of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, most of my time was spent hanging out in the bars and cafes of Reykjavík.

During one late summer visit, I fell in with a Finnish woman named Eeva-Liisa and a Danish woman named Trine, who were also artfully perfecting their aimlessness. I’d met Eeva-Liisa through her ex-boyfriend, another aimless soul who I’d met while backpacking in Central America. Eeva-Liisa was a graphic designer currently cleaning rooms in a guesthouse who was in love with a Greenlandic man who did not love her back. Trine shared a pathetic little flat with her near the bus station. Trine was a photographer waiting to hear if she’d finally be accepted into the Royal Art Academy. She’d come to Reykjavik to have a break from her boyfriend, who I eventually deduced was an ecstasy dealer in Copenhagen.

Reykjavík is a wonderful place to lose one’s sense of time. You might be sitting in Kaffibarinn, watching a brilliant Arctic sunlight pour through the windows, and then suddenly look at your watch to realize that it’s 4:30 a.m. The corrective, of course, comes when nights gradually start to reassert themselves in September. Early that September, Eeva-Liisa, Trine, and I decided we should leave Reykjavík for a little while. We really need to get out and see the country, we told each other as we sat around a smoky café table. And so we rented a car and drove the countryside, with the intentiodn of observing the annual, traditional sheep roundup, called the rettir. In Iceland, there are half a million sheep — nearly twice as many sheep as Icelanders — who roam freely throughout the summer, grazing. Rettir is a festive time, full of songs and drinking, as whole farming communities gather together to drive the sheep to a common pen, where they are all returned to their proper owners. It is quite a thing to see thousands of sheep driven across the vast empty spaces by men and women on Icelandic ponies, dressed in orange.
At one point, we tried to photograph several dozen sheep running toward us, and we spooked them so bad that the whole flock veered left and started running in the wrong direction. Angry Icelanders on horseback shouted at us as they tried in vain to get the sheep going back toward their farm.
Later, I stopped the car so Eeva-Liisa could snap photos of a bright orange safety hut, placed there in a desolate region by the Icelanic government for travelers who find themselves stranded between fishing villages and farms. Underneath a glacier, the sea dropped off the cliff behind us and stretched out blue toward the Arctic Circle.

Trine got down on her hands and knees in the middle of a nearby field, full of sheep dung, and rummaged through the grass. On the ground before her was a book entitled “Nordens Svampe” (“Nordic Mushrooms”) and she furiously checked what she found against the book in pursuit of hallucinogenic mushrooms. She never found what she was looking for.

I try to hold onto this idyllic scene — because less than 10 minutes later, I made a wrong turn and our car became stuck in several feet of mud. Eeva-Liisa pulled on long rubber boots and the two of us tried to push our way out, while Trine simply laughed and shot photos. An old Icelandic couple eventually drove by in a four-wheel-drive and — quite amused by the stupid foreigners — pulled us out with a rope.

Driving sheep home via the highway.


We reached the northern town of Akureyri, and met up with Janus, the Greenlandic man who did not love Eeva-Liisa. That night we watched the northern lights in the clear sky above the fjörd. Janus — who bragged that he saw the aurora borealis “five or six times a week” at home — told us that if you whistled, the northern lights would move. I was amazed when he whistled, and the yellow streaks shimmered green and wiggled toward us.

Trine and I decided that we wanted a photo of the northern lights, and so we drove up to a hill above the town. She set up her camera on a tripod and pointed it at the sky. The car radio played Icelandic pop music, and we stood in the dark. The shot needed a long exposure. Trine left the shutter open, and we waited as if we had all the time in the world.
We knew we didn’t, of course. We knew in the awkward silence of that night that our aimlessness would soon come to an end.

It was Eeva-Liisa who eventually sighed, and suggested that — just like all the sheep we’d observed — we’d soon enough be rounded up, sorted out, and sent back to our homes. It seemed too bleak of a thought at the time. Home as our own personal stockade. All three of us would surely face shearings of one kind or another in our immediate future — chores, responsibilities, rejections, disappointments. Trine would return to Copenhagen and be rejected by the Royal Art Academy. Eeva-Liisa would return to Helsinki, struggle as a freelance designer, and return home to her family’s small village in the north. And I would go back to the States and throw yet another false start of a novel into the garbage heap.

“Well, we could always come back to Iceland,” I said.

“Yeah,” Trine said, “but it would never be the same.”

As we whistled at the aurora borealis, I wondered aloud if sheep in their winter pens could dream. And if sheep could dream, did they dream of green grasses and a glorious summer with no darkness? Of blue fjörds and glaciers and orange safety huts and mushrooms? We all agreed that they must.

By the time the camera shutter finally clicked, I had already grown nostalgic. • 17 February 2009

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).