Peasant Autonomy
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Story 32

A remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1899 (1)

The reindeer

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Tristan Ferne)

Reindeer in Iceland.

Crouching down, Bjartur creeps up to the rock, without making the slightest sound. Carefully he peeks over the rock. Four reindeer are standing right in front of him, three cows and one sturdy bull. The animals don't see him, because there is a blizzard raging, and they stand with their heads downwind. Bjartur has made his plan. In a moment he will jump on the bull, grab him by his antlers, and throw him on the ground. Then, he will make a hole in his nasal cartilage with his pocket knife, and put a cord through it. In that way, he has a rein and can take the animal to a farm nearby to slaughter it there.

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a small-scale sheep farmer. A few months ago he bought a piece of land on credit, and built himself a sod-covered hut on it. After being a sheep hand for eighteen years, he started his own farm together with his wife Rósa, a small flock of sheep and a work horse. After the hay harvest he together with a few small sheep farmers searched for the sheep which were wandering across the endless marshes, to drive them back into the farms. Because in the merciless cold winters the animals have to be in the stables.
Bjartur was missing a ewe, Goldilocks, a splendid young animal. He decided to search for her. Alone he wandered across the marshlands up to the blue mountains. He knows every little spot, because he grew up on the east side of this area, and worked as a sheep hand on the west side. He knows where the sheltered spots are, where the sheep hide sometimes. Bjartur likes it to roam this area all alone, to centre himself.
Suddenly he saw four big animals on a sandbank near the glacier river. When he cautiously came closer, he saw that they were reindeer. That was a godsend for him. Reindeer meat is the most tasty meat there is, and the rich will pay well for it. Even if he couldn't find Goldilocks today, he hasn't made his journey for nothing.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Kamil Porembiński)


Bjartur crouches behind the rock for the last time. His heart is beating in his throat; that is the hunting instinct. Slowly he emerges from behind the rock, and steps silently beside the bull, then leaps toward his head, and pulls him down by his antler. The three cows run away immediately, and the bull looks up indignantly, and wants to lift his head. Bjartur hangs with his full weight on the antler, but doesn't succeed in throwing the bull onto the ground. The animal moves his head furiously back and forth, and pulls Bjartur along in the direction of the river. Bjartur knows that the river is ice-cold, but he doesn't even consider leaving the reindeer. The only thing he can think about is leaping on the back of the animal. There, he clings to the antlers with all his strength, and presses his legs to the animal’s body. The bull tries to shake off Bjartur, and when he doesn't succeed he walks to the river, as if he intends to start swimming. Bjartur fears the worst.


Independent People (1934) by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness is a monumental novel about the small sheep farmers in his country: powerful and moving.

Go to:
= part 2:
Independent after thirty years - a remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1911 (2), story 54.
= part 3:
Rich for a few years - a remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1922 (3), story 72.
= the next page: Fear - a fishing village, the Netherlands – 1900, story 33.
= the Table of contents, story 32.