The first person who caught my eye amid all the action was a man in an Icelandic sweater holding a little girl by one hand gripping a sheep by its horns with the other.
It was mid-September, and we had arrived at the town of Skaftholt for the Skaftholtsrettir, the annual sheep round up in Gnupverjahreppur, a small municipality two hours east of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. I was greeted by a colorful sea of people and sheep.
Sheep farmers of all ages were wading through a group of animals corralled within a shoulder-high ring of lava rock, called an almenningur. The farmers looked for their own sheep and coaxed them into pens, called dilkur, that surrounded the circle like rays from the sun. Most identified the sheep by the tags in their ears, but some farmers knew their animals well enough to recognize their faces.
“The rettir is like a second Christmas,” said Olga Andreason, the matriarch of Minni-Mastunga farm located about 7 kilometers (4 miles) away. Her six kids and several of her grandchildren were home for the weekend – little did I know how much food and family time would come later.
A team of sheepherders, led this year by the Queen of the Mountain, had been in the highlands for a week gathering the animals together. The sheep spend much of the summer on communal land. Every September, the sheepherders, along with their chosen king or queen, drive the sheep down to the pen, sort them and take them home.
I ran my hands along the rough lava stones of the central ring, which is the oldest of its kind in Iceland, believed date back to the 12th century. Around it, the small pens are labeled for different farms or families: Skaldabudir, Laxardalur.
Neighbors called out to each other and laughed over the sheep’s bleating. Many people remember when – about 40 years ago – there were 12,000 sheep to sort, but these days there are only 3,000.
“People don’t eat lamb anymore,” said Jon Marteinn Finnbogason, Olga’s youngest son, who will keep the business going, even though times are changing. “They eat all this American shit.”
Jon works on a commercial fishing trawler to help “pay the farming.” But even if there isn’t much money in sheep these days, he said he wouldn’t give it up.
In Iceland, fresh lamb is only available in the fall, and Icelandic lamb is – according to everyone around here – the best there is. Jon’s family farm has 3,000 acres, not including the communal grazing lands.
“I’ve been born and raised with it, and it’s so nourishing. It’s the most nourishing thing I’ve ever done. It’s about working really hard and seeing how everything blossoms from that,” said Jon.
The sun was out and spirits were high. As the almenningur began to clear, a group of sweater-clad musicians with guitars took to the center ring and began singing Icelandic folk songs. I picked up the tune and someone offered me a pop bottle of liquor. I took a sip and wondered if this made catching sheep easier or harder.
After a few more songs and swigs, it was time to drive this group of sheep – about 100 of them – back to Minni-Mastunga farm.
Gudmundur Stefan Gudmundsson is another of Olga’s sons. His job was to round up the family’s five horses that would drive the sheep home. With over a hundred Icelandic horses wandering in a nearby field, he needed a bit of help from his dad, Finnbogi Johannsson, who knows their faces so well.
Finnbogi had stayed in the background during the sheep sorting, but he was clearly in charge. His family has been farming these fields for generations, and he has owned and run Minni-Mastunga for 32 years. Finnbogi led the sheep, horses and family, plus one dog, back to the farm. He knows the best route, the right pace and how to keep his sheep safe. It was a warm day by Icelandic standards, and the sheep, tired from the drive down the mountain, risked overheating.
On the three-hour trip back to the farm, Olga’s daughter, Gudbjorg Finnbogadottir, walked ahead of my horse and called to the sheep, chasing them back in line over and over. The sky darkened, rain fell. We were soaked by the time we reached the house.
Olga knew just what to do with a group of wet sheep herders. She pulled out three homemade desserts, as well as cheese, butter and a giant thermos of hot cocoa. After the skies cleared, we dug potatoes in the garden and explored the landscape that supports such a rich farming history.
Gudbjorg took us on a tour of the “backyard,” where lush fields give way to a canyon.
“When I will die,” said Gudbjorg, “I want to be cremated and to have my ashes spread here. Nature here is so pure. It’s fresh.”
I never expected something so beautiful.
After a dinner of lamb, potatoes, cabbage and the most delicious gravy, the family at Minni-Mastunga relaxed around the living room, and I began to understand another dimension of the rettir.
The farm has been a career for this family, and the sheep now bring the family together. Farming is not an everyday part of the children’s lives year round, but they still have the skills to help out – and then they get to hang out.
In a living room plastered with floral wallpaper, curtains and upholstery, Olga pulled out some of the 300 quilts she has made in her spare time. The grandkids cuddled up on the couch, and another son, Sigurdur Finnbogason, aka Boy from the Sun, fired up a sample of the electronic music he composes. We danced.
Later, another son, Vilhjalmur Gudmundsson, invited us into the kitchen. Without much preamble, he said: “I love line dancing.” He didn’t need a soundtrack. In the quiet kitchen, with the warm house protecting us from a rainy night, he took us through a few routines. Some he’d learned, some he’d invented.
The day had been a combination of tradition, family, food and a whirlwind of different personalities, all crammed into the same house – a celebration made possible by the land and the sheep that still bring people together. It felt a lot like Christmas.