Heiða details a year in the life of a solo woman sheep farmer hard by the highlands of Iceland. Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir took over her family farm at Ljótarstaðir in her early 20s, when her father became ill. She is an environmental activist and poet as well, and during the year considers standing for Parliament for the Left-Green Movement (she is already a local councillor). From the farm, she can see highland pastures, a glacier, mountains. This is an engrossing quick dispatch from an unusual life.
Volcanic eruptions as well as extreme cold and snow on her remote farm make for hard work. Her commitment to her 500 sheep and other animals is evident, and leads to both her extreme work ethic and her worries when things go wrong. She is clear about the essential role farmers like her can play in conservation: “Icelandic agriculture is very close to my heart, no less than environmental conservation. As I see it, the two are totally intertwined since the farmer is entirely dependent on nature for his survival and has a duty, in my view more than in any other profession, to defend it by any means possible” (p. 161). Sometimes she works co-operatively with other farmers and family members, and you begin to understand how such working is essential to survival in extraordinary places.
She is resisting construction of a power plant near her farm, which would involve flooding part of her land. She resists despite the anxiety it causes her: “In these kinds of circumstance, I feel as if a knife has been thrust between my ribs – almost as if I’m having a heart attack” (p. 128). She also talks usefully about surviving depression: “now I also began to come to better terms with the things that I couldn’t fix, and to forgive myself for making mistakes…” (p. 273).
She notes that the farm has been worked since the 12th century. Refreshingly, she expresses her commitment to the land alongside her stance against discrimination: “I can’t bear prejudice based on skin colour, race, sexual orientation, nationality” (p. 249).
When Heiða gets to relax, it sounds heavenly, but you are clear it is hard won: “A winter’s night with a book is the best. Surrounded by stillness in my own mountain palace, lit up by stars and the moon; and maybe by the world’s most spectacular display of Northern Lights” (p. 205). There are memorable animals, including her cat Huggan (Solace) who can’t stand the smell of sheep and herds mice into the house. Also her excellent German Shepherd puppy Fífill (Dandelion).
The book is likely to be popular – Heiða has been interviewed in the Guardian and will appear at the Hay Festival. I wish they had done an illustrated version of this book, as the places and people are so intriguing. This will appeal to lovers of nature writing, to those who love to read about completely different lives, to anyone who wants a story of women doing it for themselves and to other activists who find themselves at the forefront when they already have vastly too much to do…