Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World
(John Murray, 2019)
Or rather, the people who look after sheep are having a moment.
There was James Rebanks A Shepherd’s life: A Tale of the Lake District about his struggles to take over the family farm in Cumbria which led him from rebellious teenager hanging out at the local chippie, to adult education to, ultimately, a double first from Cambridge.
Then Amanda Owens A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess flabbergasted Hay Festival audiences with tales of farming in the remote Yorkshire area of Ravenseat, including how – becoming disgruntled with local midwifery services who wanted her to give birth in hospital – she gave birth to her 9th child (not a typo) on the kitchen floor, waking her husband only after the event to tell him she’d had the baby!
There are not quite the same dramas but different ones in Heida the story of our eponymous heroine who farms 500 sheep in the Icelandic highlands. Although Heidais written in the first person, it is in fact a biography translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. There is much haymaking, herding, sorting, pregnancy scanning (of ewes – a big business for those with the appropriate knowledge and equipment apparently) and a great deal of extremely hard work done carried out mainly alone – although Heida admits that her Mum does the cooking! Here the ground is so unforgiving that when the old dog Glámur dies in winter his body has to be put in a cardboard box and kept in the freezer to await the ground thaw in Spring for burial.
This is a story of shepherding in and on land beset by fierce icelandic elements; of failing machinery; of battling (sometimes) angry family members and even volcanic eruptions. Bloggers she says have been known to write of her land that the only thing that can survive there are ravens and foxes. Strange then she says, that I have had to fight so hard to stay here. The narrative voice is of a fiercely independent, and yes sometimes fierce woman as I imagine you would need to be to live this life; an ardent feminist who could never understand why you needed to have a husband in order to farm, and a despiser of racial and other inequalities.
Ironically as she lives in such an isolated and barely habitable place Heida’s greatest struggle has been against corporate capitalism. She has been locked in a battle to stop part of her land being flooded to create the Búland Power Plant. She describes in detail how developers try to set one community off against another; how they offer money which someone, somewhere, will invariably accept, leaving others to struggle on in the fight. How all the so called ‘expert’ opinions, the environmental impact assessments are bought and paid for by the people who want to do the developing; whereas those in opposition are not allowed to present their own scientific evidence. Also how can it be right or fair, she asks that it is the developer who finances the research and selects the engineering firms? Holy guacamole do I recognise THAT scenario!! from a recent battle undertaken against a giant corporate air poisoner.
“We humans are mortal; the land outlives us. New people come and go, new sheep, new birds and so on, but the land, with its rivers and lakes, vegetation and resources, remains. It undergoes changes over the years, but it remains.”
Yes it remains. Or in the past it could be said that the land has always remained but is that any longer true? Now there are impredations from which the land cannot recover. A power plant is one. Climate science tells us it is no longer enough for us to rely on the courage of people like Heida. This battle belongs to us all.