On our way to the Promised Lands of northern Iceland (alltaf flottast!) last week we stopped for an overnight at the farm of my friend and coworker Bjölli. The farm is nestled in the shadow of towering mountains to the east with a vast frozen lake to the north, and there was snow covering everything and a chill wind to boot. When we pulled up in the rented Land Cruiser (alltaf töffast), a friendly Icelandic sheep dog named Tina came running over toward us across the snow. It was the beginning of a magical visit.
Behind the farmhouse and between that and the mountains is a vast section of mounds of earth, big enough to hide a horse or a house. They are the remnants of an ancient rockslide, and there are so many and they go on so endlessly that they form one of the three "uncountable" natural artifacts in Iceland.
The farm is a dairy farm, with 27 cows giving milk and some little calves besides. In the fields around the farm are dozens of horses. Horse-raising is a pastime for Bjölli's family but the real nuts and bolts is the milk operation. Bjölli and his brother were there alone, taking care of the place while their parents were on a vacation.
Dairy farming is an endless cycle of hard work, as I learned. The cows get milked at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day, and the milking takes between 2 and 3 hours. There is the preparation of the milking equipment, the lining up of the animals, the testing of the milk from each cow, the milking pump hookup, the re-hookup after cows kick off their pumps, the release of three cows at a time, and the poking and prodding of the next three to get them lined up by the milking pit. Afterwards there is the barn-cleaning and feeding of the animals. This goes on every day, twice a day, with no stops for holidays or vacations or sick time. The milk truck comes three times a week to take milk off to the dairy.
I brought a big slab of Icelandic lamb, and during the evening milking went inside and fired up the oven. We cooked a big lamb feast, with all the Icelandic trimmings: green beans, pickled red cabbage, and caramelized potatoes. Fresh bread and salad besides. We ate until after 10 p.m., telling stories and feeling the darkness deepening outside.
The next morning I was up at 7:30 and I joined the brothers for a pre-milking bowl of Cheerios. They keep a little milk for themselves in a pail in the fridge and it has a freshness that I had never before experienced. We all put on rubber boots and went out to the barn. Bjölli showed me the start-to-finish of milking one cow, and I carried her through the process, doing the pre-wash, the milk-test, the machine hookup, and the post-milking lube. It was a lot of small, tricky steps that looked easy when Bjölli did 'em, but I fumbled through with my suburban-boy hands.
But then they handed me a shovel and told me to go muck out the manure in the empty part of the barn. And it was there that I found my stride. I was a manure-mucking machine, scraping the floors down and letting the muck slide into the holes in between, digging out forgotten corners and clumped pieces of old hay. I lost myself in the work, the smell of cows around me, and the bright cold light coming in the windows. Later they told me it was the cleanest the barn had been in three years. When we were done we all went in for morning coffee, bread, and cheese.