Tuesday, October 9, 2012


 Above: Photobooth struggles to balance its colors after I thrust my computer out of the window to photograph the third-best rainbow I've seen on Lygra

Today was a day off, after three days of gathering sheep for slaughter. (Slakt means slaughter in Norwegian. Because sometimes Norwegian is like phonetic English!) Rounding up the sheep is harder than you (or I, having herded goats all summer) would expect, because they are wild and live all year on the heathlands without human intervention. Like Erik said, "They are more fit than us. They are faster and know the landscape better. Our only advantage is our intelligence." Erik is a farmer on Lygra. He held a two-hour tactical meeting the night before the major round-up, using color-coded maps to show how five different groups of people would line up and march across the neighboring uninhabited five-kilometer island (Lurekalven), forcing the sheep south into the corral.

The sheep evaded capture twice--the worst round-up in ten years or so. Farmers, residents of Lygra, their relatives, grad students from Bergen, and wwoofers (about 50 people in all) strung out across the island, into ravines and creek beds and sucking marshlands, through bracken and juniper, up on high heads and cliffs, trying to maintain our lines so the sheep would be afraid to pass us. We communicated by shouting. It is surprising how far a voice can carry from a high hill, even in windy rain--an old-fashioned special effect. One ewe, the flock's leader, twice thwarted us, darting courageously through our ranks like Tim Tebow (I have no idea if that simile even makes sense), the other hundred sheep pounding after.

On the third try, we managed to force them into the corral. After all that herding, they were like celebrities. We all stared at them as we refreshed with paper bowls of mutton stew. These sheep are black, white and gray, an ancient breed of short-tailed sheep no bigger than large dogs. Their wool is so fatty it clogs yarn-making machines--the kind of wool you could make into a waterproof sweater, like in A Moveable Feast. The Vikings used these sheep's wool for their sails.

They huddled together desperately as we grabbed them one by one, deciding which rams to keep as studs, which to sell, which lambs were fat enough to keep alive, which were too little to kill, which ewes had healthy enough udders and teeth to have healthy children again. These survivors got medicine and a quick return to the heath. The rest we ear-tagged (some are only good for meat, others for their skins too--those with multicolored coats, dove gray or black on the outside and creamy white nearer the body), grabbed by the horns or neck and fought down a slick muddy hill to the boat. "Are the moms sad without their kids?" I asked Johan. "They don't understand death," he said. But that wasn't what I was asking.

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