Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas When Grandpa was Young

Christmas in Iceland
When Grandpa Was a Little Boy

This was written for my daughters, Lisa and Dawn, and niece Ingela, when they were still young, to describe how their grandfather and his family celebrated Christmas in the early 1900s. I found it among family papers that had been passed along to me by my mother, or perhaps my sister.

Christmas in Iceland is not the same in the cities and in the country, and it has changed much in many parts of the land since grandpa was little. Then, he lived with his mom and dad and five brothers and one sister in a small fishing village with only 2000 inhabitants, Ísafjörður, in the northwest of Iceland.

The winter is long and snowy and windy. Since this is so far north, the days in December are very short so the children go to school in the morning in the dark, go home for lunch in daylight but return from school in the dark in the early afternoon. But, during the very long nights, when it is cold and the sky is cloudless, the northern lights dance in the heavens so the stars and moon can hardly be seen.

Around the middle of December, the ship was usually the Christmas supplier, including many small spruce Christmas trees from Denmark, because Iceland is a treeless arctic country. But, sometimes the ship is late, and then the people take out their homemade Christmas trees made of broomsticks and dowels.

The stand is two crossed pieces of wood. The broomstick is about 6 to 7 feet high (roughly two meters). The branches are made of several rings of four to six dowels, each about the thickness of a finger. The dowels are shortest near the top, and longest at the bottom. Often it’s painted green, and then decorated just like an ordinary tree with all kinds of glitter and small ordinary candles. There are usually some small braided or woven paper baskets filled with candy and given to the children in the evening.

Christmas in Iceland back when Grandpa was young, began at six o’clock in the dark afternoon of Christmas Eve, when the church bells ring to start the celebration. All the stores closed and all work stopped about two hours before. Everyone dresses in their best clothes, both those who go to church and those who stay at home.

The Christmas tree had been decorated earlier that afternoon. In our house, Grandpa was the oldest boy so he saw that this was done from four and six that day. At six o’clock the tree was moved out to the middle of the floor, the Christmas gifts put under it and the candles lighted. Before long, all the children of the house and sometimes some of the neighbors formed a ring around the tree and walked slowly around it for an hour or more singing the many Christmas carols we knew.

After the first set of candles had burned down, there was a pause for eating. The Christmas food in some houses was arctic ptarmigan (related to quail) with potatoes, followed by a dessert of dessert of rice pudding with raisins. Most families, like ours, had a heavily smoked leg of lamb (hangikjöt) with diced potatoes in a white sauce, or with mashed turnips. For dessert, we had a so-called Christmas porridge (smjörgraut) made of milk and flour and butter and slightly sweetened (a very thick white sauce), with some kind of fruit sauce on top.

After dinner, the children were allowed to pick their packages from under the tree. When the presents had been opened, everyone compared what they had received. We always received some clothes or books or other necessary things but some years when we were too poor because our father (Afi) got paid too little for his fish, we got perhaps only some woolen mittens and an embroidered handkerchiefs. The oldest boys usually got a deck or two of cards so all the kids could play except not on Christmas Eve.

When the gifts had been opened and enjoyed, there was sometimes more singing and dancing around the tree. After the children got their candy bags, we all got some oranges or apples. The fruit was very much appreciated because it was imported only once a year, around Christmas.

The children did not go out on Christmas Eve before the gifts had been distributed, because they were afraid of the Christmas Boys (Jólasveinar). There is no Santa in Iceland, but the stories say that in the mountains lives the witch Grýla, her husband Bóli and their thirteen sons, the Christmas Boys (Jólasveinar) and their large black cat. The boys are sent to the towns nine days before Christmas to snitch food and various other things from the people. When they return on Christmas Eve, they take back with them any children who did not receive a gift because they had been nasty. The very hungry Christmas Cat eats these bad children. We were, of course, always nice and never were brought to the Christmas cat. We never heard of anyone who had been snatched by the Christmas boys, or who’d ever even seen them. But, you could never be sure. So… you did not go out before you were sure you’d got at least one present.

On Christmas Eve most people in Iceland stay at home, and also on Christmas Day, when only the churches are open. All the stores and theaters are closed. On Christmas Day some families visit each other, but visits were otherwise restricted to the second day of Christmas, which is like an ordinary Sunday and the theaters open up that day in the evening. Guests are invited for hot chocolate and various cakes and cookies that were baked the week before Christmas. After the hot chocolate, they get a cup or two of coffee which is sucked through a sugar cube. The children, in the meantime, are outside playing, or showing each other the toys they got, many of which were made just to play with in the snow.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Climbing the Bird Cliffs

Hornbjarg, climbers on the cliffs

Sunday Paper of the Althydublad (newspaper). August 15, 1937

A Day on the Birdcliff

Dagleid á fjallinu
By Áskell Löve

The following article about the harvesting of birds’ eggs during the spring at Hornbjarg (northwestern Iceland) won the Golden Pen Award at Reykjavík College this spring. The Fund of the Golden Pen was established by contributions from those who graduated from the "Learned School" of Reykjavík in 1896 and survived to the present at the 25 year jubilee of these students in June of 1921. The prize, 200 Icelandic krónur and a ‘golden pen’, is awarded for the best essay about a self-selected subject or a short story written by a pupil of the senior class of Reykjavík College (Mentaskólinn). The judges are the main teacher of Icelandic, the main professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland and those surviving or the offspring of the original founders, chosen each year by the Rector of the College. Áskell Löve graduated this spring (1937).

The most beautiful portion of the country at the most beautiful time of the year. Farthest north on the Hornstrandir, the king of the mountains, Hornbjarg, towers above all the neighboring peaks and reigns over the seabirds who intend to lay their eggs and hatch them there if nothing untoward happens to them. But then disaster strikes for some of them because of people from Hornstrandir descend onto the shelves of the bird cliff, suspended just like giant spiders by endlessly long ropes. And these giant Hornstrandir spiders rob the birds of their eggs, take them away and return up again without the slightest thought to the grieving mothers and fathers left behind. – But, let us instead look at the same enterprise from the point of view of the people descending from the edge of the bird cliff.

The Preparations

It is usually at the end of May when the "sig", the descent by means of ropes, begins. The last half month people have occasionally gone up to the birdcliff to "check up on the egg-laying." At last the descent can start on a sunny Monday, or is it perhaps on a dull Saturday with hardly any win? The people ascent the mountain very early in the morning, carrying chests and a rope [festi], a sling [auga], a bag [hvippa], gloves and food hampers, a wheel to be secured to the edge [brundahjól] and steel helmets. All are dressed in thick clothes because it is often cold and windy on the mountain in the spring.

Up on the edge with a wide view both to the east and to the west, but perhaps a fog bank in t he south and some icebergs to the north, the gear for securing the rope is made ready and the sling carefully inspected for the last time. The food hampers and the chests are stowed away under a boulder in a hollow and the wheel for the rope to run over is secured to the man seated at the very edge of the cliff with all the others in a row behind him. The man who will descend puts on the bag, secures the rope carefully to the sling, dons his helmet, grabs his hook and steps in front of the men on the edge, the "brúnamenn." Another man climbs out onto the nearest projecting spit to be "on watch." He is called the "gaegjamaður" [the look-out]. Then the descent can start.

The Descent

The descent starts by that the man going down takes a first step over the edge, but there he stops, removes his helmet, says a prayer and crosses himself. Some of the men on the edge also cross themselves and the rest stop talking, because now they stand face to face with the reality of acute danger for the first time this spring – perhaps even for the last time. Who knows? On the mountain only some small thing needs to go wrong in order that somebody shall come home torn to pieces or not return at all but continue to hang until doomsday on a projecting cliff deep down below. That is far from impossible. While the prayers are being said, we shall briefly look at the equipment and the tools used for the descent.

The man descending must first put on the bag [hvippa], which is a garment made of sackcloth. It is wide and tied around the waist so that it does not bulge up and is open in front so that it can be filled with eggs, because that is its purpose. It usually holds about two hundred eggs. Then he steps into the sling [auga], which is a kind of shorts made of braided material like that used for the trawler bags and lined with wool (Editorial comment: a breeches buoy, perhaps?). He is securely fastened to the sling which in turn is attached to the rope [festi]. The latter usually consists of a tarred dual strand cable, about an inch thick, and most frequently 80 to 100 but occasionally up to 120 fathoms [ca. 750 feet long), which is the farthest a descent can reach. Previously the ropes were much shorter and made of strips of the skin of oxen, which were stretched very long and braided side by side. Now the rope is coiled behind the man farthest back on the edge. There are usually ten men to a rope and it runs through the hands of all of them and over the wheel on the edge, which prevents it from being torn and makes pulling it easier. It ends, as stated above, in the sling into which the man descending has climbed.

Now, after finishing his prayer – it is the "Lord’s Prayer" and maybe some words in addition – he again dons his helmet, which can be one from the English army but sometimes is a German steel helmet, rather clumsy. But it protects the head and shoulders of the man descending from being hit by the small pieces of rock which frequently rain down over him from the cliffs. Then he takes his hook, which looks like the kind for catching fish off a line and is about 3 feet long (one meter), but here it is used to pick out and flign away any loose material in the rock on the way down. Otherwise the rope could lodge around it and throw it down on the man descending later on. Now the rope runs slowly but securely on its way and the man disappears gradually below the edge. The descent has started in earnest.

The Way Down

The look-out checks now that the man descending runs slowly down the steep cliff and kicks himself away from it on his way down, holding his hook by the left hand hile with the right hand he picks eggs off small sills as he passes them. Occasionally he stops to remove loose stones and throw them out of his way. Far down the slope they may hit a sill, bounce up, but fall back with a splash into the sea. The birds roosting farthest down fly up in fright. But the man descending continues on.

Some 30 fathoms (180 ft) below the edge there is a red, very narrow shelf with innumerable birds sitting in a row on it. There the man descending intends to stop. Just as he reaches the row of birds, one of them discovers the monster approaching from above, turns around in a hurry and throws itself out from the shelf with all the other birds following suit, one more frightened than the other. Here and there, some of them tear their eggs along with them in their hurry to get away.

When the man descending comse down onto the shelf, he shouts "stop" at the top of his lungs. The look-out echoes it automatically. The men on the edge take a firm hold on the rope and stop feeding it, but a moment later they feel a slight but distinct tug in the rope. That is a sign from the man below demanding more slack in the rope. The look-out repeats: "Give slack!"

The man down below drags the rope down as far as he can reach with his hands, reaches up for more over and over again until he has enough of it, and then he coils it around the arm farthest from the cliff in order that small tugs won’t throw him off unexpectedly. Then he walks half bent along the shelf and collects egg after egg into large heaps, because that is more practical than picking them up one by one.

The View from the Mountain

Well, at last we can take time to look around ourselves, because the gathering of the eggs will last quite a while. As long as it is going on, everyone does not need to hold on to the rope but some can walk up to the next peak and ake a quick glance over the landscape.

The place from which the descent takes place in this case, is on the eastern part of Hornbjarg, where it slopes in three directions: in toward Innstadal at Hornvík, eastward toward Látravík and out over the edge of the birdcliff. In many places there is a considerable distance of sloping ground down to the very rim of the cliff.

The edge is very uneven; clefts and projecting ridges alternate in addition to small spits which disappear in the grass. When seen from above, they often project somewhat out beyond the rim. All of the slope as well as the edge of the cliff are covered by tussocks of thick grass, nourished by bird droppings.

The mountain itself is here about 300 meters (ca. 980 ft) high above sea level but just a little to the north it reaches an altitude of 500 meters (ca. 1650 ft), even 534 meters (1750 ft) at the highest of the three Kálfatindar peaks. The birds lay their eggs all the way to the uppermost peak; every sill is full of seabirds of all kinds, which make noise and squawk, one louder than the other; it is not a pleasant song. If you look over the edge, it seems that the cliff leads almost straight down to the sea. But here and there large avalanches have cut the faces of the cliff and it is evident that the cliff-belts are separated by the red sills and broad grassy ledges so that the total slope of the mountainside amounts to some 50-60 degrees.

In many places the grass has slid off these sills and that is where the red interfaces of the mountain are the broadest. The rock of these red tiers consists of burnt basalt or basaltic ash. The people of Hornstrandir call this "kólor" {from English "color"?). The sites where the grass has disappeared from the colored shelves are named "svaða" [slippery spots] because these are very slippery parts to cross over. Where there has not been an avalanche recently, there are lichens beautifully adorning the cliff walls, especially flat species belonging to the Gyrophorae group. In hollows and cracks thick moss, grass and scurvywort, and antiscorbutic herb (Cochleariopsis maritima) grow together with a stonecrop called "roseroot" (Rhodiola roseum) or dandelions. Often edible angelica (Angelica archaengelica) and mountain sorrels (Oxyria digyna) stand out on shelves or at the mouths of caves or grow side by side with buttercups (Ranunculus species) and luxuriant ferns.

Just like all the mountains of the western fjords, Hornbjarg is a basaltic mountain, formed by numerous, differently thick rock layers, separated by very thin layers of ash, usually red ones. Originally there was, of course, one continuous mountain, but at Húnaflóa it split up and turned into bird cliffs. The slope of the layers indicates this without any doubt. Most of the belts were originally formed during volcanic eruptions along fissures, which can be distinctively seen because of the many ridges that dissect the mountain in various ways. Furthest down in the mountain there are a lot of hollows filled, for instance, with Icelandic spar or calceolite and quartz of various kinds, even zeoliths.

The sea below the cliff is fairly shallow close to the land but becomes very deep a short distance from it. The foot of the cliff indicates the ability of Aegir [the god of the sea] to shape it since he sings his old working song there every day of the year, except perhaps during the middle of the summer. Then he occasionally takes a rest as if to celebrate the mild weather. But every year he sweeps a lot of material off the roots of the mountain and crushes it into small grains. This can best be seen in the bays and inlets of the region, which every year are moved farther and farther inland.

Hornbjarg is not the only bird cliff on the "jaw" of the western fjords, but on almost every cape and major height east of Geiroldsgnúpur, where the sea is very deep, and just like on most of the capes on the western side of Ísafjarðardjúp, all the way down to Látrabjarg, the "svartfugl" ("the black backed birds" – a special species of seabirds) do not lay their eggs, because they are very discriminating in regards to their breeding grounds. Instead of them, kittywakes (Rissa tridactyla) and fulmars (Fulmarus glaciali) breed there. They do not care; they actually prefer their breeding places to be overgrown with vegetation and at a lower altitude.

You can see very far from the mountain when the weather is clear. Then you can see all the coastline toward Geirólfgnúpur and Vatnsnes very clearly just like that eastward on Skagastrandir. Sometimes the tops of the Fljótafjöll can be indistinctly glimpsed as well as mirages of the mountains along Siglufjörður. But, unfortunately, there are ony few really clear days there in spite of all these wide views from the mountain, because the foggy days at Hornastrandir number considerably more than 200 a year. The spring fog, so well known to the sailors and so dense during the calm early days of summer, amounts often to nothing but a bank just above sea level reaching barely 300 feet up. It extends only a short distance from land but blankets all the valleys facing the sea. From the top of the mountain the view is as wide as always but much more beautiful since nearby all the peaks jut up over the silvery clouds, on which the rays of the sun dances around. To the east, the Húnaflóa looks like a mirror outside the fog bank and in the distance you can see the Fljótafjöll and Skagastrandir, perhaps even the peaks along Siglufjörður just like on the brightest of days.

The weather along Strandir is not good and it is difficult to make hay because of the wet climate. But the cattle thrive and can stay outdoors most of the year, at least east of the mountain where little snow accumulates because of the easterly and northeasterly winds from the sea. Because there, Aegir sings his most enticing songs on the outermost sea – but also his grimmest ones, which is worse.

Icebergs sometimes pay a visit to the mighty mountain, expecially in February and March. The ice floes can then be thrown up against the beaches with mighty crashes, just as if they intended to run ashore but the bergs themselves run aground far away at a depth up to 100 meters. There they remain far into the spring. But then they suddenly succumb to the warm winds and melt away. Only a few remain into the summer. In May or June they overturn daily and gradually break up and dissolve completely. But the brightness over the rim of sea ice at the horizon can still be glimpsed far to the north of the mountain.

Perhaps we should also take a look at the birds themselves, which are being robbed of their eggs? No, there is no time for that now, because the man below has finished heaping up the eggs and has filled his bag. He tugs on the rope to indicate that those above can now prepare to haul him up. The men on the edge pull in the slack but then they wait for further signals. These do not come until the man below has prepared himself for being drawn up again. Then the toil starts.

The Way Up

Now the rope feels heavier than when the man went down and it becomes evident why, when the bag is brought up filled with some 200 eggs. The man carrying them climbs up over the edge and kneels on the ground, pouring out the contents of the bag in a small hollow. Some of them break. Those that are halfway hatched or have been sat on for too long are thrown away, and some of the freshest onces are consumed. Then the man goes down again to fetch the next 200 eggs, returns with them and goes down still once more since about 600 birds sat on their eggs on this shelf.

When all the eggs are brought up above the rim, it is well past noon, so that the man who as ascended can step out of his sling. He and all the men on the edge fetch their food hampers and start eating. Somebody lights a Primus stove and boils some of the eggs for all of them.

After the meal, they move the rope slightly farther east and the "sigmaður" makes a few more descents over the edge and fills his bag from the small sills. The mountain echoes alternately: "Stop!" "Give slack!" " and "Pull up!" according to whether the man intends to stop and gather eggs along a sill, continue down or return up again. But after a pause for coffee at about three o’clock, he decides to go don deeper than before to a ledge where usually about 2000 birds are breeding.

The look-out places himself on a spit far out in order to be able to follow every movement of the descending man, who must now pass a large "loft" (clear space) – that is, where the cliff leans inward, so that he has no contact with it – just before he reaches down onto the ledge. When the man has reached down to where the open space begins, the look-out shouts: "Loft!" and the men on the edge "gefa liðugt" (feed the rope liberally) in order to shorten the stay in the air as much as possible because the suspended man can begin to spin with increasing speed althought he tries to prevent it by extending his arms and kicking with his feet as well as he can.

On a sill above the ledge, some birds fly up and all the others follow suit. The man descending lands slightly dizzy about 3 feet from the rim of the ledge and pulls a lot of the rope into a coil, steps out of the sling and puts some heavy boulders on the coil in order not to lose it down the slope. And then he goes "berserk" around the ledge, sweeping up heaps of eggs.

If such a ledge is large enough, the gathering can require a couple of hours and the men on the ledge use that time to rest up in face of the heavy pulling to follow. Some take a nap, others remain at the rope, staying awake, because there are old tales about how once all the men on the edge were asleep when the man below tugged on the rope, so it ran off the edge and pulled him with it off he ledge where he was standing. No doubt, there is some truth to this. But it is prudent to stay alert.

We shall use this time to do other things than sleep. Perhaps now we can take a look at the birds themselves, the main characters in this play about the struggle for life, and contemplate some of their lives and behavior.

The "Svartfugl"

The "svartfugl," [the little black-backed birds] do actually not belong to a single species but to many. Normally it is a question of three kinds: "langvia" or guillemots (Uria aalge), "stuttnefja" or short-beaked guillemots (Uria lomvia) and razor-bills or auks (Alca torda); sometimes there are three more: "hafyrdill" or the little auk (Plautus alle), "lundi" of puffin (Fratercula arctica) and "teista" or black guillemots (Cepphus grylle). The Great Auk belonged here as well, but it became extinct more than a century ago (in 1844). The little auk breeds in this country almost exclusively on Grímsey but has at very rare occasions also been seen on Hornbjarg. The puffin burrows into grassy knolls and island and lays its two small eggs in the hollow. This bird does not come into question when gathering eggs because of the difficulty associated with reaching them – the eggs are deposited too far in. Therefore we shall disregard it here just like the little auk, which does not really belong on the bird cliff but lays its eggs in hollows and fissures in the rock at barely 150 feet above sea level.

Therefore we shall concentrate on the three, first mentioned, which all have in common that they are bad fliers but are instead excellent swimmers and divers. And all have the shape for this: a long body, short and stiff wings, a short and wide tail and feet positioned far back as well as thick, well-oiled feathers. All of them have black backs and white breasts and three toes with very tough webs between them.

On a small sill just below the edge, a small auk sits on her green egg with black and brown spots. Frightened, she looks up at us with her questioning, dark brown eyes, so beautiful that any girl on the Suðurland should envy them. She is so tense that you believe that at any moment she will fly off her egg down to the safety of the sea. But, then she decides to stay, calms down by and by and stops looking around herself. Actually, it is not without danger to leave the egg alone with a monstrous man in the vicinity. Who knows, it could suddenly disappear above the edge of the cliff to become food for that monster? And, therefore she now gives us adequate opportunity to look at her when she turns the beak to the side so that it can be distinctly seen that it is thin and high with a white streak along the side. It is similar in shape to the beak of a gull. The nostrils are on the sides and the neck is short but flexible and beautifully supple when it moves. The wings are short and narrow – swordshaped, actually. The tail, too, is short and consists of only twelve narrow and stiff feathers. During the breeding season, he white streak of the beak reaches to the eye and there is a decorative white rim at the end of the flight feathers of the second row on the wings, and the breast is white and the back black. During winter, the wings and the neck are also white, but on the immature birds, the feathers of the back and the breast are dusky, either dark or light gray.

She is always curious, this little auk, just like all her relatives. But we, ourselves, are even more curious. We want to study the nest of this bird thoroughly, to know how she cares for her egg and what she uses to make the nest. Therefore, we use every trick thinkable to make her stand up and at last it succeeds by throwing a tuft of grass toward her. However, our disappointment is great, because the nest we had hoped to see is nowhere, there is only bare rock and on top of the egg there are thick crusts of dirt and bird droppings so that a lot of the heat for the hatching could be lost. But she tries to prevent this by plucking herself where the egg touches her body and by covering it with the other feathers. Because, although the housing is bad, the breast of the mother has to provide a warm room. The auk cares for her egg better than any of the other birds on the cliff and prefers to have it close to her breast all the time, just like all the birds related to her.

The auk is hardly as big as a wild duck and far more slender. The short-beaked guillemot, the "Stuttnefja," is of a similar size but has a medium large and stronger beak, while that of the common guillemot is a little longer and narrower.

All these birds live exclusively on the northern hemisphere and are most common in the cold countries, where they lay their eggs on the steep bird cliffs facing the northern seas. They spend the winters out on the ocean or fly to the shores of Europe or America and as far south as the Bay of Biscayne and Florida.

Along the western fjords, these black backed birds nourish themselves almost exclusively on cod spawn while they are hatching and raising their young ones and the sea has an abundant supply of this at that time. On days with good weather, when the immature birds sit by the tens of thousands on spits and skerries, their white breasts facing the still and calm sea, and there are hordes of thousands of birds on the waves, it is great fun to be in a dory in front of the cliff. If there has been no shooting in the vicinity for a couple of days, the birds are so tame that you can come close enough to watch them when they hunt for small fishes.

The common guillemot dives quickly, almost s soon as she spots a group of small fishes, approaches it from the side and grips a fish around the middle, swallows it and catches the next ones, one after another. At last it comes up with the last one in its beak. This one is either devoured on the spot or she flies in the direction of the cliff if the hatchling has left the egg.

The short-beaked guillemot, on the other hand, dives deeper down so that it is harder to observe it when fishing. But, when it comes up to the surface, it always holds the catch in the same manner as the first one, the common guillemot.

The auk dives like the other two, but frequently holds two or more small fish in the beak at the same time and in such a manner that the heads turn down and the abdominal parts in the other direction. The fishes up front are often larger than those farthest in.

All these birds lay a single, large egg on the bare rock. It is dark green in color and has variously dense black spots or streaks. It tapers strongly toward one end. If the egg is taken from the bird, it lays another one in 12 to 14 days later. The latter gathering of eggs builds on this fact. It starts about half a month later than the first one and ordinarily takes place just before the middle of June. Then the eggs are usually of better quality but not as many and during that time it is often possible to snare the birds themselves as well.

The noose used for this purpose consists of a loop of flexible willow wood, tied to a bamboo rod. This one is held out over the edge of the cliff in the direction of a bird while it sits firmly on its egg. If the latter escaped the first gathering of eggs, the time for the chick to break the shell is now fast approaching. The loop is held just above the head of the bird and carefully moved closer to it. The bird starts to look straight into the loop but quickly tries to fly away from it when the noose tightens around its neck. But the snare grows ever tighter and tighter, and thus, it becomes possible to pull the bird up over the edge and kill it.

This is an inhuman manner of hunting that is quickly being abandoned now. But in its stead comes the shotgun and it kills on the sea at the foot of the mountain.

All the time when the birds are present on the bird cliff there is a steady commotion at all hours round the clock during the time from April until into August. And, indeed, musical people derive little pleasure from listening to the noise for long because, unfortunately, these birds are certainly not any songbirds. In spite of that, you can distinguish between different sounds and different voices because every bird has its own voice and its own characteristic sound, just like people. In this deafening chorus you can distinguish deep basses and shrill tenors, the laughing call of the common guillemot and he guttural one of the short-beaked one and the scratchy hissing and cries of the auks. Through all this noise you can hear the piercing voices of the young birds and the calls of the puffin, who seems to enjoy enormously the disorganized song of those who do not have melodious voices.

While we are busy trying to distinguish minor and major keys among this overpowering melody of nature, an almost inaudible call can be heard from the man below. He has finished gathering the eggs and filled his bag and now he wants to be pulled up again. But, when the call is unanswered - the look-out heard it so indistinctly that he did not dare to repeat it – he tugs at the rope like before and then the slack is hauled in and at last he himself as well.

Difficult Hauling and the Final Ascent

Now the man feels much heavier than ever before in the day but he is much farther down and, besides, there is that big open space, where he cannot help by kicking against the cliff while being hauled up.

Just as stated above, the men pull as fast and hard as they can in order to shorten the stay in the "gap." Then the heaving suddenly becomes easier: the man has come up above the "gap" and hs now started to "walk" on the cliff wall. Involuntarily the men on the edge slow down and try to rest a little after the big effort. The man ascending is gradually nearing, becomes lighter to pull up as he proceeds and finally he comes up above the edge. That trip has ended.

As before, he empties his bag and utters a few words, perhaps a joke about the cliff or something about a previous descent, and returns then laughing to fetch more eggs from the heaps on the ledge. This is repeated four more times because that is one of largest ledges to the east of the cliff, where well over two thousand birds hatch in one big congregation.

When he returns from the fifth descent, it is even more difficult for the men to pull him up because now they are tired. And the man himself is even more tired than any of the others because now it is late in the evening. It is almost 9 p.m. He removes his bag and steps out of the sling, coils the rope and stores the tools under a stone. In the meantime others have gone to fetch the eggs first gathered and carry them over to those heaped up here.

Division into Lots

When the eggs from all the descents have been gathered together, the division into lots can start. All that was amassed is divided into equal lots: one for each man, one lot "for the rope" and one "for the danger." Every participant gets his lot. Often this amounts to over two hundred eggs per man and day, sometimes more, sometimes less. But the lot "for the danger" is given to the man descending in addition to his own lot and as a reward for subjecting himself to the hazardous descents. The one "for the rope" is taken by the owner of the rope, but that is often just the man who made the descents.

When the allotment is finished, - it often takes more than an hour to count and divide it all – each takes care of his own eggs and packs them into the chests intended for this purpose. This is a high, oblong and narrow box, open above and carried on the back in a large rope-sling attached to two loops on one side of the waist. The chests can hold up to three hundred eggs so that most often the entire lot of a man can be accommodated in it. When all is finished, the men bid each other farewell and start homeward, most in the direction of Horn or Höfn in Hornvík, but some of us walk eastward to Látravík.

The burden is not very heavy, but you have to step gingerly across hollows and brooks and – especially – if necessary "fall carefully," though rather not at all. However, in spite of being so careful with the chests, hardly anybody returns home without having broken quite a few of their eggs.

Later the eggs are held up against a light source (candled – or "Skyggnd") and those that are fertile are selected out and used for pancakes or in other kinds of food. The rest are sent to Ísafjörður or Reykjavík where each egg can fetch up to 25 to 30 aurar from those who want to buy them. But this sale only takes place when the first gathering is halfway over or fully completed, so we do not need to bother with that now.

- - - - - -

The midnight sun shows its orange pate just above the bird cliff about the time we finish picking the eggs out of the chests, so that is best for us to go to bed and rest so that we can again ascend the mountains early next morning.

But in the bird cliff, thousands of birds are looking in vain for their offspring in the soft light of the midnight sun. They sing senselessly their dirges without melody in the summer night because the merciless and monstrous "Hornstrandir spider" is a robber who never returns his loot. Beautiful bird, perhaps you should try to lay another egg in the same place in the hope that the same "spider" hs no more errand down onto the peaceful sill of yours, - perhaps you should? But, please, remember that when the human spider robs you also of your second egg, he is only taking it to feed himself and his children, just like you do when you pluck the small fishes out of the sea. Just like your "fishing", it is his struggle for existence and without you the poor farmers on the mountain would have little to eat and to burn most of the year. Because, little bird, it is YOU who keep the crafty farmers alive on the little farms in the far north at Hornstrandir, the most beautiful part of the Icelandic landscape during the spring.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hornbjarg Years

My uncle Jón told Lura this story and she Emailed it to me, after I mentioned that in this photo it appeared that my dad, Áskell Löve, had no safety equipment at all. Then my cousin Sigrún pointed out the shoes he's wearing in the photo, that she thought might be from sheepskin, but sewn by my grandmother. Here is the story:
Jon told me that Amma made the boys "skin skor" when they lived in the lighthouse. Afi managed to shoot a seal with his shotgun (apparently the only gun he had) and they skinned it and Amma sewed shoes with the skin. Sheepskin wouldn't have worn well and the sealskin was more durable. Your Dad lived in Isafjordur during the school term so that he could go to school. He stayed in a room in the house owned by the father of the present President of Iceland and Jon thinks he ate at Gauja's house. He was only home during the summer. The rest of the boys and Sigga were taught by a travelling teacher who lived at the lighthouse for a few months and taught the family as well as several children from Horn. Jon remembers learning more from Askell when he was home than from the teacher. He remembers that Amma was really upset because the children that came to live with them brought lice. Horrors! She had to cook for them and clean them up and de-louse them. It must have been a lot of work.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Löve name in Iceland

The man on the first picture is Frederic Löve (b. 1843), my grand grandfather. The next picture is Sophus Carl Löve (b. 1876), my grandfather when he was a young man. The last picture is Carl Löve and Þóra G. Jónsdóttir (b. 1888), my grandmother with 4 of their grandchildren. She never used the Löve name. In Iceland, a woman keeps her name although she gets married. The picture is taken around 1952 att Hraunteigur 16, Reykjavík. I am not sure if the children are Leó, Sigrún and Denni? The one who has her arm in front of my grandmothers face might be Hilda?
Now to the story of the Löve name in Iceland.

My uncle, Jón, told me this story in Icelandic. My translation into English is as follows:
This story started in the year 1822 when Sr. Þorsteinn Þórðarson, born 1791 started to work as a priest on Staður att Snæfjallaströnd, in the northen part of Ísafjarðardjúp, in north and west Iceland. His children were: Þórður (born 1816), Þorsteinn the older one (born 1817), Ólöf (born 1819), Jón (born 1822), Guðbjörg (born 1823), Ólína Kristín (born 1828), Ólafur Helgi (born 1830), Guðrún (born 1831), Sölvi (born 1832), Rannveig (born 1833), Þorsteinn the younger one (born 1835) and Valgerður (born before 1940). Just Sölvi and Þorsteinn the younger one are persons of this history.
Sölvi Thorsteinsson got two children without beeing married. He went to Denmark and learned to be a seaman and participated in the war 1864. After that he moved back to Iceland and went to Ísafjörður were he settled down and worked att the harbour. Me married a 44 year old widow. They did not have any children. She was not very well. Aroun 1870 a young woman, 25 years old, started to work on their home. Her name was Sigríður Sæunn Jónsdóttir, born in Húnavatnssýslu 1845. She was my grand grandmother. Her uncle was Sigurður Jónsson a schoolmaster in Ísafjörður. Sigríður worked for many years on Sölvis home untill he got married again in the year 1890 and had some children after that. Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson started to work as a merchant in Ísafjörður and was also selected to be member of the Icelandic parliament for some time. He had two children before he got married. When he stayed for a while in Denmark, he learned to know a Danish woman, Amalie Löve, but she married to another man, named Viladsen. They did not have any children and mr. Viladsen died. In the year 1863 she married to Þorsteinn and moved with him to Iceland and they settled down in Ísafjörður. There they had 4 children. After the year 1870 her brother, Frederic Löve come to visit her and worked as a photograph in Ísafjörður for more than a year. He was single and did not have any children at all.
Late in the year 1875 a problem come up. Sigríður Sæunn was pregnant. Never the less, she continued her work with Sölvi's family and the child was born on Sölvi's home 31. janúar 1876. This little boy was my grandfather. When the little boy was to be christened, the priest registred that the mother was Sigríður Sæunn, that claimed that the father was Frederic Löve. In cases like this, it was usual to add if the claimed father did accept this, but in this case nothing was reported. Frederic moved to Reykjavík, no one knows when. The little boy was christened Sophus Carl, but the Löve name was not included att this timepoint. Sölvi Thorsteinsson and Sigurður Jónsson were registred as "vitni" (sorry, I do not have the English word) to the christening. Later Frederic moved from Iceland. The young boy was fostered by people that the Thorsteinsson brothers knew, far away from Ísafjörður. Neither the mother, Sigríður Sæunn, nor others could easily go and visit the young boy.
Now to the people in Ísafjörður. What did the people say about this? The people in Ísafjörður knew that Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson payed the people fara away for having the young boy. Some people claimed that he did this for his wife (the boys claimed father was her brother). In 1880 in common registry in Iceland, the boy is registred as Sophus Carl Löve as Þorsteinn had written his name for his foster parents, as people think.
In the summer 1888 Carl was told that Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson planned to send him and pay for him to study as a priest and he would hear more about this in the autumn to come. But Carl waited and waited and did not hear anything more about this. Late in the autumn he got the news that Þorsteinn had drowned when a boat he was travelling with, on his way to Denmark, had got lost. After that, no one payed anymore for Carl staying with his foster parents. When Carl was 12 years old he started to work on a fishing boat and worked all his live as a seaman. He married his first wife about 1900 and had 4 children with her. In the year he graduated as a skippter from Stýrimannaskólinn í Reykjavík and he divorced his first wife in the same year. After he married again, he had 7 children, 3 were born in Reykjavík and 4 in Vestfirðir.
Once in the year 1905, a strange thing happened. Carl had been travelling to Denmark because of his work, to take care of a construction of a new "machine boat". He used the change and decided to find his father, Frederic Löve and visit him. They planne to meet, but when the time come, his father did not come. Carl was rather surprised when the man he had always thougt was his father, did not show up. And Carl got the message that he did not want to have any contact with him. Frederic was not married and did not have any other childrens. Most of Frederics relatives lived in Denmark and Carl was supposed to be his one and only child.
Carl's contact with the Thorsteinsson family did not continue after 1888 when Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson died. Although his widow, Amalie, did well, she did not do anything for Carl (claimed to be a son of her brother). Carl did not have much contact to his relatives after he was 12 years old. The Thorsteinsson family later moved to Reykjavík. One of the daugthers, married to a man, that Carl knew very well. Once this man invited Carl to dinner to their house. But when Amalie heard about this, she become very angry and said to her son in law; " you can not bring this man into our house". Carl and this man then went to a restaurant for dinner. In this time in Reykjavík, restaurants were not very common and propably not part of common live. Much later, Áskell Löve, son of Carl, got to know Þorstein Thorsteinsson (a grandson of Þorsteinn?) a owner of Reykjavíkur apótek. Davið Scheving Thorsteinsson was the father of Þorsteinn. Davið was always very friendly to Carl. Þorsteinn calle Áskel always "frænda" (nephew?) without explanation.

Most part of this information come from books from the church or open registries. (manntal) Other parts come from Carl himselv, as reported mainly to Þráinn, his son. All the children of Carl have used the Löve name and a big part of their descendants. More information about the Löve family in Iceland can be found in books as Vestfirskar ættir, and Deildartunguætt. The children of Amalie did never use the Löve name.
Following information is known about Frederics Löve family: Niels Nielsen Löve (born about 1670), Margrethe Nielsdatter (born 1708), Niels Rasmussen Löve (born 1737), Rasmus Nielsen Löve (born 1788) and Frederic Löve (born 1843).

Following is the text in Icelandic:
Þessi saga hefst árið 1822, þegar Sr. Þorsteinn Þórðarson f. 1791 fékk prestakallið á Stað á Snæfjallaströnd við norðanvert Ísafjarðardjúp. Börn hans voru, með fæðingarárum, Þórður 1816, Þorsteinn eldri 1817, Ólöf 1819, Þórdís 1820, Jón 1822, Guðbjörg 1823, Ólína Kristín 1828, Ólafur Helgi1830, Guðrún 1831, Sölvi 1832, Rannveig 1833, Þorsteinn yngri 1835 og Valgerður fyrir 1840. Aðeins Sölvi og Þorsteinn yngri koma svo frekar við þennan þátt.
Sölvi Thorsteinsson eignaðist tvö óskilgetin börn, og hann fór síðar til Danmerkur, lærði sjómannafræði og tók þátt í stríðinu 1864. Eftir það settist hann að á Ísafirði og varð loks hafnsögumaður. Hann giftist þá 44 ára ekkju, en þau eignuðust ekki börn. Heilsa hennar var léleg, og um 1870 réðst til hans sem vinnukona Sigríður Sæunn Jónsdóttir fædd í Húnavatnssýslu 1845. Frændi hennar Sigurður Jónsson var skólastjóri á Ísafirði. Sigríður vann mörg ár á heimili Sölva þar til hann giftist í annað sinn 1890 og eignaðist fleiri börn.
Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson gerðist kaupmaður á Ísafirði og var eitt sinn alþingismaður. Hann eignaðist einnig tvö óskilgetin börn á yngri árum. Þegar hann var um hríð í Danmörku kynntist hann Amalie Löve, en hún giftist öðrum manni að nafni Villadsen. Þau voru barnlaus og maður hennar dó. Árið 1863 giftist hún svo Þorsteini og fór með honum til Ísafjarðar þar sem þau eignuðust 4 börn. Eftir 1870 kom bróðir hennar Frederik Löve í heimsókn og vann þar í meira en ár sem ljósmyndari. Hann var einhleypur og átti engin börn í Danmörku eða annars staðar.
Seinni hluta ársins 1875 kom upp sá vandi að Sigríður Sæunn var ófrísk. Hún fékk þó að halda áfram í vistinni, og barnið fæddist á heimili Sölva 31. janúar 1876. Þegar drengurinn var skírður skráði presturinn að móðirin væri Sigríður Sæunn sem ´lýsti föður Frederik´. Venja var í slíkum tilfellum að bæta við hvort ásakaði faðirinn gengist við, en hér var ekkert sagt. Frederik fluttist til Reykjavíkur, ekki vitað hvenær. Barnið var nefnt Sófus Karl, en Löve nafnið birtist hvergi. Vitni við skírnina voru Sölvi Thorsteinsson og Sigurður Jónsson. Frederik flutti síðar úr landi. Piltinum var brátt komið fyrir hjá fólki sem Thorsteinsson bræðurnir þekktu innst inni í Ísafjarðardjúpi. Móöirin og aðrir á Ísafirði gátu ekki farið í heisókn svo langa leið. Almennt var vitað að Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson borgaði með barninu. Sumir hafa haldið fram að hann hafi gert þetta sem greiða fyrir konu sína. Í manntali 1880 er drengurinn skráður Sophus Carl Löve eins og Þorsteinn hafði skrifað nafn hans fyrir fósturforeldrana, að talið er.
Sumarið 1888 var Karli tilkynnt að Þorsteinn ætlaði að kosta hann til prestnáms, og frekari tilskipun átti að koma um haustið. Hann beið og beið, en ekkert heyrðist. Loks kom sú frétt að Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson hefði drukknað þegar skip sem hann var farþegi á hvarf á leið til Danmerkur. Meðgjöfin hætti þá, og Karl Löve réð sig 12 ára gamall á árabát og vann svo alla ævi að fiskveiðum. Hann giftist fyrri konu sinni um síðustu aldamót og eignaðist 4 börn með þeirri konu. Árið 1916 tók hann skipstjórapróf við Stýrimannaskólann í Reykjavík og skildi við fyrri konuna. Eftir það eignaðist hann 7 börn með síðari maka, 3 fædd í Reykjavík og 4 á Vestfjörðum.
Eitt undarlegt atvik gerðist kringum 1905 þegar Karl var búinn að koma sér vel áfram og hafði farið til Kaupmannahafnar til að sjá um byggingu nýs vélskips. Hann notaði tækifærið til leita uppi Frederik Löve. En hann varð hissa þegar maðurinn sem hann hafði alltaf talið föður sinn vildi ekkert samband við hann hafa of forðaðist öll kynni við hann. Frederik var enn einhleypur og átti engin önnur börn. Ættingjar hans voru flestir í Danmörku, og Karl var eini sonurinn.

Samband Karls við Thorsteinsson fólkið hafði alveg slitnað þegar Þorsteinn Thorsteinsson dó. Þótt ekkjan væri vel stödd reyndi hún ekki að gera neitt fyrir hann. Hann hafði lítil kynni af þessum ættingjum sínum eftir það. Fjölskyldan flutti loks til Reykjavíkur, og ein dóttirin giftist manni sem Karl þekkti vel. Eitt sinn bauð sá maður Karli heim í hádegismat með fjölskyldunni. En þegar Amalie frétti af þessu brást hún bálvönd við og sagði ´Þú kemur ekki með þennan mann í þetta hús´. Þeir fóru því tveir í veitingahús. Löngu síðar kynntist Áskell Löve Þorsteini Thorsteinsson sem átti Reykjavíkurapótek. Faðir Þorsteins, Davið Scheving Thorsteinsson læknir, hafði alltaf verið mjög vingjarnlegur við Karl Löve. Þorsteinn kallaði Áskel alltaf ´frænda´ þótt á því fyndist engin skýring.
Mest af þessum upplýsingum kemur úr kirkjubókum og manntölum eða úr ættartölubókum. Annað kemur frá lýsingum Karls Löve, skráð eftir sögum sem hann sagði Þráni syni sínum. Börn Karls hafa öll notað Löve nafnið, og makar sem synirnir giftust hafa einnig tekið upp það ættarnafn. Mörg barnabörn nota sama nafn. Ættartölu Löve fólksins má finna í prentuðum bókum, þar á meðal Vestfirzkum Ættum og Deildartunguætt. Afkomendur Amalie hafa aldrei notað Löve nafnið.
Frá upplýsingum sem Dóris Löve safnaði má rekja forfeður Frederiks Löve með fæðingarárum eins og hér segir. Niels Nielsen Löve um 1670 , Margrethe Nielsdatter 1708, Niels Rasmussen Löve 1737, Rasmus Nielsen Löve 1788, Frederik Löve 1843.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Some earlier stories . . .

... are a part of my "Gayle Remembers" blog, which you can find at . Those were written as part of a class in memoir writing. Please feel free to read those stories there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Löve Family Stories

It all started a few months ago, maybe early this year, when I wrote a short story for a memoir class at the local senior center. The story was about my grandparents and the lighthouse in northern Iceland. I didn't get all the facts right, and two cousins told me the stories as they knew them, apparently far more correct than the one I'd been told many years ago.

I remembered my uncle showing me a recent aerial photo of the light house complex at Hornbjarg. I don't have a copy of that one, yet. Thora, one of my many cousins in Iceland, had sent me some others from a trip that she'd taken to the lighthouse. And that's where the adventures started. And the photo uploading. Some are on Flickr, some on Picasa. Maybe if I can figure out how, I'll add the links here.

How did I happen to start this? Well, my father took some of the earliest photos of the lighthouse where he and his family lived: His father, Carol Sophus Löve, his mother, Thóra Jónsdóttir, and he and his brothers and baby sister: Áskell, Guðmundur, Þráinn, Leó, Jón, Jakob and Sigríður. They lived at the lighthouse from 1930 to 1932, and my granfather was the first keeper at that lighthouse.