Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World

by Steinum Sigurdardottir. Translated by Philip Roughton

John Murray, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

When she was born, the fifth and youngest daughter in the family, Heida Asgeirsdottir was named after Heidi, one of her sisters’ favourite books. It was a prophetic choice, because as this gangly child grew up on the family farm, she turned into an Icelandic Heidi, loving the wilds and its animals and birds. From the outset she was a creature of the outdoors.

Heida is the memoir of a remarkable woman, born in 1978, who farms alone on one of the most seemingly inhospitable places on earth. This part of Iceland is so remote it’s known as The End of the World, but Heida would not recognise that description. To her, Ljotarstadir, on the edge of the Icelandic Highlands, is beyond compare. A sweeping area of hills, plains, heath and rivers, some would call it ultima thule, but her name for it is home.

She is not, however, blind to its perils. Ljotarstadir is only 25 kilometres as the crow flies from Katla, a volcano that is long overdue an eruption. At one point in this story, she recalls when Grimsvotn emitted a cloud of ash, causing air-travel havoc across Europe. For those in the vicinity, like Heida, the results were choking and terrifying, though thankfully short-lived. When ash descends, no light can penetrate it. The hand in front of your face is invisible. And while locals keep masks nearby for this eventuality, the reality is almost paralysingly scary, especially if the sheep are out on the hills, and beyond saving. But, as this strong-minded farmer says, “it’s impossible to live in this area and be continually stressed over the threat of a volcanic eruption. Life’s too short.”

In her care is a flock of 500 sheep. Her nearest neighbour is two kilometres away, and while she relishes her isolation, her fear of the dark means its lights are a comfort in the middle of the night. Heida, who remains determinedly single and childless, has defied tradition in not finding a husband to help manage the farm. But while that makes society in these parts sound old-fashioned, in many respects it is far ahead of most. There was never an issue with the young Heida or her sisters helping out with the most muscular jobs. Women in this tough community are seen as the equal of men in hard labour as everything else. As a result, today she can do anything a man can do, and does not give it a second thought.

Heida is a patchy, staccato, sometimes banal but engaging fusion of memoir, diary and random information. It has already taken Iceland by storm, perhaps because its author was fleetingly, in her late teens, a model, and is strikingly tall and good looking. As a youngster, Heida quickly realised that modelling was not the life for her, and went instead to study farming at college, where she felt immediately at home. But she is unusual in more ways than this. While the core of this account is a detailed, chatty description of what each season on the farm entails, it has a darker undercurrent.

The river that runs through Ljotarstadir has been selected by an energy firm to harness for water power. Plans for the Buland Power Plant involve a massive dam and reservoir that will engulf the area. These proposals are already close to signing off when Heida realises the seriousness of the threat that she and her neighbours face: “The proposed dam in Rasgljufur Canyon would be nearly as tall as the tower of Hallgrimskirkya Cathedral. Imagine if that dam broke.” Were it to go ahead, her farm would be lost under water, drowning 900 and more years of farming heritage. With utmost reluctance, she becomes a member of the municipal council, representing a newly created environmental party. This gives her a platform from which to voice her protest. Her fury at the possible ruination of this most spectacular and unspoiled area far outweighs her trepidation of public speaking. It is a valuable lesson for all who hesitate speak up.

Jumping between scenes of public meetings, snippets of speeches she has delivered, and passages of her daily life on the farm, Heida builds into a rare portrait of a woman possessed of frontier courage and a sense of humour and humility. From a family of poets, she too writes verse, of the doggerel type, some of which is interleaved here. Much, you feel, is lost in translation.

Who could fail to find this David and Goliath story interesting, symbolic as it is of the ongoing and unequal struggle between development and the natural world all around us? Where this book really sings, however, is when Heida describes handling her flock – clipping, feeding, lambing, slaughtering, scanning for pregnancy. Her reflections on the character of sheep are vivid and fascinating, as are her depictions of living in her tractor for most of the summer. This vehicle, which ploughs, reaps, rakes and harvests, also acts as her office.

The simplicity and unpolished tone of this book is a reminder of whose story it is. Repetitive, occasionally dull and rambling, and written with little felicity or grace, it is nevertheless revelatory and inspiring.