Sheep make you rich

Without sheep our Icelandic ancestors would have been driven from Iceland or died. Sheep, more than any other animal, fed and clothes our people. From such a humble animal came life. Today, sheep are no longer the centre of existence for Icelanders or for Icelandic North Americans. While sheep are still often seen in Iceland, they are only seen in Canada occasionally. Their breeding is specialized. Their wool has been replaced by synthetics. Their milk is seldom used. Mutton is seldom seen in stores and when lamb is found, it is usually from New Zealand and Australia.
Icelandic lamb is universally praised. However, it is no longer the staff of life. Here, on the West Cost of Canada, there are Icelandic sheep being raised. The wool from them is processed at a mill on Salt Spring Island. What once came from Icelandic sheep, wool, meat, milk is exotic, specialized, no longer the products necessary for life.
It seems a hard fate for an animal that was central to the survival and prosperity of our Icelandic ancestors.
Wealth in Iceland was measured in the number of sheep a farmer owned.
In 1772 when von Troil visited Iceland, he had much to say about the importance of sheep.
“There is no breed of cattle so much attended to in Iceland as that of sheep. As these can easily find subsistence there, the Icelanders look upon it as less troublesome and less expensive to breed them; and there are many peasants who have from two to four hundred sheep. Before the epidemical disease which raged among the sheep from 1740 to 1750, it was not uncommon to see flocks of one thousand or twelve hundred, the sole property of one person.”
By 1863 Burton says, “Paijkull assigned 350,000 sheep and 22,000 head of black cattle to 68,000 souls. In 1871 the official numbers are Milch ewes and lambs, 173,562; Barren ewes, 18,615; Wethers and rams above one year old, 55,710; Yearlings, 118,243.” This was a total of 366,130.
Those numbers seem impressive until you compare them with John Barrow’s report that in 1834-35 that there were 500,000 sheep. In 1845 M. Eugene Robert gives the total as 617,401. But then in 1855 scabies appears and kills 200,000 sheep. When Burton is writing in 1874 scabies is still raging.
Sheep were the major food supply. In two years, 200,000 sheep are killed by scabies. No wonder there was hunger. 200,000 sheep not producing milk, wool or meat.
“The Icelandic sheep differ from ours in several particulars; they have strait ears standing upright, a small tail, and it is common to meet with those that have four or five horns: in some places they are kept in stables during winter; but they are generally left to seek their food themselves in the fields.”
Von Troil says that the sheep like hiding in caves. That’s not surprising given the dreadful weather on the heaths. He says that some people believe that there are wild sheep but it is not true. The Icelanders mark there sheep and when they are driven into the mountains to grave, they are scarcely ever without a shepherd.
He admires Icelandic sheep for being fat. The farmers figure that it requires one kapal of hay grown on the tún but two kapals if grown from unfertilized meadows. Like the cows, in a bad year with not enough grass harvested, the fodder is made of chopped fish bones mixed with hay.
The value of a sheep is greater alive than dead for the milk it produces is a greater source of food than its flesh. “Good sheep give from two to six quarts of milk a day…it has likewise a good taste when boiled.”
But the principal benefit from the sheep comes from the wool. It is not shorn but stays on the sheep until the end of May. At that time, it becomes naturally loose and is stripped off. This is called Ultafat. If there is a cold, wet spring, a piece of wadmal is cinched around the stomachs of the weakest sheep.
A good sheep, he says, is defined by by-laws as a sheep that provides four pounds of wool. Many sheep produce more.
The ewes often have twins and sometimes three lambs. When they do, the farmer takes one lamb and gives it to a mother who has lost her lamb. If lambs are too weak to follow their mothers, they are fed milk using a quill and a wet piece of skin.
How valuable were these sheep? What was the calculated wealth of a farmer’s herd? According to von Troil, “The price of six ewes, from two to four years old, together with their lambs and wool, is four dollars in autumn….a weather of four years old is sold for one dollar.” It is interesting that if someone butchers a lamb, its value is determined by the amount of fat it has. The meat, without the head, feet, entrails, fat, skin and wool is valued at twenty yards of wadmal. The law says that a pound of dried mutton is worth half a yard of wadmal. The skin is sold by weight.
Wadmal, the coarse woolen cloth that the Icelanders wove, was supposed to be produced at three yards a day. So the meat of a lamb by itself is worth 20/3 = 6 2/3 day’s labor. One pound of dried mutton is worth 1/6 of a day’s labor.
However, the yearly wages of a man were fixed by municipal law at four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal and those of a woman at two dollars and five yards of wadmal. A laborer who wanted to buy a lamb, meat only, would need to work two years to get enough wadmal.
It is no wonder that von Troil says “Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year.”
To understand value today is difficult for as von Troil says, “Their accounts are not all kept in money, but according to yards and fishes. In 1878, 106 years later, Anthony Trollope comments on the fact that there is no bank in Iceland. It would be difficult enough to compare value in Iceland in 1772 or, in 1884, even if there was enough silver coin in the country to cause a bank to be established. Everything financial is comparative, after all. If you put a dollar on the table, its value is what objects can be purchased with it.
To make matters more difficult, there were constant new issues of money in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Money was being debased by inflation.
“In the late 18th century coins were issued in denominations of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 24 and 32 skilling, 1/15, ¼, 1/3, ½ and 1 rigsdaler.” (Wicki) Those, travellers changed into English sterling. Complicated? You bet. Especially without any computer but your head. The best way to figure out what your sheep were worth was how much wadmal, butter, or fish you could get for one sheep.

Hiking Salt Spring Island

In three days, I’ve hiked three Salt Spring Island trails.

The first, Assault on Mt. Erskine, is steep, narrow, the rock jutting out in places like steps of stairs. The forest is open with sunlight sifting through the huge firs and some of the largest strawberry trees I have ever seen. Firs grow like weeds here, sprouting everywhere a seed can find the slightest amount of soil. Only the shade cast by older, larger firs keeps the seedlings from consuming all the space.

The strawberry trees, or, if you wish, madrona, or arbutus, are the biggest I’ve ever seen with massive trunks ranging through yellow, pale green, purple, black and red. The trees reach 30 metres tall, their branches twisting and turning, the leaves a dark, glossy green, tough leathery. At this time of year, the bark is peeling away from the trunk, the new pale green bark shiny underneath. Here and there, in the open spaces are Oregon grape and bunches of salal. The climb is so steep that the path is a series of switchbacks.

As we climb through drizzle and fog, we meet a young man coming down with his dog. He’s lean, tall, wearing shorts, looks like he probably ran up. He takes one of the buds out of his ear so he can talk to us. He has about him that easy Salt Spring smile and casualness as he answers our questions about the path ahead.

In places there are massive boulders that, at some time, have come loose from the levels above.

An eagle sits in a tree, hardly more than a few feet above us because the tree grows from a level below. Normally, we have to look up at eagles. Here, we look directly across, see him in profile. In places, the ocean appears through the drifting fog. The rain, broken by the high branches of the firs, sifts down, barely wetting us. At the top, in an open space where, in summer, a picnic will be superb, we are surrounded by ravens. We can’t see them because of the mist that envelops the trees but all around they call to each other, tweeting and croaking and rattling.

The second day we hiked the paths that border Black Duck Creek. On first sight it looks unpromising. Flat pale yellow fields suitable for grazing sheep. But once we take the muddy path down to the creek itself, we enter a rain forest world of overlapping shadows with only occasional shafts of light. The rippling sound of the stream is everywhere. The stream gently curves and loops, is bridged by fallen trees. Broad leafed maple block out the sun. They create a canopy of silence. In fall, after the leaves turn yellow, they float to the ground in long spirals. Now, in February, the ground is matted with them. Many of the living tree trunks are thick with ferns and moss.

Here, everything is green, green piled on green, large ferns springing from the sides of the stream. The hiking is easy, the ground relatively flat. On the way back, we climb up from the creek into a long open meadow where we discover clusters of people and dogs. The dogs are all species, jubilant, free to run, chase each other, chase balls. The open space is filled with sunlight.

Today, we chose a trail with no name, just a wooden post that was marked with a symbol for hikers. Here, we are in forest, once again, but the trees are cedar and because the cedars are large, shading everything, the arbutus that grow below them are small, stunted. The ground is thick with salal that reaches waist high. The trail is soft, its surface dangerous with exposed cedar roots that twist and turn, making endless traps for a carelessly placed foot. There is little sunlight here and as the path descends the ground is taken over by large ferns, great fountains of sword ferns. There are short sudden drops. At some of them crude steps have been built.

The trail is narrow, in places barely wide enough for my feet. We weave in and out among trees and silence. The thick layer of cedar debris mutes all sound. It is so quiet that I can hear my heart beating, my jacket rustling.

Down, down, down, until we come to the lowest point where a small stream trickles across the path, turning it to a muddy quagmire but the low point is short, the water shallow, the mud only a couple of inches up my waterproof boots. Then we start up again, now wire fence and open meadows on our left, old cedar rail fence on our right. The path turns down again and soon we get a glimpse of the ocean. Here, the path falls steeply, the clay slippery, and we use a fixed climbing rope to steady ourselves.

It’s low tide and the beach spreads far out before us. We hike the oyster beds, beds that are thick with oysters, clams and mussels. The landside is made of high cliffs, massive rocks, caves. Ocean side, the water is flat, a grey blue, and just across the straight, Wallace Island.

We hike south to where at the high tide mark, the beach is glistening white with windrows of crushed shell.

We rest here, our backs to the warming sun. Ducks are diving in the shallows.

Today it was dark as I left for the Fulford Harbour and the ferry. In my headlight beams, two rabbits zigzagged frantically before plunging into the roadside scrub. The grass after Ganges was bleached with frost. Fog filled the fields.

There are other trails, other days to come. To be seventy-two years old takes away none of the anticipation of forest and ocean or the rising sun

Time and tide

Time and tide wait for no one. Neither does the Salt Spring ferry.
When you spend a lot of time on the islands off the coast of British Columbia, you learn to move to the rhythm of the ferry system.  When I first started to ride the SS ferry, I used to be in a panic about not being on time or there being so many cars waiting that I would not be able to get onto the ferry.
The roads on Salt Spring twist and turn, there are double and triple curves. The roads rise and fall. There are places where you can legally travel 80ks and hour but a lot of the time the speed limit is 40k or 30k. There are people on bicycles, walking, hitchhiking. In summer, where the road runs along St. Mary Lake, there are parked cars, groups of young people in bathing suits, little kids carrying inflatables. In fall and winter there are still parked cars but those are from adults who are out fly fishing. Driveways are hidden by curves, trees, blackberry thickets.
None of this makes speeding reasonable. Trying to boot it in order to catch a ferry will likely end in disaster.
Today, I realized how much I’ve adjusted. After two days of splitting stove wood and I did something last night, lulled by music and the warmth of a wood fire, that I haven’t done in decades. I  fell asleep on the living room couch. This morning,  I left early for the ferry. There was time to admire the beauty of St. Mary Lake’s far shore with its brightly colored trees. Flaming red maples appeared at the edges of yards and, in the fields, there were sheep grazing. In the Fulford valley, the vineyards were turning from green to pale yellow. Roadside stands were piled with bags of organic apples.  Each stand had a box in which to leave payment.
When I reached the bottom of the bay, I could see the ferry off in the distance. Ferries, I’ve learned, don’t move very fast. I would reach the embarkation parking lot long before the ferry docked.
I feel like an old pro now. When the parking lot is full, the cars park along the road. At first I used to think that if I didn’t get into the parking lot, I’d be left behind. Now, I know just how far along the road you can be and still get on the ferry. Today, the parking lot wasn’t even half-full. The summer tourists are gone so only locals are travelling back and forth.

There was time to get a cappuccino from the Morningside Organic Bakery café and bookstore.  Fulford Harbour is funky and the Morningside is the funkiest of the funky. It’s made of driftwood and concrete, it serves handcrafted sandwiches, soups, salads, noodles, superfood, raw food, smoothies, shakes, bread, pastries, cookies, chai, premium coffees and teas. Its homemade bread is wood fired. It buys its produce from local organic farmers. It also does double duty as a bookstore. The walls have shelves displaying books on everything from Buddhism to animal rights.

Manon made me the cappuccino. I bought a package of gluten free cookies to go with it. We chatted. There was no rush. The ferry wasn’t going to sprout wings.

When I came out, the ferry was just docking. I took some photos, settled into my car.

The foot passengers and then the motorcyclists came off. After that, the cars. The gate closed, then opened. We rumbled on. No deckhands waving us close together so they can get as many cars as possible onto the ferry. No tourists climbing up the stairs to sit on the roofs of the side deck cabins so they can sight-see. We’re the locals. We’ve made this trip so often that we sit in our vehicles and read or nap. If it’s cold, we go into the cabins and find a seat. It’s not that cold yet. That will come later in the year when there’s ice on the fresh water ponds and rime on the trees.

It wasn’t so long ago that this was all exotic. Now, it’s all part of a rhythm, like an old song, the weaving drive, the slowing down through Ganges, the speeding up as the houses thin out, the roadside signs for free range eggs, apples, vegetables, flowers, the slipping into place to wait for the signal to board, the rumbling of the motor and the blast of the ferry whistle as we pull away from the dock.

West Coast Icelanders

I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.

If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.

All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.

This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.

This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.

Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.

His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”

The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.

He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.

Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.

On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.

True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.

Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.

(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)

stove wood

I built a woodshed last weekend. It looks like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. My only defense is that come the fall, the rain will start.. Wet wood doesn’t burn well.  
There are lots of big trees here. I chose two that are fairly close together, then erected two posts and a 2×6 cross bar some distance away. You have no idea how reckless this project is. I’ve never built anything in my life. They only gave me a passing grade in shops because I caught my thumb in the lathe and they were afraid they’d be sued. I’ve still got the scar. The shop teacher told the principal that if I failed and took the course a second year, he’d have a nervous break down .
JO won’t let me use her power tools. There’s a good chop saw on the back porch, but she has visions of my hands flying off. I’m inclined to drift away and think about other things when I’m working. A handsaw can’t do much damage. An errant hammer usually just means a smashed thumb. A power saw is not so forgiving. Or a nail gun.
Salt Spring ground is uneven. Except for hollows filled with moss and deadfall, large rocks covered in moss are everywhere. When it rains, the hollows fill up with water. Next to where I chose to put the woodshed, a large cedar tree had fallen some years ago.  It’s old enough to have mostly crumbled into a heavy, deep red pulp. I had to break it apart in places with an iron bar and rake it so I could get back and forth easily.  I wished I had a yard of good Manitoba gravel to level the area. I probably should have called Ganges to see if I could get some crushed rock, but that would take days, maybe weeks, to get delivered, and I was in a hurry
When I began the shed, there were low grey clouds and fog so thick I couldn’t see Galiano Island. There’s no thunder and lightning here, not like on the prairies. Instead, the sky closes down on you, the mist rolls through the trees, rain starts a few drops at a time, then settles in to fall all day, all week, all month. Once, it rained thirty days straight. It wasn‘t raining hard on the weekend and there wasn’t any wind but the rain was relentless. I hadn’t expected to build a wood shed and hadn’t brought my Gortex jacket. As a matter of fact, I had no jacket. The weather report had said sun with broken cloud. I put on a sweater, cut a hole in the top of a garbage bag and at the sides. It made a perfectly good rain jacket except for the arms. It was a tight fit because every time I’ve picked blackberries, I’ve eaten them with ice cream.
I spiked two side beams to the trees and nailed them to the cross bar. I didn’t say this would be beautiful, just dry. I nailed some boards across the bottom to tie the frame together, then ransacked the scrap pile. There’s no hurrying. The rocks, moss and water with a tangle of wild rose bushes that never bloom see to that. The wood pile looks like someone has dropped pickup sticks. Boards that may be the right size have to be teased out of the pile. They’re often too long or too short. The too-long ones, I used for the roof. I put them on crosswise. That turned out to be a mistake.
The next morning, it was still raining. The pools of water were deeper. I’d thrown tarps over any wood that could be cut up for the wood stove. I wished I’d brought rubber boots. I started cutting and nailing boards on the walls vertically. With all the rain it’s better to have the boards up and down, with narrow boards over the cracks. JO came out to inspect my work and said “That’s called board and batten”. At least, I think that’s what she said. The rain was making my hearing aide buzz. During the night, I’d wakened up with a realization that I should have put the roof boards running from the peak to the eave on this shanty. If I do that and put slats over the cracks, the roof will be waterproof. No shingles needed.
The roof boards will have to come off but I decided to do that later. By the time the sides were finished[, my arms and feet were soaked. I needed coffee. I dragged a tarp over the roof. Everywhere on Salt Spring, you see tarps. They’re the islander’s equivalent to duct tape. The way I use tarps, you’d think I’d been born and raised on the island. If there isn’t a spare tarp or two, I feel unprepared for life. City people need jobs, bank accounts, lines of credit, to feel secure. On SS people are free spirits. A place out of the rain, some homemade goods to sell to the tourists at the Saturday market, an old truck or van, a half dozen tarps, and life is good.
The shed is not much to look at, but no rain comes through. It’ll do for this winter. The next time I’m here, I can change the roof boards and, if there’s time, saw and split wood and store it safely. SS does get snow and sleet. Once, the roads were closed for two weeks. The power does go out. It does get cold. If a blizzard knocks out the power, the wood stove will heat the entire floor.  
In the city, at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie but we don’t often remember to give thanks for electricity that nearly always works and when it doesn’t, it is rapidly repaired, or water that flows from a reservoir rather than our well, or streets quickly cleared of ice and snow but, away from the city, where people are on their own when things go wrong, we slip in thanks for a shed of dry wood in the face of winter storms.