Invasive Beauty

No other creature holds the same romance
in the minds of Icelanders as herring. 
   —Anita Elefson, historian, Herring Era Museum

I sit at a tiny coffeehouse nestled on the southern rocky coast of Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a finger of jagged volcanic rock that juts out from the western shore. An abandoned concrete pier leads away from that shore, angling a shelter against stormy seas. A rusted steel ladder runs down the side of the pier to the tidal swirl, but no boats are tied, no fishermen are cleaning fish or mending nets. I spoon savory fish soup into my mouth. Tiny twigs of broccoli and toothpicks of carrot swim on the surface, the broth, milky and light, laden with chunks of sea wolf, tiny Atlantic shrimp, and flakes of chili for heat. The soup is nothing like the rich New England fish chowder of my childhood: potato, onion, haddock, cream, and butter. There is no end to the inventiveness expressed in kitchens. 

The fishermen’s icehouse has become a coffeehouse with a tiny deck where bundled tourists gaggle and joke their way into friendships as they pursue their Ring Road adventure. They have come from Norway, Canada, China, the United States, and Germany to sip beer or coffee. At least that is what I glean from eavesdropping on their conversations. They have come to watch black-legged kittiwakes whirl and then settle onto nests tucked into black basaltic cliffs. They have come to eat cod cheeks and oatmeal cakes with rhubarb jam. They have come to walk through lichen-covered lava fields on a path from one village to the next. 

As a child, I played alone in our rural yard, an archaeologist of the ordinary, digging sticks into the dirt so richly brown and mica-flecked beneath the pelt of grass and dandelions. Occasionally I would visit a classmate in her neighborhood, the suburban developments that were taking over the dairy farms and the corn and tobacco fields of our town in the 1950s. Kids gathered in sandlots to play tag or hopscotch, or just to walk and talk beyond the gaze of adults. They were mostly good kids, plus a few bullies—but that bunch mostly hung around together to reinforce their badass credentials and left the rest of us alone. I found all of this hard to understand, how bands of kids in aimless pleasure played together. How they parted themselves into good kids and bad kids, kids to play with and kids to be scared of. It seemed there were rules—norms at least—but I did not know them. My family, artistic and egotistical, held itself aloof from the town. I knew about theater and show tunes and literature. I knew the names of trees and wildflowers. I did not know the games the other kids played. I hung back stuck in the strange unshakable feeling that I wanted to belong and did not know how. I didn’t feel better or worse than others. I just felt like myself, as I do sitting at a table for one on the deck of the icehouse café.

I’m headed for Siglufjordur, one of the northernmost villages in Iceland located less than twenty-five miles from the Arctic Circle, to visit the Herring Era Museum. The village was named the herring capital of the world in 1903. I am not sure who did the naming, though certainly not the same authority that named Black’s Harbour, New Brunswick, Canada, “the sardine capital of the world.” A sardine is a juvenile herring put in a can, so the two designations are synonymous. Lagos, Portugal, as well as Fez, Morocco, and Monterey, California, have all made similar claims. Perhaps the one truth is that wherever herring show up, they mean abundance to the people who fish them, and often as not a spike-and-collapse economy. Such is the rhythm between fishermen and herring.

I take my time driving west from cosmopolitan Reykjavik and then north, avoiding the tourist thicket of the southern region. I digress by foot to find waterfalls and cinder cones and village pathways and interpretive signs marking the landscape with ancient Viking sagas that still have a voice in Iceland. The terrain is as unstable as it can be, dotted with hundreds of volcanoes, prone to rifts and quakes, teeming with voluminous rivers and streams and waterfalls of glacial melt featuring water as pure as it comes. Grass thrives on the lower slopes of the volcanic hills, with meadows sprawling out at the base of steep inclines—a vibrant green hospitality fronting the island’s stark and stony interior. People live along the green perimeter that rings the coast. It seems a tentative way of life, farmhouses tucked at the base of looming volcanic cliffs. The scale is unsettling, human habitations like little Monopoly houses on the game board of tectonic unrest. 

During my weeklong visit in June 2017, five hundred earthquakes shook Iceland. No big deal for the locals. Thirty or forty volcanoes have erupted within the past few centuries. Another hundred volcanoes rest on the central plateau but have kindly not erupted in the past thousand years. Sometimes a volcano that has long been dead erupts and swallows a village in lava and ash, all of this unrest strewn like a broken necklace on land that teeters on the mid-Atlantic ridge. The North American and European plates are going through a prolonged break-up, cracking the island open and inviting lava to rise. Geothermal geysers shoot from Earth’s furnace at temperatures that can exceed three hundred degrees. Even on a calm summer day, the wind inspires car rental companies to direct customers to check wind direction and force before opening a car door and to “always keep a firm grip on the door when it is open.” 

Perhaps tentative is not the best word to describe life in these challenging environs. During my visit, a tour guide built like a lumberjack, in response to a tourist’s question about whether life was harder during the settlement times when Vikings hacked a life out of the land, said with a wry smile, “Life in Iceland is always either hard or harder.” He laid out slices of smoked lamb and buttered flatbread cooked underground from geothermal heat. “This is what we eat when we go on a hike. None of that trail mix stuff.”

Heading north, I find a waystation in the tiny town of Hellnar. One hotel, one coffeehouse, one café, one defunct nineteenth-century church, originally built with peat walls that have been replaced by wood. The church’s historical marker tells the story of Johannes Helgason Fanndal, born in this village in 1887, craftsman and carver, the first Icelandic artist to win a scholarship from the parliament. As a young man, he became engaged to a woman who lived in the village of Hellisandur, thirty kilometers to the north. Walking from his village to hers in a snowstorm, carrying a rucksack “full of masterpieces” including a “carved casket,” he died. The little jewelry box was engraved with the name of his betrothed: “Kristen.” 

I pass meadow after meadow of grazing horses, milling lambs and sheep, dandelions and bright grass illuminating the gentler slopes—grass, grass, grass, that saint among plants because so quickly does it ascend miraculous from the dead. Black lambs, white lambs, lambs inside their fences, lambs outside their fences, lambs in the road, lambs oblivious to boundaries. Farmers have built wind blocks of bushy birch trees to shelter their fields, but even these stalwart defenders of domesticity lean from the constant torment of wind. The lupines are blooming, sprawling meadows of indigo that look like great spilled bouquets. Lupines are an invasive species, the plants brought to control erosion. They have taken over vast stretches of scenic roadways, crowding out native plants and habitat. Some people want to get rid of the invasive beauty, whose blooming is an ecstasy of blue, the tiniest sliver of the lupine’s year. Largely the lupine’s days are about endurance through cold, wind, snow, and months of unmitigated darkness in the far north. Then comes the bloom, abundance drowning out privation. 

“Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” Emerson wrote. 

What did he mean? Beauty calls one outward to the things of the world and to people. Beauty relieves one of the error, Elaine Scarry writes, of thinking “I am the center.” Beauty is not truth. Beauty can subvert truth. The tourist visiting the seaside town finds the harbor seal a thing of beauty. The local fishermen see them as varmints—competitors and troublemakers that harass fish for pleasure. The gospel of St. John warns, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” John Donne’s Sermon XXI counters, “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” William Wordsworth enters the ring: “The world is too much with us.” Denise Levertov puts on her gloves: “The world is not with us enough.”

If ever there was a time in history to see the world and the things thereof as the very locus of our moral and spiritual evolution, it is now. The anguish over globalization and the mind-boggling challenge of climate change have ignited a conflagration of rage, denial, and argument, when what’s needed are reflection, evidence-based thinking, and new alliances.

Czech novelist Arnost Lustig, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, used to give daily writing exercises to his students at the Prague Summer Seminars, where I too have had the pleasure of teaching. Write about something beautiful that has happened to you. Write about something morally beautiful. Write about something ugly that has happened to you. Something morally ugly. Lustig had plenty of opportunity to till this ground, having been taken to Auschwitz as a teenager in 1942. He was later transported to Buchenwald. In 1945 he escaped from a train carrying him to Dachau when the engine was destroyed by an American fighter bomber. He wrote novels of aching beauty about characters who are forced to make morally impossible decisions: a Jewish woman who passes as Gentile and survives the Holocaust by prostituting herself to Nazi officers, and that’s just the beginning of the moral quagmire that besets her. 

What’s happening in America is a different kind of moral ugliness; borders between good and evil are less clearly defined when truth is subverted. And something morally ugly is happening to the planet; borders are obsolete when the planet is in crisis.

These days I think about the beauty of herring, their spangled, silver, dancing bodies, their jumbo eyes that take up most of their heads, the flicker of their tinfoil luminescence as they dart through the water. When I think about herring, I think about abundance, about patterns of migration and return, about the wealth and wile of small means that kept so many northern villages from Holland to Scotland to Iceland to the Canadian Maritimes alive through brutal winters. 

In the Hellnar coffeehouse that was once an icehouse on a sunny afternoon in June the wind beats down, nothing to stop the weather that blasts over the Atlantic, but travelers are warmed by companionship, Gull beer, fish soup, rye bread. Everyone branded for adventure wearing their Marmot and North Face and Arc’teryx, the Scandinavians wearing Scandinavian sweaters with snowflake yokes. They remind me that when I first moved to Tucson from New England, I was surprised to see that cowboys actually wore cowboy boots and rodeo belts and hats. At first, I ’d thought it was an affectation, until I met the cowboy-poet electrician who made me see authenticity where I least expected it, the brand of place still genuine in fashion decisions. 

The Hellnar cove may have been worked by five or six boats, no room for more. A rusted winch lies abandoned at the head of the pier, wild grass and buttercups climbing over the casing. The fishermen may have rowed out to trawl for cod, torsk, lumpfish. They used seines and dip nets for herring. Without herring, Iceland may not have survived, such is the abundance of the fish and the hardship of the people. Herring travel in enormous schools, so when they are near they are easy to catch in large quantities, easy to salt in wooden barrels and hang over the spars of a fish shed for drying. Near the coffeehouse that was once an icehouse is the foundation of a shelter built into a concavity in rock, large enough only for one man to sit hunched over on the small rock shelf. Stones have been piled on either side of the entrance to form an entryway, and a few nails have been pounded into the overhang of stone. A canvas or sheepskin perhaps was extended to create shelter against storms. It has long been out of use. Perhaps turf walls and roof extended the hut beyond the rock. The path that leads from the village of Hellnar to adjacent Arnarstapi crosses in front of the hut’s absent door, a path that was for centuries the main road for traveling five kilometers on foot or horseback, winding through sharp hardened lava, over rills and down dips. Remnants of other peat huts and stone sheds lie under the pelt of grass, dandelions, and buttercups, rims of basaltic stone marking grids. Straight lines do not show up in nature; they are the mark of human hands. A mire of fish scales must have muddied the ground, a cup of chicory brew heated over a peat fire—cold comfort.

I imagine a child in those times, knowing no other place, watching Father mending nets, the shuttle weaving grid by grid, knot by knot, or splitting the fish to hang over wooden splines for drying, a man never at rest and rarely having anything to say. Watching Mother salting down the cod in summer and in winter gathering a stiffened fish from the icehouse to cook in the fish pot over the open hearth. Watching her knitting socks or caps or sweaters from the wool she ’d spun without a wheel, just the wile of her hands twirling the wool just so and just so until the limitless strand took shape, and dying the yarn with brambleberries or goldenrod, an exuberance of color to enhance the wool’s warmth. 

Life could go wrong in such a place at any moment. A child watching the sea break on the protruding ledge offshore knew from an early age that the stormier the sea became the harder it was to see the peril above the white spume. Only the gulls and terns and gannets seemed truly at home on the water. Fishermen’s nets were holy. Mending nets was a prayer, the shuttle passing back and forth like a rosary in the hands of a penitent, head bowed to his work. The child’s mind was continuous with the land, continuous with the sea and all the craft of living in ceremonial rhythm with the seasons.

Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel Prize–winning author, in his novel The Fish Can Sing (1957) ennobles the hard lives of turf cottage dwellers, and the way such a child might find her own path. I’m reading the novel as I write, disturbing myself from the desk by falling into the reverie of his storytelling. “Many have died trying to reach a neighbor in need who lived two kilometers away,” Laxness writes. “Ours was not the first village to close shop.” Many villages are gone now that tourism is Iceland’s largest industry. In place of fish huts and icehouses are hotels, coffeehouses, a theater in a former frozen-fish factory, Eider Museum, Mineral Museum, Whale Museum, Folk Museum, Phallological Museum (yes, a penis museum), Arctic Fox Museum, Punk Music Museum, Saga Museum, Library of Water, Museum of War and Peace. Iceland’s small museum culture is a brilliant smorgasbord of curiosities. Of course, there are the larger institutional museums for art and history, but I favor the inventive genius of making a small town a destination for something other than tee shirt and postcard acquisitions, honoring cultural memories in a place while squarely facing the future. 

A family that harvests eiderdown from remote nesting colonies, as did their ancestors in a fifteenth-century tradition, has built a tiny museum to the eider duck. The ducks pull out their own feathers to line their nests, so harvesters can gather the down when the ducks are off the nest, replacing the feathers with soft grass without perturbing the nesting fowl. A visitor can view on video every step from nest to down duvet while sipping gourmet coffee from a handmade ceramic cup, then sink her fingers into a large ball of tiny gray feathers soft as air. 

Surely Laxness had a role in helping the Icelandic people to love themselves and their history enough not to sell it out to the nullity of an ahistorical tourist trade. The Eider Duck Museum sits in neighborly relationship with the Norwegian House (a historical re-creation of a settler family’s lifestyle) and the Library of Water (an art installation where glass towers filled with melted glacial ice have replaced the books) in the village of Stykkishólmur, a trade port since the 1550s. These small museums retrofitted into village homes nourish the tourist’s hunger for a continuity between past and present. Invasive beauty.

A painting hangs over the mantel in the dining room at Hellnar where the travelers (we who want for almost nothing and will die from our ceaseless want for more) gather for our ample breakfast—scrambled eggs, cheeses, ham, bacon, salami, sardines, pickled herring, sliced English cucumber, sliced tomatoes, chunks of kiwi, watermelon, pineapple, croissants, seeded bread fresh on wood block for cutting, muesli, hard-boiled egg, pitchers of yogurt plain and strawberry. 

The painting’s background is icy blue, a storehouse built of stones covered with ice, a wall of ice stones with a low open doorway, a wooden barrel beside the door and, just departing after gathering her stores, a woman dressed in a skirt of seal skins, thin shoes made of skins with lacing round the ankles, black leggings made from the wool of black sheep, loose lavender knitted wool bodice, russet scarf covering her head enveloping as an hijab—but this last for protection from the weather, not from her condition of being a woman. She carries a stiff splayed cod, salted and frozen, in one hand. The fish is so ample it reaches to her ankle and is split open with the skin intact to keep the flesh whole. In the other hand, she carries a wooden bucket—perhaps some pickled herring scooped from the barrel. Her gaze reaches past her left shoulder, nothing warm in her face nor fearful, maybe apprehension or just alertness to whatever might be coming in a place where a blasting wind can rouse a widow-making wave. The pelts of the fishwife’s skirt are splitting apart from wear and dryness; her fashion is built on need and materials at hand. She will wear it through many repairs, stitching and restitching, a danger to fail. In the time of the stone and turf huts, money wasn’t a thought. Payment was a fish, a lamb, a calf, a pelt. Now, money runs through everyone’s mind, a flow unstoppable as glacial melt; then, a stitch that mended a skirt or net was life. 

A few stray sheep outside the window call to each other. They do not want to be alone in the barren heath. My god, how to make a life—whether woman, man, or sheep—out of this hard ground where grass can barely disguise the jagged lava and the wind bites into everything without rest. Invasive beauty: the lupines, the fishwife, the bleating, the grass, the white farmhouses with red roofs tucked at the feet of volcanic cones, the persistence in making life work. 

Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose work I had not loved until I heard him speak in Reykjavik, says that the use of literature is not to recover history but to be in the moment of uncertainty, to sit in the knowingness that sits in the middle of unknowing and find a door latch, an openness to the world, a certitude that within uncertainty lies a narrative. Will she live through another winter, the fishwife? How long will I be given this gift of language with which to parse out beauty? Such questions would be unbearable if one required certainty in the answers.

The Icelandic Sagas written in the thirteenth century tell of events taking place during the settlement times of the ninth and tenth centuries. The sagas run all over this landscape like the ubiquitous glacial melt—stories of heroism, hauntings, and violence of neighbor upon neighbor. They fought over property, firewood, sheep, horses. A man killed a shepherd to gain grazing for his sheep. Men were hurled out into “the pit of sacrifice” to satisfy Thor. The settlers had fled the “unpeace” of warring kings in Norway and created their version as warring subjects on the new land before settling into the rule of law. The Eyrbyggja Saga sprang from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, telling of some chieftains’ exile from Norway. They tore down their ceremonial halls, carried the timbers on ships to reassemble in Iceland. To find out where to land, the chieftain threw a pillar off the ship and chose his “land-take” based upon where the timber came ashore. It might take years to find such a timber, given the roiling sea. One account tells of a lost pillar, the chieftain settling where he could. Ten years later, when he found the pillar, he moved a great distance to resettle under the auspicious sign. A chief might give land to his sailors. Some women, too, held land, captained ships, and conducted trade, some as brutally as the men. People bloodied the fields over territorial disputes. To know the land was to make it holy, its defense a “duty of honor,” and blood violence a ritual of sacred belief. The sagas display a cordial embrace of lawfulness, while violence reigns.

“We are seeking horses stolen from me in autumn, therefore we claim to ransack your house.”

“Is this ransacking taken up according to law; or have ye called any lawful law-seers to search into this case?”

Most often it seems the law was enacted with a “door-doom” and slaying with axe, adze, or sword. Sometimes a mere amputation. 

There were many accounts of “ride-by-nights,” troll women riding wolves with snakes for reins and troll ghosts riding oxen. 

A man drowned at sea returned each evening to sit dripping wet by his fire and drink his own “burial ale.” 

In a fire-hall, a ghost emerged as a seal’s head rising up through the floor. Struck again and again, it kept rising up to its flippers. A man hit it with a sledgehammer, blow after blow, as if “knocking down a peg,” until the seal was gone. 

A brutal man refused to die. After he was buried, cattle nearing his grave went mad. 

A herdsman was found dead, “coal-blue and every bone in him was broked,” near the grave. Birds died when they landed on the grave. The undead man walked through the country killing things. All winter people were afraid to walk outside and do errands. Come spring they dug him up. He was undecayed. They laid him on a sledge and yoked up two oxen. The oxen died. Another team put under the yoke went mad and ran out to sea. Finally, they dragged him to Halt-foot’s Head, buried him and built a wall “three-man-heights tall” on the landward side, the front and sides being guarded by cliffs. He did not trouble them again.

A woman of strong mind, falling ill and anticipating her death, asked that she be buried in a certain place, a holy place, where “priests would sing over her.” Her body was swathed in linen but not sewn up. She was laid in a cart. “Trusty men” and “good horses” carried her over the heath on the burial journey, the cart upsetting many times on rough ground. The party stopped for the night seeking board, but were denied. They agreed to “abide unfed” in a great hall and went to bed by daylight. The corpse and cart lay outside the inner door. In the night, the party awoke to hear clattering in the “buttery” and found the naked dead woman preparing a meal for them. She set it out on the table. They could not doubt the food was real, and so they blessed the meat with holy water and ate. They slept well. The journey continued to the woman’s desired resting place. She never troubled nor fed them again.

_____

I was surprised how good the food was in Iceland. Wolf fish with a velvety tarragon sauce so vibrant green it might have been moss growing out of my plate. A swirl of parsnip puree on the side. Cod cheeks cooked in lemon and garlic, with fried-crisp surface and jelly-soft center, presented in an iron skillet with roasted new potatoes and tomatoes. An undressed spinach and arugula salad. Rhubarb-and-currant tea. And everywhere the earthy rye bread loaded with flax and sunflower seeds, with a shot of Björk, birch twig in the bottle for flavor, to top it off. 

When the New Nordic Food Manifesto came out in 2004, culinary tradition became a site of reinvention. Herring, which has been traditionally served pickled on rye bread, remained popular mostly with the older generation. (Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason’s restaurant Dill offered herring ice cream served on fresh greens and rye bread.) The manifesto advocates for principles of “purity, season, ethics, health, sustainability, and quality.” The blending of local cookery with influences from abroad evolved in concert with the growth of Icelandic tourism, but it was not merely a touristic ploy. In 2013, New Nordic Food also launched the Nordic Children’s Kitchen Manifesto advocating that “every Nordic child has the right to learn how to cook good healthy food.” These efforts are backed by the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

Will herring rise to celebrity status in new wave cuisine? In too many regions these fish are harvested to be turned into fertilizer and aquaculture feed, and they are prized as bait fish in the lobster fishery. These uses help conservationists argue for the protection of herring, which are essential to the marine food web and to local economies. I wish they were more highly prized as food. Fresh herring are sweet to the palate, delicate in texture, a good source of calcium, and, when canned as sardines, offer the weird pleasure and soft crunch of tiny tenderized bones. Being low in the food chain, herring do not concentrate heavy metals such as mercury the way larger fish do. 

Herring have made a comeback in Iceland’s coastal waters after the overfishing of the 1960s. In the first half of the twentieth century, they accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s export income, but by 1968 herring had disappeared. After a twenty-five-year moratorium on fishing, herring stocks are in good condition, though fishing them is heavily regulated. Only 20 percent of the stock can be fished out each year. 

The abundance of herring is a survival strategy for the species—those massive shoals and fish balls of flickering, undulating light racing through the sea confuse predators. Abundance can also mean peril, as I learned driving along the edge of volcanic hills in northern Iceland. In December 2012 and again in February 2013, mass mortality struck Kolgrafafjordur. Herring had been wintering in the area in vast numbers. They peaked in 2008 at nine hundred thousand tons of herring, many more than had been seen for seventy years. A shoal of three hundred thousand came into the shallow broad cove, so many that they depleted the water of oxygen. In 2012, twenty-two thousand tons of herring died of oxygen deprivation; in 2013, thirty thousand tons. The entire quota for the landing of summer-spawning herring was only sixty-seven thousand tons. Mass mortality of herring on this scale had not previously been documented anywhere in the world. Thousands and thousands of gulls, cormorants, gannets, and sea eagles assembled to prey on the fish. Decaying fat covered the shores and surface of the bay, an oil spill dangerous to birds. The next winter, dozers and loaders came to bury thousands of tons of stinking rotted fish.

Siglufjordur’s herring spike ran from 1903 to 1968. Fish were caught near shore by using nets to close off fjords and lowering huge dip nets into the teeming seine. What had been a small village expanded to become the fifth largest town in Iceland, with twenty-three salting stations and five rendering factories processing thousands of tons of fish per day into meal and oil for export—half of Iceland’s national income in those years. The Herring Era Museum commemorates that history: 

This period resembles the gold rush in North America in many ways. Many people risked everything they possessed and grew stinking rich and others lost everything. During bad weather spells, many hundreds of fishing vessels sought shelter in the harbor and all the streets were congested like in a big city.

Herring brought relief from a thousand years of oppression. Herring was the magic word. Through the herring industries Icelanders became independent people, the village became independent of the city, and poor fishermen became rich men.

Tens of thousands of workers came to Siglo during its peak productivity. They salted and barreled herring; they sat at the boning tables, knives flying in skilled hands. Women came to work from distant villages and bunked in dormitories, knitting or crocheting finger cots for protection from the blades. Workers ground herring into meal for pet food and fertilizer, stuffed the meal into burlap sacks, sewed the sacks shut. They spun fish oil out of water to make soap. They built bigger and faster boats that hunted herring in deeper and more distant waters. They invented and built the tools they needed to do the work. They built dip nets six feet in diameter, the frames made from lean birch saplings steam-heated and bent into circles. They built a dam and power station to fuel the work. They built a laboratory to test the quality of their products, assaying water, fat, and minerals. 

In 1948, Arni Fridrikson began tagging herring to study their migratory path. He proved that North Iceland’s summer herring and Norwegian spring herring were the same. Siglo built bigger and faster boats. People say that Amsterdam was built on herring bones, and Siglufjordur was as well. And how many other towns and cities share this legacy within the migratory ranges of herring and their family—menhaden, shad, alewives, and all told more than two hundred of the world’s fish species? Civilization was built on herring bones. 

During the years of the heaviest fishing, the herring began to move from northern Iceland to the east, so that by 1965 the fishing communities in the east were thriving and Siglo was beginning to fade. It’s a herring thing to change migratory routes that have appeared stable for decades. Researchers are not clear about why the fish make these changes; it probably has to do with the movement of plankton, their primary food source. But overfishing was also to blame as technologies improved fishing in deeper waters. By 1969 the herring were gone from northern Iceland as well—but by the 1990s, given that mandatory reprieve from being fished, the stocks rebounded. The Norwegian-Icelandic herring stocks are currently the largest in the world, and are so far sustainable: even as technologies improve for fishing in deeper waters, the herring can go deeper. 

Many tropical fish species have already perceived climate change and are moving away from the equator at the rate of fifty kilometers per decade, heading toward more ideal conditions for their feeding and spawning. As temperatures and currents and prey species change, the herring change, too. They like cold water, so as water warms it is safe to assume they will favor the north. Common lore says the species has changed little since the time of the dinosaurs; better said, they have been wise about adapting to change. 

In Siglo a couple of pubs and an oversized resort hotel occupy the piers where once the barrels of salted fish were stacked like cord wood. There’s an Icelandic Folk Music Centre, the Seagull craft brewery, an artists’ residence, and the Herring House B-and-B. One pub has created a scrubbed patio staged with benches made from barrel end-plates, and stools made from barrels cut in half and topped with faux leather. The barrel heads boast in stenciled letters “Iceland Cut Herring, Siglufjordur”: two arcs of black letters around the top and bottom of the barrel head’s circumference, and wood varnished to glow in the gloom of a foggy afternoon. Only a handful of tourists meander about town, stopping in for beer and plotfiskur, traditional stew of haddock, potato and leek. The town had no road until 1940, so was accessible only by boat or horse trail. Now it has roads and an airport. 

The museum has a cheery front, but less shine inside. After all, it commemorates work, none of it easy. Five bright buildings, once part of the industry, have been decked out with multicolored sheet-metal siding and boardwalks to connect them. The boathouse harbors eleven boats: a thirty-eight-ton lapstrake oak fishing vessel, two purse seiners, a dory rigged with drift nets, a dinghy, another dory—all relics, set here in the grimy semi-dark, with the wheelhouse lights on the biggest ship shining like the eyes of history that cannot close. 

For decades “herring girls” came by the dozens for summer employment. The meal plant is a careful display of machinery, lab, machine shop. The behemoth industrial grinder is a reconstruction, since Siglo’s was long gone when this exhibit was built in 2003. Parts were painstakingly dismantled from other villages, brought here and reconstructed, yet the place feels as if the work stopped just yesterday. A heavy smell of metal shavings and oil permeates the wood, and everything that can’t be seen calls the mind back to those who are gone. Is this love, the obsession to feel lives one cannot know? The herring girls who have come for summer work are still sleeping upstairs in their bunk beds, in the hard sleep that comes after the ache of long labor. I don’t want to wake them, only to say I hear the softness of their breathing, the tidal soughing of their breath.

The great oak vessel grounded inside the boathouse—a carrier perhaps, from the look of her capacious hold and upswept bow with the wheelhouse well near the stern—has a double-ended dory tied at her side. The lines are graceful, with centuries of Viking knowledge in every plank and fastening. The building is dark, as winter days are when one is so close to the Arctic Circle. The museum lights are sparse, bright white—no red and green needed now for port and starboard. The ghost ship is not going anywhere.

In the times before the gods and monsters had all moved inside our heads, the times when they still lived in landscape and household, haunting was not uncommon. What is a ghost story? Something in us needs to feel that the material world can transmit communications from the spirit world, that we are meant to know our dead, even if they were monsters in life, even if they suffered and failed and died unloved. And if we fail to know them, they will rise up through the floor boards to haunt us until we set them free. In the old time, death demanded careful attention, given the peril of ghosts with malign intent. A hole must be cut in the wall of the house closest to where the corpse lies, and the body removed through the hole. If taken out through the front door, the ghost would remember how to enter, returning to haunt. Better to set the dead free though an exit that can be barred against reentry; better to return the dead to the homeless night, sip the burial ale, and spin stories by the fire with the living.

 

Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent works include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Stairway to Heaven: Poems (Penguin Poets, 2016). “Invasive Beauty” will be included in a forthcoming book, “Lament for the Makers,” supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Deming is a Regents’ Professor and holds the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.