School children in Heimaey. The island has about 4500 inhabitants.

The news of a volcanic eruption in Iceland and the lingering aftermath has had me thinking of our visit a few years ago to Heimaey, one of the Westman Island group off the southern coast of Iceland — the only one that is inhabited.

We took the ferry out to Heimaey, a trip of about four nautical miles, spent the night in a very nice little hotel, and then wandered all over the island and took a cruise around its outskirts.

The centerpiece of Heimaey is Eldfell, a volcano that erupted in January 1973, an event that continued until the following July. Besides the initial output of volcanic ash — an estimated 1.6 million cubic feet were blown onto the town — there was substantial flow of lava that threatened to close the island’s harbor.

A cluster of typical Icelandic buildings on Heimaey with Eldfell in the distance.

Overnight the whole population of Heimaey was evacuated, largely thanks to the fleet of fishing boats that was in the harbor at that time of year. If the lava had continued to flow unabated, it would have closed the narrow channel into the harbor which would have been disastrous to the fishing industry that supports the island’s economy. However, the islanders prevented that by pumping sea water onto the lava, redirecting the flow of the molten rock and causing much of it to solidify.

There was enormous damage to the town. Also, because of the lava flow, the length of the island grew from about 6 miles to about 8 miles. Ultimately, the residents returned and the town was restored. Video of the 1973 eruption is a THIS LINK.

A mural on an exterior wall of a building in Heimaey depicts the principal occupations of the residents.

Besides learning about the Eldfell event, I was preoccupied in Heimaey with the mindset of the people who live there. It’s human nature for a person to think of himself as standing at the center of all that is — even if intellectually he knows otherwise — and it’s a part of that conceit to wonder how anyone living on a tiny island in the North Atlantic could entertain such an idea. The people we met appeared content and cheerful, which seems counterintuitive to someone whose whole life has been spent in the New York-Philadelphia megapolis. I suggested to my companions that it would be an interesting experiment to relocate to Heimaey for, say, six months to see how it would affect one’s world view. They didn’t share my curiosity.

A panorama of Heimaey, the largest island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, first settled in the ninth century AD.

P1000051One thing a traveler can’t help noticing in Iceland is the sheep. They are everywhere.

When Chris and I first visited there, we were fascinated, amused, and sometimes frustrated by this phenomenon. Except within the confines of cities and towns, we encountered sheep everywhere we went, usually in groups of two or three, as in the clotch at the left which I photographed last year, on our second visit.

When I say the sheep were everywhere, I mean everywhere. We often were driving in areas where there were no structures much less human beings within eyeshot, but there were sheep. We drove over an area covered with lava — black as far as the eye could see — but there were sheep.

Often the sheep would be standing in the middle of the road. They have an attitude, these sheep. As you approach them in your car, they pretend — by mutual consent — that they don’t notice you. If you sound the horn, they look your way as though to say, “Oh. I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” Even then — as though to demonstrate who belongs in this countryside and who does not — they hesitate before moving off the pavement. This provides you with small satisfaction because in two or three miles your path will be blocked again. By sheep.

We noticed that these sheep were marked, so it seemed to us strange that they were wandering, literally, all over the country. So we did what any wise traveler does: We asked a waitress, “What’s up with the sheep?”

She explained that the sheep are driven off Icelandic farms in the spring so that they don’t graze in pastures meant for growing and harvesting hay. In September — right now, as a matter of fact — much of the population gets on horseback and rounds up these sheep which, by now, are — well — everywhere. This is done in several waves, and the sheep are identified and either returned to their farms or sent to a slaughterhouse. It’s a case, for the sheep, of who shall live and who shall die.

In the largest roundup, which occurs at Audkúlurétt in the northwest, between 12,000 and 15,000 sheep are corralled.

What’s Icelandic for “Yippie Yi Yo Kiyay”?



Puffin at the westernmost point in EuropeI photographed this puffin two years ago at Latrabjarg, Iceland, which is the westernmost point in Europe. Puffins, as the photo makes clear, are cute. Too cute to live, apparently, because the Icelandic people eat them. The puffin population isn’t in any danger due to this, because the taking of puffins is controlled, and there are plenty of them.

We were talking at a dinner party the other night about the odd contradictions in the way many of us respond to food. I was a good example. I won’t eat rabbit, for instance, for which there is no rational explanation. I would eat game birds that I have not ever tasted – say, pheasant – but I wouldn’t eat a pigeon. Well, for me, puffins fall into that category.

So it didn’t set well with me to read that a visual artist named Curver Thoroddsen has opened a pizza restaurant in a lighthouse near the cliff where I took this picture, and that one of the most popular items on the menu is puffin pizza. Thoroddsen said he was inspired to open the restaurant – which he pointed out is as close as one can get to the United States and still be in Europe – while he was doing graduate work in New York, where there is a pizza joint on every block. I wonder if, while he was in the city, he took advantage of the abundant supply of pigeons.