Thursday, 1 June 2017

Abseiling cliffs in search of eggs, Grimsey, Iceland.


Great excitement! My landlady, Gagga, invited me to watch her husband and others, abseiling the East Cliffs in an egg collecting venture.  Being a Saturday, the men were not out fishing and being May, this is of course the time of year for egg laying - this year, due to the heat wave, laid rather earlier than usual.

This was a doubly exciting experience for me having recently spent 2-3 years researching and writing a poem sequence about the fate of the St Kildans, the  'bird people' who also abseiled cliffs (and climbed up sea stacks) to collect gannet and fulmar eggs, or in their case, also to capture fulmars to eat and milk their oil.  Sadly, the St Kildans could not sustain their way of life and asked to be evacuated by the British Government who agreed and they abandoned the island in 1930.

So I had imagined the bird collecting but never thought that I would see it in action.  I know that this is still practiced in the Faroes but hadn't realized it's still done on Grimsey.  But unlike the St Kildans, the Grimsey folk only take guillemot, not fulmar eggs (which I'm told are sweeter). 'We don't like to be spat on,' said Gagga. (Fulmars vomit a foul-smelling oil if in threat.) Besides, the fulmars only lay one egg a year and the islanders are conscious of  ecological concerns.  If the guillemot's egg is taken, they will lay another one two weeks later. The Grimsey people also take this one, but after that, they leave the third alone: not only so there will be a future generation but because they know that if a fledgling is born too late in the season, it will not grow strong enough to cope with the migration ahead.

Imagining the bird collecting is of course no substitute for the terror of the real thing.  Just peering over the edge of the 300 foot sheer cliffs - keeping well back because of the wind, and also the instability of the cliff tops, undermined by puffin burrows- was terrifying enough. A glimpse of white crests breaking on rocks and brilliant blue sea below, the tiers of black guillemots lined up on the cliff ledges was enough to give me vertigo.  Far worse for the man actually abseiling - relying on the rope, his harness, the men above and the strength of the tractor to take the strain. So some things have changed from the St Kildans' days - they had no tractors, nor helmet (to protect against dislodged rocks) nor walkie talkies - but even so, I don't think I would have the courage to do it.





The eggs are enormous - the size of my palm plus two finger joints. Round at their base and tapering at the top, perfectly shaped to prevent rolling off their cliff ledge and an exquisite turquoise blue with brown or black markings - apparently each unique so their parents recognize their own.





The next morning Gagga boiled me one for breakfast and stood over me so I had to eat it.  With great apprehension I sliced through the almost translucent white at the tip and contemplated the dark yolk inside, then forced a tea-spoonful down.  Surprisingly not bad!  Much stronger than a hen's egg, with a fishy taste - a bit like the texture and taste of the dark meat in a crab. The guillemots feed on sea-eels.  'Another one?' asked Gagga.  Er, no thanks - besides it was very filling.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Lady Gagga's Airport in her garden, Grimsey Island


'Not everyone has an airport and the Arctic Circle in their garden,' said Gagga, my landlady,  Grimsey's Lady Gaga, full name Ragnhildur Hjaltadottir, much prefers her nickname.
Lady Gagga
 She is also one of several women who own the Basar Guest House and take turns in running it, as well as coping with several other jobs - Gagga also works as ground crew at the airport when the tiny 16-seater plane arrives and takes off - only a few times a week in May, still the 'winter season' when I was there.

You can fly in, (30 mins) walk round the island in an hour or two and fly back to the mainland, or else take the ferry (3 hours), then return later in the day...which is what most tourists do. A bit of birdwatching, quick visit to the craft shop/cafe (which only opens when boat or plane arrive) and take a selfie at the signpost marking the Arctic Circle boundary line (or thereabouts. It's on the move.)

If you want to stay a few days, there's the possibility of a boat trip around the island, once the fishermen have returned to harbour, and weather dependent of course.  I was lucky enough to be taken round by one of the fishermen plus the delightful company of Halla, as commentator (also one of the guest house landladies.)
Halla
Basalt columns, a view of the guillemots and fulmars perched on ledges on the 300 foot  high east cliffs, impossible to see them from the sheer cliff tops.

My third landlady, Ummur, is also the cook at the only Restaurant/Pub, 'The Krian' (what else?) and I recommend her gourmet-standard cooking.  Interesting to see how the babies and children were welcome in The Krian - at least till 9pm - women rule in Iceland.   Saturday night the whole village seemed to be there - teenagers on mopeds revving up and down the one road. (So it's not always quiet!) The men arrived on quadbikes (only a few 100 yards drive from their homes.)



 It's clear from chatting how much the islanders love their island.  In fact, all my landladies were warm and friendly and I was completely spoilt. The Basar is remote, on the north end and involves the scary walk through the arctic terns but if you can't face that, there's another guest house in the village further south.  Or go after August when the terns and puffins have left.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Doing Nothing much on Grimsey Island, Arctic Circle, off the north coast of Iceland.

View of North Iceland from Grimsey Island: midnight.
There is nothing much to do on Grimsey, (unless you're a bird-watcher) but that's what I like.  A small island, easy to walk around, a few days  experiencing the place slowly: birds, views and silence.  Perfect for a writing retreat -time to write notes for poems sat wrapped up in several layers against the wind. Brilliant sunshine but still cold.  And an island, small and intimate enough to meet locals when tired of my own company.

The view is stunning:  ice-capped mountains of North Iceland across the sea to the south (snow to the south, and us in the north  green - a surprise, but Grimsey is warmed by the Gulf Stream. I watched the mountains' continual change of colours, due to weather and time of day. White shadowed by pale blue triangular shadows, or white with dark grey shadows, or pink in the setting sun (midnight) or hidden in fog.

 Silence, well I mean no people. Only the Kria, Kria of arctic terns (Icelandic name Krian, appropriately) and offshore  the eider ducks' 'Oh, Ah' like disapproving great-aunts at the mating antics of the terns. The puffins were silent, continually twitching their heads back and forth, with a puzzled expression. (I've heard them chuckle in their burrows in  Shetland but here they had only just arrived and had not started nesting.)

Then after days of nothing, the great, rather scary, excitement of being attacked by 5 arctic terns at once.  Think Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. Red open beaks, scythe-like wings bent at acute angle. But I knew, from Fair Isle, to raise my hand and wave it about - the terns will attack whatever is highest - a hand better than my head. Luckily for me they did not swoop. 'Ah, they must have started laying,' said my landlady when I told her, and she issued me with a plastic stick.  Usually the laying does not start till later in June but we'd had 3 days of brilliant sunshine, occasionally quite warm, comparatively. Global warming no doubt.



Monday, 16 January 2017

Northern Lights and Cloud Appreciation Society

Delighted my poem 'Da Mirrie Dancers' about the Northern Lights has been published on the Cloud Appreciation Society's website. See link below for fabulous photos. I'm really enjoying scrolling through all the beautiful photos from all over the world, plus the other cloud-inspired poems,  artwork and music.  The photos are updated daily.


“DA MIRRIE DANCERS” BY STEPHANIE GREEN

The skies rip open:
aurora borealis.
Fox-fire brushes the mountains.
I keep silent, in case light-storms
tangle in my hair.
Perhaps I’ll whistle, if I dare,
to bring them closer.
Green light rustles.
It’s the footsteps of the dead
from the world beyond the wind.
Unfolding, shimmering across the skies,
it fades to red.
My compass warped.
Note: Da Mirrie Dancers (The Merry Dancers) is the Shetlandic name for the Northern Lights.
‘Da Mirrie Dancers’ is in the author’s pamphlet Flout published by HappenStance, 2015.

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