Somewhere in the planning of a trip to write about Iceland's spas, I got to looking at maps. My eye tends to travel to the margins of most maps, and it wandered out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where a dim set of specks floats forlornly between Iceland and Scotland--the Faeroe Islands.
I asked my husband, Joel, about the Faeroes. "That's where they still drive whales," he said.
Joel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and head of the environmental organization's Marine Mammal Protection Project. What he remembered most about those beautiful islands and their fishing culture were the bloody bays that eco-warrior Paul Watson made famous in the 1980s. Watson later called the whale hunt "the largest and cruelest sport hunt in the world." Health cures and beauty treatments, cloudberries, hot springs and the charms of Reykjavik--it all suddenly seemed less interesting and less important.
Where we live, on the west side of Los Angeles, no one eats whale meat. Many people don't even eat cheese. Most people I know go to an acupuncturist as well as an allopathic doctor. The food they eat is mostly organic. What little meat you find in the bright, wide-aisled markets is tucked away or wrapped up tight and labeled "Free-Range!" and "No Hormones!" I know a few people who pay a lot of money for oxygen vials and various detoxifying regimes that are supposed to rid your body of the merest memory of meat.
People who don't eat meat are usually not fond of hunters and hunting. They don't see any reason for it when you can just go to the supermarket and buy tofu and lentils and generally get your proteins in other ways. They don't like the smell of meat, they don't like the bloody, fatty mess of it. But lately I had been sensing not just distaste, but disapproval from progressive friends for aspects of other cultures they find distasteful--breast-feeding babies for three years, for example, or arranged marriages. Cultural imperialism is one of those mistakes that can make the idealistic left look a whole lot like the ideological right. And we Americans, particularly the wealthier ones, have gotten awfully good at it.
"I'm going to the Faeroe Islands to see a whale hunt and eat some blubber," I told my perplexed husband.
The Faeroes are one of the rare places, it turns out, where people still eat whale blubber and meat, which represents 30% of all meat produced in the Faeroes. This meat is not traded commercially. The islanders need every whale they can get, because aside from mutton and the potatoes and a few carrots available during the serious Faeroese winter, there isn't a lot of sustenance about. Sometimes I wonder if hunters and their sympathizers are a different species from the rapidly evolving homo cleanliness. I envy their closeness to nature and animals. I envy their skill at reading the weather and the stars and tracks. But by the definition of most animal-rights activists, killing animals is barbaric and unnecessary. I wanted to know if it's possible to be both an environmentalist and a hunter.
These 18 mountainous islands were first settled by Vikings who came from Norway and the British Isles 1,100 years ago. Faeroese is a west Nordic language most closely related to Icelandic. Through the Middle Ages the islands were under Norwegian rule and then, in 1380, fell under Danish rule when Denmark took over Norway. By 1856, under a Danish constitution, the islands took their first steps toward economic independence. In 1948, the Faeroese were granted home rule.
In the past five years (although it is not the first time the issue has come up) the pace of the march toward independence has picked up. When this happens, they will join the other 192 sovereign states in the world, only 43 of which are micro-states--countries with populations fewer than a million. Among those, about a dozen are island nations with populations fewer than 100,000. The Faeroe Islands are home to 46,000.
Leirvik, the village of 850 where Olavur Sjurdarberg lives with his wife, Borghild, is about an hour and a half from the capital of the Faeroes, Torshavn. To get there, you follow signs to Kollafjordur, and then to Oyrabakki. Streams from the fjords run down on all sides of the road. Around stop signs, sheep and goats gather like rabble-rousers.