(pictured) THE ÁSAHEIMUR TEMPLE: Capturing some of the atmosphere of a Viking age.
First he showed me the sheep, because that barn was the closest. There were about twenty of them and they stared at me with wide, intrigued eyes. When Árni reached his hand over the gate they all feinted towards it. He rubbed the face of the ram, who had no horns but was the biggest of the group.
“He’s a friendly guy,” Árni said. “But in spring he has other things on his mind.”
We hopped into his jeep and he hit the gas as we burst through the snow, the jeep rocking back and forth as he pushed through the ruts left from last time. He stopped outside the horse pasture. His fingers touched the glass of the windshield as he pointed out which ones he rode and which were just for meat.
I pointed to a foundation built out of stones and turf. It was oblong and the size of a small room. “What’s that going to be,” I asked, even though I knew the answer. “A temple,” he said.
Árni Sverrison looked the same as he was described to me: stocky, solid. He had a red beard and matching long hair kept in a pony tail. His arms were covered in tattoos and others seem to creep out of his collar. We dressed for the milking, which on his farm Efri-Ás, was waterproof pants, an overcoat, a plastic apron that went past the knees, and a head sleeve meant to keep the manure out of the hair.
The head sleeves were either orange or red, patterned like the bandanas worn by bikers in America, but went down the shoulders.
I had never seen them before. They made milking look a lot more rock n’ roll.
He opened the gates of the parlor and began to move among his cows. He didn’t have a separate area for those that didn’t milk, but they knew who they were and sorted themselves out by going to the back wall and standing. Árni patted the necks of the cows he passed and said, “Nice cow, nice cow,” looking at them admiringly as if something he made with his own hands.
There were about sixty head and he knew all of their names, because if he didn’t, he said, it would be like the factory farming in other countries.
Most farmers respect their cows, but Árni moved among his cattle differently. He stroked their toplines and talked to them. He allowed them to rub their heads along his side. The big man loved his cows.
I waited a few days before I asked about the temple. I didn’t want them to think that was why I was there. Árni and I were still at the dinner table, after the meal. He made pancakes and we ate them with the leftover lamb from lunch. When I mentioned it his eyes dropped. He said it was a temple to Odin. Odin is one of the major gods his family believed in. He searched for the English name of his religion. I knew it was Norse Mythology, but since a myth is something already disproven I didn’t know if the term was offensive.
When I asked him about the principles behind paganism he spoke very carefully, as if trying to gauge my reaction first.
He started by saying that they didn’t try to convince anyone else of their beliefs, and that it was about respecting each other, as well as animals and the earth. He hesitated and then said they believed in many gods.
Heiðbjört, his wife, broke in from the other room. “We don’t do human sacrifices.” I asked him what will be inside the temple, and he said there will be fire in the middle. If the building of the one in Reykjavík keeps getting delayed it could be the first temple to Odin in Iceland for at least a couple of centuries.
He didn’t get a permit for the building from the town council, however, and if they inquire about it he was going to call it a cold storage for potatoes.
I asked about the afterlife. He said that warriors go to Valhalla, and since they were Icelandic and Vikings, they were warriors. He apologized that it was hard for him to describe things in English, but before he could finish his sentence Heiðbjört walked in with a printed Wikipedia article on Norse Mythology. Árni said that in Valhalla you drink and fight and if you die you wake up the next day to drink and fight again. There was a History Channel series that mostly got things right. “But we don’t do human sacrifice,” Heiðbjört shouted from the other room.
Sometimes I get frustrated with how often farmers fulfill their archetype. I see a farmer in a movie wearing flannel, jeans, and the hat from a seed company and it bothers me that the audience immediately knows he’s a farmer. It trumps the fact that the acts of farming he is doing on the screen are nearly always erroneous and inaccurate. When I went to the Spring Sale last year and saw farmers looking at the cattle with their hands tucked in their Levis, rocking on their Wolverines and nodding their heads—a part of me was disappointed.
I wanted to meet someone different, someone who would surprise me. I would have loved it if there was a farmer who was a champion swing dancer. I longed to meet a farmer addicted to video games. I wanted a farmer that I had known all my life, who milks cows and bales hay like the rest of us, to suddenly admit that his secret interest in women’s fashion has escalated over the years to him wearing dresses after dinner, and from now on he’s going to be wearing them to cattle shows too.
Agriculture, even in a modern context, is both a universal and very specific lifestyle. I don’t know any farmers that don’t spend part of every day in ‘wellies’ or have hands that haven’t been scarred and weathered. Sometimes the evidence suggests that it is so specific as to be restraining—that Agriculture with a capital “A” may not allow for an intersection with other interests of humanity. Here’s the beginning of a list of couplings that I’ve never seen:
Farming and Magic
Farming and Heavy Metal
Farming and Philosophy
It can feel like farming doesn’t allow for the “and.” If you mention art and agriculture in the U.S. the responses may be narrowed to mentioning Bonnie Mohr, who paints pictures of cattle. I worry that there is something about the act of milking and feeding cows everyday that doesn’t allow for a duality with culture or personality.
When Árni and Heiðbjört asked why I had chosen to stay with them I didn’t tell the truth. I used the word random. I had heard about the temple, but the temple wasn’t the reason I wanted to come. It was because I wanted to meet farmers that were different. I wanted to meet someone that could prove that agriculture could be a wide enough canvas to include autonomy and individuality: that someone could break the mold.
I needed someone to show me that although there are certain things we all do that make us who we are, we can also be something else as well. Not only was it an interesting experience to meet someone who believed strongly in something that wasn’t mainstream, but a much-needed blow to personal cynicism that not all farmers are cut from the same flannel cloth.