Although it came out in February I’ve only just now seen the documentary Together in Isolation: The lockdown of the Faroe Islands by polish filmmaker Kuba Witek. This half-hour film draws upon diverse interviews with politicians, artists, musicians, doctors, and clergy to tell the story of how the Faroe Islands dealt with the threat of COVID-19 and the unique challenges of lockdown within an isolated island nation.
The film 1700 Meters from the Future, by Ulla Rasmussen, is a feature length documentary from 1990 set in the village of Gásadalur in the Faroe Islands. Tucked into a remote valley in the northwest corner of Vágar island, Gásadalur is surrounded by steep fells on three sides and a treacherous ocean cliff on the fourth. For centuries, the population of the village held steady at 60 people, but by the time of the film it had declined to only 16 adults and a 9-year-old boy. The title refers to the plan to build a tunnel through the Knúkarnir mountain, connecting Gásadalur to the village of Bøur. Interviews with townspeople, all of them multi-generational residents, convey their hopes for this connection to the outside world, while highlighting concerns about change, long-standing economic struggles, and challenges caused by Faroese land use policies.
No animal is more synonymous with the Faroe Islands than sheep. The name Føroyar comes from an old Norse translation that literally means “sheep islands,” so they’ve probably always outnumbered humans. It certainly seems like they own the place, roaming the archipelago with abandon, their fleece often allowed to grow long and wild. Sheep have always been a vital part of the Faroese culture: their wool a source of warmth, their fermented meat a staple of Faroese cuisine.
As a collector of Faroese stamps, I look forward to receiving the Posta Stamps magazine. It always teaches me something new about the Faroe Islands, and the latest issue has introduced me to the American-Faroese artist Joel Cole. One of the first stamp releases in 2021 showcases his work, a six-stamp minisheet featuring sculptures that explore the immigrant experience. On his Instagram account Cole notes that these selected pieces are just a subset of some 80 pieces he created for this series addressing “ideas surrounding human immigration and integration.”
Stuck at home during the global pandemic, one of the things I miss the most is live music. It’s always been an important part of my life, and while I love my favorite venues, I always jump at the opportunity to hear live music in unconventional places. Living room concerts, street festivals, in-store performances, warehouses, boats, coal mines. Today I added a new experience to my live music wishlist: the Concerto Grotto, a series of sea cave concerts in the Faroe Islands.
You could say that Tim Severin is a historical re-enactor, but that would conjure all the wrong images, of renaissance fairs and Colonial Williamsburg. At nearly 80 years old, his accomplishments are better described as experiential archaeology, recreating legendary journeys to prove they could have happened. His historical adventures are based on years of upfront study, working with scholars to decipher ancient texts and find period-appropriate technology and materials. I only recently learned about Severin’s work, through his 1978 book that documents a fascinating early project called The Brendan Voyage.
I didn’t go outside much during the last two weeks, and I’m guessing that neither did you. COVID-19 is ravaging the world, and we’re only just beginning the strange solidarity of fighting it together, by staying apart. In the best of times modern life can be racked with anxiety, so in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and accompanying economic collapse, how do we stay sane?. We need a Happy Place: somewhere that makes us feel calmer just by thinking about it. That place for me is the Faroe Islands, and while the country is asking people to avoid visiting right now, I found the next best thing by staying inside and devouring The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott.
I could fly to the Faroe Islands right now. It would take a few connections from Pittsburgh, but soon I’d be looking out the window of an Atlantic Airways flight and trying to name the islands, if I could make them out through the fog. But that accessibility is a modern phenomena, and for most of its history the tiny archipelago was a distant place, a significant sea journey from anywhere. Isolation required self sufficiency, which led to a unique food culture, distinct even from its Scandinavian neighbors. Fermented lamb, boiled pilot whale, braised guillemot, puffin stuffed with cake. These dishes bear the imprint of the landscape itself. Faroese food is the creative output of natural constraints, defined by both what was missing (fertile soil, salt) and what was plentiful (steep bird cliffs, grassy mountains, deep ocean inlets).
The shoreline of the Faroe Islands is almost entirely composed of steep and dangerous cliffs. For most of us, these dramatic rock faces are something to take in at a distance, but traditionally they’ve been active sites of hunting and foraging. Fowlers climb up and down, using massive ropes to reach fulmar and puffin nests. Although no longer a necessary food source, collecting eggs and netting birds on these cliffs is an important part of Faroese heritage. A couple of years ago, the clothing brand North Face sponsored a trio of professional climbers on a trip to Cape Enniberg, one of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The resulting movie contains beautiful scenes of the Faroe Islands and touches on some of the traditional climbing practices.
This blog comes from a fascination I have with people and places of the North: isolated islands, extreme landscapes, remote villages, and people that have found a way to live and even thrive in those environments. I find inspiration in travel, but also in the stories that other people document and share about these places. I recently discovered a book that could not be more perfectly aligned with these interests: Faces of the North by Ragnar Axelsson. Through stunning black and white photographs, and richly concise essays, this book documents the lives of people in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.