The Icelandic model
Meet Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir, the sheep farmer and the Icelandic model who is fighting for her beautiful and remote corner of southern Iceland.
At the end of the road
The long, bumpy dirt and gravel road off Iceland’s main highway, an hour or so east of the seafront village of Vík, seems to lead nowhere. Past the tiny Grafakirkja church, little farmhouses thin out into nothing but a green glacial landscape, riven with streams and flanked by the mountains of Iceland’s Southern Highlands.
But at the end of the road, in a simple bungalow, lives Iceland’s most celebrated sheep farmer. Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir, now 40, is a former fashion model and local policewoman, who took over the family farm at Ljótarstaðir when she was 23, when her late father
A reluctant heroine
“When Steinunn called me and asked, has anyone ever written a book about you? I said, ‘Er, no’,” Ásgeirsdóttir recalled. “The idea was way out of my comfort zone, but I wanted to draw attention to the fight I was in for my home – and also to the life of a sheep farmer. I didn’t realise, though, that so much of it would be about me.”
When the book was published in 2016, Ásgeirsdóttir was terrified. “I remember going to the publishing party and thinking I’d have a heart attack. There were all these people there for a book that was all about me. All I wanted to do was disappear, to be back on the farm with my sheep.”
But the response to the book has been hugely positive. “The other day, I opened my postbox and there was a bottle of Cognac with a message, saying ‘With love, your readers’. That’s happened a few times, and more and more people stop to talk about it. I’m getting used to it.”
And, for now, the plans for the hydroelectric plant are off. “But I don’t dare to say we’ve won,” Ásgeirsdóttir said. “I still want to fight for this beautiful place.”
Blessed be the countryside’
The sign in the kitchen represents Ásgeirsdóttir’s view of the land where she grew up. “You can’t be a farmer if you don’t respect and love the land,” she said. “This place is everything to me. It’s my home and my life.”
The river that runs through her farm, which would have been affected by the power plant, has a particular place in her heart. “It’s my happy place, where I used to go as a child to play with cars or dolls or whatever. We’d always end up down there, and we’d swim on warm days.”
Where the elves live
“I know every little rock, every little contour of the land around here,” Ásgeirsdóttir said. “Growing up, there were stories about so much of it – like how the elves once saved a child from drowning in the river.”
According to local folklore, there are no ghosts in the hills around Ljótarstaðir farm – only the elves, who are widely regarded as a benign force. “The elves in our mythology are a force for good,” Ásgeirsdóttir said. “They’re not scary – they keep us safe.”
The life of a sheep farmer
Managing the farm is an intense, year-round commitment – even in the summer, when the sheep are up in the hills. “That’s when we fix things, maintain the farm and make hay for the sheep in the winter,” Ásgeirsdóttir said.
In the autumn, the sheep come home and the lambs go to the slaughter; in winter, Ásgeirsdóttir works to keep the animals safe and well fed, and scans them for foetuses; and, in the spring, she shears the sheep. “It can be a hard, physical job.” she said. “Just today I was driving a 20-tonne digger, lifting hay bales and fixing fences.”
In February 2017, she caused quite a stir at the world sheep-shearing competition in New Zealand, as the only woman in the machine-shearing division. “It was an amazing experience, but I didn’t do that well,” she said, bashfully.
Like many women in Iceland – a country known for its gender equality, which this year became the first to legally enshrine equal pay for men and women – Ásgeirsdóttir is a committed feminist. “I struggled when I was a model,” she said. “I’d been this tall, skinny, strange-looking kid, and women kept telling me I could be a model. I did it for a while, and went to New York for a modelling competition – but standing there just looking pretty felt stupid to me. I wanted to let my work talk.”
“I want to tell women they can do anything, and to show that sheep farming isn’t just a man’s game. I guess I’ve always been a feminist. When I was growing up, there was a female president, and I used to wear the same clothes and play with the same toys as the boys. It was just normal to me.”
An up-close look
Ásgeirsdóttir has started doing hiking tours around the farm in the summer, with shorter tours of two to three hours and longer tours for five or six hours.
“It’s quite irregular, because I can only do it between commitments on the farm,” she admitted. “But I love to show people this part of the world. People on the tours generally ask about life on the farm: what I do, what it’s like, how I keep myself entertained. It’s a tough life in many ways, but the truth is that I’m on Facebook like everyone else – the internet has shrunk the world.”
To the Highlands
The area around the Ljótarstaðir, like much of Iceland, is spectacular. If you go back to the fork in the road from the farm and head north on the bumpy track for a few hours (if the road is open), you get to the Southern Highlands, a raw and untouched part of the country whose spectacular peaks were formed by the collision between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
Highlights include Landmannalaugur, where a geothermal hot spring and campsite is surrounded by vividly coloured rhyolite mountains; and the Fimmvörðuháls mountain ridge, where people can hike beneath the Eyjafjallajökull volcano to the steaming craters that were formed by its epic eruption in 2010.
“My dream is to have all the Highlands as a protected national park,” Ásgeirsdóttir said. “Even many Icelanders don’t realise just how beautiful it all is.”
To the ocean
South of Ljótarstaðir, the circular road around Iceland leads west to Vík, which is known for its pretty little church and the Reynisfjara black sand beach, whose black lava sand and spectacular basalt rock formations and stacks are said to have frightened trolls.
Around a 20-minute drive west of Vík lies Solheimasandur, a black beach famous for the abandoned US Navy plane that crash-landed here in 1973 – and which Ásgeirsdóttir is somewhat bemused by. “It was just there for all these years and no one really paid much attention,” she said. “But then people started photographing it, and it became this hotspot for tourists.”
Still, few can argue with some of the natural sights on the same road – like the booming Skógafoss waterfall, a huge sheet of water that crashes 60m, creating so much spray that you can see a rainbow on sunny days.
A simple life
But back on the farm, things are quiet. “It’s just me, my mother and the sheep,” Ásgeirsdóttir said. “My two sisters never wanted to do this, so it’s up to me to keep the farm going.”
“It’s a simple life, and it can be hard. But look at what I’m surrounded by. I’m lucky.”