The green steep hills of Iceland are, you would think, the last place you would come to an epiphany about meat. Certainly, that was the last place I expected it. Having been flown there by the Icelandic government, I was looking forward to breathing cold air, looking at mountains, and attending an annual event called the retir, which I understood as a kind of community sheep roundup. Icelandic lamb, which is some of the best in the world, is now being carried by Whole Foods, and I went over with a team of meat-men (and meat-women) from some of the east coast stores, and we all were more accustomed to seeing lamb in rose-colored cold parts in bright refrigerator cases.
Sheep, you may be surprised to learn, are the primary food and, possibly, inhabitants of Iceland. I saw a lot more sheep than I did people; but then it was my good fortune to spend a lot of time in vast and pristine vistas, far from another human being. The country has an almost unearthly beauty, and as someone who lives in a squalid New York neighborhood, the presence of so much as a tree affects me as a spectacle akin to the northern lights – which I also saw in Iceland. The primary point of my visit was to look at lambs though, and I saw them everywhere; they stand around sleepily on steep hills, and their dense, sometimes dreadlocked wool is frequently the only trace of white in otherwise green mountains.
As such, the ovine inhabitants of Iceland seem merely scenery to me. Sheep are among the least anthromoporhic of animals, with their expressionless faces, hourglass shaped pupils, and general indifference to the present of humans. I spent some time in an immmaculate slaughterhouse, and like many of the most progressive such places in the world, knocks out the animals, one by one, with a painless electric surprise before dispatching them. The minimal, but inevitable, gore had little effect on me. The dangling carcasses, their heads removed, already looked like the carcasses I had seen turning so appetizingly on spits – especially once their fleece was removed.
What I hadn’t reckoned with, though, was how weirdly and unexpectedly moved I would be by the roundup. This yearly event is at the heart of Iceland’s rural communities, who come together once a year to bring all the sheep in the mountains to one vast pen, where they are sorted out by whole families into separate pens. To see so many people, many of whom live in extremely isolated areas, all come together with their animals, gave me a pang of envy and more than a little pleasure; I took a vicarious warmth from seeing how everybody worked together. Just look at them!
The sheep even seemed to be having a good time. Look at them leap.
As visitors we were invited to jump in and wrangle the sheep, grabbing them forcefully by the horns, straddling their woolly midriffs, and pulling them into their family pens. It was no more violent, really, than pulling a recalcitrant dog while on a walk; it’s just that the sheep are bigger than dogs. And they baa. Still, I found myself in a fit of exaggerated empathy; for some reason their bleating reasonated with something in me and I started to sob. I don’t know what happened. I retreated, jumped over the pen wall, and made my way hastily through the mud back to the bus, where I sat in the back seat, slowly hyperventilating. If the people of Meatopia could see me now! I thought.
I had been there only a few minutes when Baldvin Jonsonn, the nation’s agricultural ambassador and our guide on this trip, came in to see why I was sitting on the back of an empty bus. Baldvin is a deeply kindly man, and clearly didn’t think I was a pussy for my reaction; but he urged me to go back out there. “There is nothing like this in the world,” he said, and he was right. I got even more emotional as I attempted, implausibly, to reassure him that I was fine.
Still, I was fine, eventually. I overcame my strange fit of projected suffering and joined everybody else in wrangling the lambs. In truth, they really didn’t seem to mind a little wrestling. I joined in with the Whole Foods guys and even came to feel some of the fellowship with them that the Icelanders so obviously felt at their rettir. Does this make me a worse man, or a better one? I don’t know. We’re all herd animals at the end of the day. I will say that as a carnivore, and in particular as a man whose favorite meat is lamb fat, I feel somehow better about eating lamb, Icelandic and otherwise, after having been so close to the animals and their keepers. If only all our animals lived like this, the world (and our butcher cases) would be a better place.