Read an extract from Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects
Eiderdown, vicuña wool, sea silk, vegetable ivory, civet coffee, guano and edible birds’ nests. Seven natural wonders of the world, some you may have heard of, others more exotic. All come with a fascinating story as to how these rare products are gathered, which you can read in Strange Harvests, now published in paperback. A beguiling blend of interview, history and travel writing, Edward Posnett’s first book is a real joy, and here you can read an extract from the first chapter on the collection of eiderdown.
In myths, fables and hagiographies, one often reads of the ability of individuals to tame wild creatures, burnishing their reputation for virtue, sensitivity or holiness. It is said that Saint Cuthbert, the seventh- century missionary who settled on the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast, protected and tamed eiders. (Today in Northumberland the eider is sometimes called Saint Cuthbert’s or Cuddy duck.) Many of these stories were built upon embellishment or pure fantasy, but in Iceland, travellers’ accounts repeatedly confirmed the existence of this strange relationship between Icelanders and the ducks. Writing in 1875, the English explorer Richard Burton commented that the eider was a ‘barn door’ bird as ‘tame as horse- pond geese’. ‘No salute must be fired at Reykjavik,’ he wrote, ‘for fear of frightening “somateria mollissima.” ’
I began reading all I could about eiderdown, scouring books and articles, devouring obscure travellers’ accounts and biological papers, contacting eiderdown harvesters. I wanted to know how this relationship worked, how it was possible for a wild bird to behave as if it were domesticated. How did this strange tradition come about? How was it that the relationship had been preserved despite the arrival of the market? Could you simply transfer the Icelandic tradition to another coast? Could eiderdown harvesting teach us about our relationship with other species? If earlier writers had looked to Icelandic harvesting with a sense of sublime wonder, then I sought it with a frenzied gaze, looking for answers.
Back in Ísafjörður, the pastor told me about a Japanese film crew who had made a documentary about him. For several weeks they followed him around his farm, recording him collecting down with his children, while sidestepping nesting eiders. He appeared bemused by their attention, just as he was by mine. After all, he said, the down was only some brauð, a slice of his daily bread.
The pastor’s parish lay a short drive from Ísafjörður in another fjord, Önundarfjörður. It was once reached via a winding mountain road, but since 1996 the two fjords have been connected by a vast tunnel that bores directly through the hillside. One morning I emerged from its confines, blinded by the subarctic light, and headed to the pastor’s church to take a tour of his nesting area.
Like many Lutheran parishes, the pastor’s land is among the most prized in the Westfjords. In the shadow of a steep glacial wall, his family home and church overlook a floodplain that leads to the shoreline. After ten minutes in the tunnel’s darkness, I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the colours in the fjord. In the subarctic light the tones seemed almost hyper-real, the blues of the sky and sea merging to form a single aquamarine. Against the white of the fjord’s beach, the pink of a buoy stood out, dabbed as if it were an afterthought.
It was hard to conceive of a more peaceful spot for a family, yet there was an air of abandonment to the pastor’s home. Children’s toys lay scattered around on the floor, a layer of dust covered the work surfaces, and his books on wartime heroes and mountaineers lay untouched on a shelf. The previous winter, he explained, the weather had got so bad that he and his family had to leave the parish and take an apartment in Ísafjörður. He now rarely spends any time in the house. ‘We were trapped here for thirty- six hours with no electricity, no phone,’ he said. ‘I can’t be responsible for that.’
As if to prove a point, he showed me the damage wreaked by the blizzards: a mangled fence, the scoured surface of a barn, and the bent cross on top of the church, more weather vane than symbol of devotion. In the distance I could make out Flateyri, the fishing town at the mouth of the fjord that was partly destroyed by the 1995 avalanche. Behind it loomed a vast avalanche barrier, a constant reminder of the perils of living in these remote fjords.
I was late for the eiderdown season, but the pastor offered to lead me around the land and re-enact his summer ritual as he had done for the Japanese film crew. Dressed in an old Polish military uniform, he headed off across the flat plain towards the beach, hunting for any nests that he had missed. It was a still day, the silence broken only by the call of an oystercatcher, alarmed by our presence.
Walking on this flat land, I felt as if I’d missed out on a great gathering. All around us were hundreds of small piles of crushed mussel shells, the remnants of the eiders’ feasting, ground up by their powerful gizzards. Quartz-like, these remains had an understated beauty, glinting in the light. ‘In the later part, everything is going crazy,’ the pastor said. ‘Birds and chicks running around. Arctic terns attacking all the time. It’s good to have a broomstick.’
Edward Posnett was born in London and studied at Cambridge and Oxford before working in the City in financial investigations. Shortly after leaving financial services, he learnt about the Icelandic tradition of eiderdown harvesting in which farmers offer protection to wild sea ducks in return for their valuable lightweight down. He lives in Philadelphia and is a keen linguist, swimmer and amateur potter. Strange Harvests is his first book.