What the Humble Blade of Grass Can Tell Us about Environmental Change, Farming and Human Ecodynamics in Iceland

A landscape scene from the Myvatn area. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie Grass probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the foundations of Icelandic culture and society. But the humble blade of grass has played an incredibly important role in Iceland since the early days of settlement.

For centuries, the fate of the grass and hay crop was literally tied to the lives of farmers and their families who raised and depended on livestock. Historically, changes in weather and climate could mean prosperity or famine and despair. Today, the outcomes of the grass and hay crop aren’t quite as vital to life in the island nation as they used to be. However, there’s a lot to be learned from how environmental and climate changes impacted the hay crop and Icelandic communities in years past.

Astrid Ogilvie, research fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and senior scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, Iceland, is leading a multidisciplinary team to investigate the long-term sustainability of rural farming in Myvatn. Myvatn is a region in northeastern Iceland with a rich farming history. Their research is focused primarily on the time period between 1700 and the mid-1900s.

Team members (from left to right) Astrid Ogilvie, Viðar Hreinsson, Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir and Árni Daníel Júlíusson conferring on the project in Reykjavik. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

In addition to Ogilvie, who is a climate historian and human ecologist, the project team members include: Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir, ecosystem ecologist and geologist who grew up on a Myvarn farm; Arni Daniel Juliusson, environmental and agricultural historian; Vidar Hreinsson, literary scholar; and Megan Hicks, zooarchaeologist.

The National Science Foundation-funded pilot project, titled Investigations of the Long Term Sustainability of Human Ecodynamic Systems in Northern Iceland, is well underway.  Ogilvie talked to Field Notes about this collaborative effort that has participants doing everything from unearthing archaeological artifacts to studying Iceland’s songs and poetry.

Field Notes (FN): What do you hope to learn about the sustainability of rural farming in Myvatn?

Astrid Ogilvie (AO): We have one overarching research question—we are looking at the varying factors that influenced the success of the hay crop, grazing, and the sustainability of these resources.

The reason why we are so interested in hay and grass is that grass was really the only crop in Iceland in the past. The crux of the matter was that there had to be enough grass or hay to feed the livestock over the winter. Many, many times there were famines and farmers didn’t have enough hay. That meant that the livestock could die and, in consequence, so could people. So, grass and hay were really serious issues.

By looking at this one specific aspect of the economy, we also hope to gain a broad understanding of ways in which societies constantly change, adapt and develop, and also maintain and renew their cultural memories with regard to the environment.

FN: Are there any other things you are hoping to learn along the way?

AO: We do have several other goals associated with this project and we’re hoping to have quite a few results. I’m particularly interested in producing very detailed analyses of the effects of weather, climate, and the presence of sea ice on the grass and hay yield. The presence of sea ice means lower temperatures, which impact grass growth.

We’re also looking at the historical developments of different systems of land management and the success or failure of strategies associated with these. To do this, we’re looking at farms in the region and why some failed and others didn’t, as well as changes in livestock management systems.

The project also considers human perceptions of agricultural and environmental change as reflected in poetry and other forms of literature in the overall context of folklore and cultural memory. You’d be surprised how many poems and songs were written about grass!

FN: Tell us a little about the agricultural history of the region. Do people still actively farm the land in Myvatn today?

AO: Myvatn’s history is very interesting, as it was one of the first areas in Iceland to be settled beginning in the late 800s AD. Unlike other areas, it’s been farmed continuously.

Location Map of the Myvatn area

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the rich natural resources of the area, and the region is unique in the way that it has practiced sustainable natural extraction for its most vital resources for an extended period of time. People are still actively farming the land, although tourism is rapidly increasing as an additional form of livelihood.

I also have to mention the unique ecology of the region! Myvatn is a wetland region that was designated a protected area in 1974, and in 1978 placed on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance. The name "Myvatn" literally means "Midge Lake" and refers to the large number of midges in the area. The midge population is of vital importance for the local ecosystem, providing food for the migratory and native water birds that flock to the area, as well as for the fish in the lake.

FN: What types of data are you and your team collecting?

AO: The major emphasis of the project is on documentary historical data. These come from all sorts of different written accounts that give very detailed information about the progression of change over the project time period. We have this information because Icelanders kept unusually good and detailed records from early settlement times onwards.

A document in the local archive at Husavik, not far from the Myvatn area, that shows information and meteorological observations for the very cold year of 1880. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

In regards to the documentary records, I want to share a little bit of historical information first. Iceland was governed by Denmark for a long time—until 1944. From the 1700s up to around 1900, officials from around the country were required to send in reports to the Danish government every year. There are reports on everything—reports about the weather, the hay, the livestock trade, fisheries, vegetables grown, people’s health, and so on. I am making a specific study of these reports. They are a fantastically rich data set!

We are also very privileged to have access to another set of unique historical documents that have never been used before. These are provided by project Co-PI Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir from the unpublished archives of her ancestors. These documentary data will be complemented by data from the archaeological record.

Archaeological information is also very important for the project, as it helps to illuminate the documentary records and provides further insights into the characteristics of sustainable or exploitative economies. The project also benefits from the collaborative international archaeological work that has been ongoing in the Myvatn region for over three decades. We are particularly interested in zooarchaeological data, which involves looking at animal bones. We want to know more about the ratio of different animals that were kept in the past. There were mostly sheep, cattle and horses, but over time there were different emphases on the types of animals that were kept.

The project has a significant archaeological component. The photo shows team member Megan Hicks, a zooarchaeologist, at work. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

FN: Are there some initial findings you can share with us?

AO: Yes, it’s really quite clear that weather and climate did have an impact on grass growth and hay yield. It’s also quite easy to prove that statistically. Bad weather—either very wet weather or very dry, or even early winter storms and snow—had a negative effect on the hay and grass crop. Variable weather with alternating frosts and thaws could also have a very bad effect. Also, in years when a lot of sea ice drifted to the coasts from Greenland this had a negative effect on the grass. This was mainly because the ice has the effect of lowering temperatures on land.

FN: What can we learn from this project, and from the past, about living in a time of environmental change?

AO: I hope that we can find some sense of how to farm and live sustainably in a particular environment. Even though what we are looking at with this project happened in the past, there are still a lot of lessons for the present and the future. The past can teach us how people once coped with difficult situations and environmental change.

In more general terms, we can already see that by collecting and synthesizing different forms of data relating to one specific aspect of the economy—the hay and grass—we are building up a lot of information on critical connections between society and the environment—the ecodynamics emphasis of the project.--Alicia Clarke

For more information about Astrid Ogilvie and this collaborative project to understand the long-term sustainability of human ecodynamic systems in northern Iceland, visit http://instaar.colorado.edu/people/astrid-e-j-ogilvie/.