October 31st, 2016
East of Iceland, North of Scotland, and West of Norway you’d expect to find little but cold, gray sea, and yet there’s a country there, a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, home to some forty-nine thousand descendants of Viking men and Celtic women. This is the Faroe Islands and, while they remain part of Denmark’s realm, the Faroe Islanders are their own masters, having wrested a living from these chill rocks since the year 1000.
The archipelago is stark and magnificent, volcanic stone cut by vanished glaciers into winding fjords and towering seacliffs. There are no trees whatsoever, and the soil is thin, so the Faroe Islanders, like their Norse ancestors, developed a cuisine heavy on meat. Mutton dominates, because sheep are the mainstay of Faroe husbandry. Unsurprisingly, seafood is a close second, but some of the ways that this manifests are startling to outsiders. Cod heads and stuffed puffins are traditional foods, for example, and much is dried or “matured” into tastes you really need to acquire as a small child.
There’s one other animal on the menu, and one that is particularly prized, not merely for its deep association with Faroese culture, but for the fact that it is winter food in a society that, for most of its history, was forced to be self-reliant during the dark months. This animal goes by the name of grind, pronounced “grint,” though English speakers would call it a pilot whale. This, as you may imagine, is where the self-sufficient Faroe Islanders collide head-on with other sensibilities.
It’s important to point out that Faroese whaling is not Icelandic whaling. The Icelanders have restarted commercial whaling, grotesquely flaunting the international ban to hunt endangered whales, the meat of which is sold to Japan and, to compound the grotesquerie, also sold as feed for Icelandic fur farms.
In contrast, no one in the Faroes sells any whale meat. Their hunt is specifically communal and highly regulated by both centuries of tradition (the way the meat is parceled out to families) and Faroese law (which controls the who and the how in order to minimize suffering). That said, it’s still a horrific operation that turns the waters of the whaling coves to blood.
There is a remarkable little film about the grind (the same word is used to refer to the hunt as well as the whale), focusing on efforts of the Sea Shepherd Society to disrupt the hunt in 2015. By taking care to allow both sides to reflect on their beliefs, the film is uncommonly clear about one thing — there is no immediate best course of action here. The Faroe Islanders, in the midst of imagery that casts them in a far-from-flattering light, stand out for being open minded and thoughtful.
Now, I’ve encountered whales, big ones, and close enough to have to wipe the whale snot out of my eyes (no, really). If you’ve ever been in that kind of proximity, you already know what the reams of research tell us, that cetaceans are intelligent and social animals. They have families composed of individuals with names, bound by emotional ties; to be unable to see this is to be willfully blind. So we have to ask ourselves, is there any justification for the Faroese whale hunt?
The islanders defend it by pointing to the steps they have taken to make the hunt as humane as possible. Harpoons and spears are outlawed, and a “spinal lance” is used to kill with great speed, and only by those trained in its use. They also research the pilot whales more than anyone else, and have data showing that their harvest is less than one percent of the total local population, which makes the grind one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, certainly more sustainable than any commercial fishery in Europe or North America.
They also say — and they have a point — that their greatest crime is simply applying traditional farmyard slaughter techniques at the beach. And, in truth, the grind is far more humane than almost any of the operations that fill American grocery cases with beef or chicken, pork or lamb. The Faroe Islanders — somewhat taken aback by the online abuse rained down on their 50,000 citizens by 500,000 Sea Shepherd supporters — suggest that this is a result of most westerners being so divorced from the reality of how food is produced that they are shocked when someone shows it to them.
What’s more, the Faroe Islanders represent a culture which exemplifies many of the aspirations of the 21st century food movement. Here is a society that is genuinely regional, local, self-sufficient and deeply aware of where its sustenance comes from and what that means both culturally and ecologically. If you take a look at the film, I hope that you watch until the end because it yields a glimpse of people living lives of enviable clarity. Reality is a big part of the Faroese world view, and it seems to impart a certain modesty and insight.
The islanders use the word “tradition” a lot, but there’s a specificity to the Faroese understanding of that notion. For them, it means actively participating in a way of life that has evolved over centuries, rooted to a hard place which keeps a fundamental truth in view — that life is a temporary condition and what’s truly lasting are the cultures we help to carry, until our turn is done.
Their adversaries, interestingly enough, come from their own sort of tradition. Young and photogenic, educated and committed, the Sea Shepherds are a community rooted not in place, but rather in an idea. They hail from everywhere, as multinational as the Faroe Islanders are singular. Or perhaps I should say that the Sea Sherpherds are from a multitude of western countries, societies where cultural cohesion and rootedness are in full retreat before the shiny blandishments of social media and universal shopping. That seems significant because, while the Sea Shepherds clearly believe that they are doing the right thing, are also motivated by the powerful sense of meaning that comes from their work, and which, it seems, is absent in their ordinary lives. They do what they do because their actions make them part of something larger than themselves and in this way, their motivation is inescapably parallel to that of the Faroe Islanders.
In this clash between a long-held tradition and a force emerging from the vacuum of extinct traditions, the Sea Shepherds have the upper hand. Their disruption tactics contributed to making the 2015 hunt much smaller than previous years. What’s more, their soft power in terms of publicity has contributed to two cruise lines removing the Faroes from their itineraries, taking tourist cash with them.
Other, less media-aware, forces of modernity are also arrayed against the survival of the grind. The chief medical officer of the Faroe Islands has recommended against consuming pilot whale because the meat’s extensive contamination with mercury and PCBs makes the flesh effectively toxic, triggering high blood pressure, immune deficiency in children as well as damaging brain development in infants before they are even born. It’s all the demonstration you need that even islands aren’t islands in the 21st century.
For me, the question that rises from this conflict is how do we embrace the traditions which make us who we are while the world changes to make them worse than meaningless? The grind makes visible and tactile the bonds that the Faroe Islanders have with one another, with their ancestors, and with the sea that defines their existence. While I find the grind repellent and ultimately indefensible in an age when all non-human life is dying at a rate which this the Sixth Extinction — I also know that there is a wisdom in their tradition.
The Faroe Islanders defend the indefensible not out of a desire to exploit their environment, but rather to maintain their connection to it. Indigenous societies often speak of the relationship between hunter and hunter not as a power relationship, about killer and victim, but instead as a marriage. This is a tough one to wrap your head around, especially coming from a Western culture. But there’s something very human — and even humane — to this interpretation of the most basic rule of survival on our planet, that life eats life. It is, I think, a more sustainable way of enduring the role of predator, better than the way that modern western society has adopted en masse — simply pretending it doesn’t exist.
As the West’s relationship with nature lurches into a bankruptcy that is not just spiritual, the value of indigenous traditions grows. Rooted in a past without global food transport, UN aid or meal-kit delivery, indigenous traditions had no choice but to be sustainable; if they were not, their cultures died. The Faroe Islanders, almost uniquely, are an indigenous people of the transatlantic culture which now dominates the globe and which also exterminated its own traditions.
The unifying theme of indigenous cultures is that they accept that they are part of nature. This seems like an obvious truth and yet it is one that centuries of Western thought has warred against, with so much success that most people in western societies consider nature mostly when they vacation to “visit” it. This is a dangerously crazy construction of reality, one that leads to an inability to understand that whatever you do to your world, you do to yourself.
The Sea Shepherds, as much as I applaud their efforts to defend our more charismatic marine cousins, are soldiers manning the wall between humanity and nature. Their tradition implicitly views humanity as a brutal interloper in the natural world, and they’re not wrong in that this is how we have behaved for ages. But the Faroe Islanders, for all of their connection to the natural world, defend their relationship to a version of nature which is imaginary. Even if you could treat cetaceans as no different than chickens, we no longer inhabit a world where our species is one among many.
When the Norse began hunting the pilot whales in the Faroes, the globe contained perhaps 22 million metric tons of people. Now, a thousand years later, there are 275 millions metric tons of us, supported by 1,000 million metric tons of our domesticated animals. Of the wild terrestrial animals, the ones we share the world with, there now remain 5 million metric tons. For those of you of a mathematical bent, that we and our edible support staff outweigh the wild nature by 255 times.
That, of course, doesn’t include the sea, which is notoriously more difficult to quantify. We know enough to know that less than ten percent of the fish that swam in the seas of the year 1000 still remain, and it may be much less. The great whales of the Atlantic fared even worse. For example, genetic studies have revealed that the 10,000 humpbacks we now have are the survivors of a population twenty-four times larger. But as for pilot whales, we really have no idea. The historic records that exist give us only a small glimpse of the bigger picture, because the only ones who cared enough to keep track were the descendants of Vikings on a cluster of cold, remote islands.
Under the Aurora by Hans Juul Hansen
The Town of Torshavn by Ulrich Latzenhofer
Mother and Calf by Mmo idwg
Waiting for the Whales by Hans Juul Hansen
Faroes by Mariusz Kluzniak
The Grind in 1942 by Sámal Joensen-Mikines