Working the land. Hoeing the weeds from deceptively long rows of lettuce and parsley. I’m in Egilsstaðir, in the far east of Iceland. As far away from Reykjavík as I can get without leaving this island. Woofing.
This is hard work. Not hard in the sense of it being physically demanding – though my right arm is rather sore from repetitive motions of circling the hoe under and around every individual vegetable in the bed for hours at a time – it’s hard in the sense that I’m not accustomed to being so entirely alone with my thoughts. An experience like this really drives home the sad reality of my life of distraction. Distracted by the internet. Distracted by my iPod. Distracted by constantly being surrounded by people and noises and images and flash and bang and ohh and ahh.
It’s easy to act and do when you’ve no time to think things over. It’s terrifying to have a bank of three hours, just you and a bed of lettuce and a hoe, to think over your life: your actions past, present and future. Nostalgia is joyfully saddening. Love is painfully elating. Neither can you experience at that moment in the field; just you and a bed of lettuce and a hoe.
Flipping through the guest book in the WWOOF quarters of Vallanes organic farm helps to alleviate my feelings of being a prisoner of my own mind, tortured by my incessant inner dialogue. The book, its original hard black shell recovered with a now worn and torn poster depicting fields and forests, reads like a surprisingly personal diary; the traditional upbeat “thanks for a great summer” entries augmented by deeply individual outpourings of personal growth and struggle experienced by countless young visitors during their time in the fields.
One entry from either August 9th or September 8th of 2001 spoke to me. At that time a girl named Elizabeth from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was feeling my pain. Likely younger than me at the time of writing – as all WWOOFers seem to be, making me feel frighteningly more senior than my twenty-four years – and having sought out a summer of WWOOFing for herself, as opposed to hearing of the practice by chance and thinking it a quirky way to spend a couple of days and potentially interesting fodder for an article, Elizabeth was struggling initially.
“There were times that I thought I might be going insane because I was having so many thoughts,” she wrote. I feel you, Elizabeth, whoever you are and wherever you may be. We are kindred spirits, you and I. Of course, Elizabeth learned about herself from the experience, calling her time at Vallanes “absolutely the healthiest summer” and expressing her gratitude to farmer Eymundur Magnússon for the opportunity to explore herself and her thoughts in the fields.
I haven’t achieved such a heightened level of calm, inner peace and self-awareness.
Three hours of hoeing in solitude, something that my fellow WWOOFers dispersed throughout the field seem to have no problem with, inspired me not to explore my deepest inner thoughts, fight my internal demons and come to terms with two-dozen years of sometimes questionable choices. Rather it motivated me to hit the fields equipped with my iPod. The subsequent days have been a hell of a lot easier for it.
It seemed like a good idea at the time
WWOOFing? Is that some canine-specific breed of bestiality?
That was my inner dialogue upon a chance encounter in May with Amy Borkwood, a twenty-five year old Torontonian then recently arrived in Iceland specifically to hitchhike its ring road and WWOOF its organic farms. Luckily for her reputation in my mind, Amy had an explanation of WWOOFing at the ready. She’s a hippie, not a fetishist. I like to label people.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) “links people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help.” Thus, WWOOFing is the actual act of volunteering on an organic farm.
“I first heard about WWOOFing about 6 years ago, when only one person I knew had WWOOFed, in France,” Borkwood explains. “Now I know tons of people that have WWOOFed all over the world. It has really gained popularity over the last few years.”
Borkwood, who has WWOOFed previously in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Greece, seemingly couldn’t say enough about the experience. Through WWOOFing she can travel alone safely, see parts of countries outside the major city centres, stay with farmers and be cared for and fed for free, contribute to the agricultural growth of another country and meet people from all over the world with similar interests to her.
So that’s when the thought hit me: Getting out of 101 could be nice for a short period of time. I’m totally going WWOOFing!
Mr. Farmer let me watch your crops; Mr. Farmer let me water your crops; Mr. Farmer let me harvest your crops; Mr. Farmer let me save your crops.
I flew to Egilsstaðir. Less time travelling meant more time WWOOFing and, anticipating a relaxing escape from Reykjavík, I was quite eager to get started. Driving the compact sky-blue rented Toyota down the long gravel driveway and around a bend toward a charming old white house, I let out a faint sigh of relief.
This is just what I need.
The Grapevine’s graphic-design intern and fellow WWOOF virgin, Hailey, and I parked the car, hopped out and greeted Eymundur, a fit middle-aged man of slight stature, ever the farmer in practical denim and a plaid shirt. “Get back in the car and follow me to the WWOOF hotel,” he directed. We obeyed.
Farther down the driveway, through an overgrown undulating field, beside a large white warehouse where Eymundur manufactures Móðir Jörð vegetarian burgers was the WWOOF ‘hotel’ – a portable shelter elevated on concrete raisers and painted in a hodgepodge of contrasting colours chosen by the WWOOFers themselves. It took only a glance for me to utter what my travel companion and I were both thinking: “what have I gotten us into?”
It was overcast, drizzling slightly, and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in a thick fog. The excitement felt when boarding the Air Iceland flight in sunny and warm Reykjavík was decidedly diminished. Upon entering the ‘hotel’ we were greeted by nine WWOOFers, all of whom seemed sceptical about the presence of a journalist and graphic designer.
Fast-forward five hours, after a delicious vegetarian lunch prepared by the housekeeper of the WWOOF ‘hotel,’ Lilja, and a mind-numbing three hours clothed in neon-orange vinyl overalls, rain boots and an oversized WWOOF-supplied sweater, holding a hoe in my cramping and callusing gloved hands.
“So how was your first day of real work?”
I ain’t gonna work on Eymundur’s farm no more
WWOOFing was hard work. Mentally more than physically, though I presume those who seek out summers of the practice, travelling from country to country, farm to farm, are stronger of mind than I am; less in need of constant entertainment, less dependant on outside distractions and shiny trinkets to fiddle with or get lost in.
However, Vallanes, I learned over my four days living there, is not the typical WWOOF farm. The young volunteers were disenchanted with Eymundur’s lack of participation and one-on-one time with the WWOOFers. They seek out experiences on organic farms to learn and that was clearly something that this farmer had little time for between business meetings and marketing his barley, veggie burgers and massage oils. Due to this disconnection between the farmer and his minions the nine WWOOFers living with me in the ‘hotel’ lamented that I was not experiencing the WWOOFing they so loved.
Speaking with one particular WWOOFer I met on Eymundur’s farm really made me crave a WWOOFing do-over. A WWOOF-over?
Leah Mawhinney travelled from her home state of Maine, supported by a grant, to WWOOF. Truly interested in learning about farming practices throughout the world, she WWOOFed other farms in Iceland and was so convincing about how phenomenal an experience WWOOFing typically is that I found myself pricing out tickets to run away with her to the beaches of the Golfo di Taranto.
As a matter of fact, if I had a credit card to pay for it and no responsibilities to tend to in Reykjavík I would be WWOOFing on the coastal kiwi farms of southern Italy at this very moment, confident that my bombardment of thoughts would be more manageable under the Mediterranean sun than they were on Eymundur’s farm; just me and a bed of lettuce and a hoe.
The WWOOFing Bunch
Introducing the farmer and WWOOFers of Vallanes organic farm
Eymundur Magnússon – 54 – “The Farmer”
Eymundur didn’t grow up on a farm. His grandparents had been farmers but he was born and raised in Reykjavík and experienced farm life during his summers in Egilsstaðir. “I was on my grandmother’s farm in the valley not far from here and I just fell in love with the countryside and I decided to be a farmer when I was about six.” He actually pursued a life of farming when he was 24 years old, beginning with a traditional dairy farm and making the shift to organic farming ten-years later. At that time he was a pioneer of organic farming in Iceland, often told by other farmers that he was crazy to go organic in conditions that are already difficult to grow in. “I got to know organic farming, I had been growing organically for myself and once you get to know organic it’s easy to see that it’s the right thing to do. It tastes so much better.”
Amy Borkwood – 25 – Toronto – Canada
Amy lives in Toronto, Canada, where she’s beginning a university programme in feminist social work in the fall. She has WWOOFed in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Greece… and Iceland. During her time in Iceland Amy spent time on two farms in the Selfoss-area. “WWOOFing is perfect for me, because I can travel alone and still get into the countryside, meet people, and it’s also a really great way to travel for a longer period of time for cheap. I also love being able to do something productive and helpful while I’m travelling in another country.”
Leah Mawhinney – 20 – Maine – USA
Leah was WWOOFing with a grant for people that study psychology… but she doesn’t study psychology (she studies food and agriculture) so she’s not even sure how she got that money. “I’m here partially because I want to travel and partially for learning about the changes in agriculture over recent years. “The good thing about WWOOFing is that you often work with the farmers and the farmers are often very knowledgeable so you can spend your days doing things that you’ve never done before – like herding sheep or birthing sheep during the lambing season.” After Iceland Leah was jetting off to Bologna, Italy, to spend some weeks on a farm there before travelling south to the Golfo di Taranto to harvest kiwis and olives in 40 C temperatures.
Grace Hawley – 20 – Bristol – UK
Grace is an English literature student on a gap year. “I was supposed to be getting a job but because of the economic situation in England it’s really hard to find anything. So I was sitting in Bristol spending lots of money on rent and thinking I really want to travel but I don’t have much money and thinking ‘what the fuck am I going to do for the next six or seven months?’ So I went WWOOFing!” Her three week stint at Vallanes farm in Egilsstaðir is her first WWOOFing experience and she has really enjoyed it “Working with the soil is really healing and I’m met some really great people,” she says. After a short trip back to Bristol Grace is off to two other WWOOF farms in southern and central Finland.
Hans Burger – 18 – Netherlands
Hans works at an organic grocery store in a small town in northwest Netherlands. “I want to learn about organic agriculture and I wanted to travel in Iceland so that’s what brings me here.” Vallanes was his second WWOOF experience – he was in France last summer in a spiritual commune – and his first farm in Iceland. He will be spending a total of one month on the farm in Egilsstaðir. Hans developed a reputation among the WWOOFers as ‘the kid who eats a lot of garlic’ as he was often caught eating raw cloves of garlic sneakily from the fridge. “I like the way it makes me feel; a little bit high. It’s also useful when you want to be alone.”
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