The magical story of eiderdown
In Iceland, the harvesting of these precious feathers has created a peculiar bond between human and duck. What can this unique relationship teach us? By Edward Posnett
In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. “I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia,” he said. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags.”
It is difficult to describe the weight of eiderdown in a language in which the epitome of lightness is a feather. Unlike a feather’s ordered barbs arranged around a solid shaft, under a microscope, eiderdown offers a portrait of chaos: hundreds of soft threads branch out from a single point, twisting around one another. Upon each thread are countless small hooks, which allow the down to cling to itself, trapping pockets of air and warmth. When I returned from Iceland, I asked my wife to close her eyes and put her hands out. After placing a duck-size clump of down in her hands, I asked her what she felt. “Heat,” she said. She opened her eyes to find the down, a ghostly grey form, hovering above her palms, and pulled it apart. It crackled as if electrified, emitting a mild smell that reminded me of burned hair. She scrunched her hands and the down disappeared in her fingers, compressed into a ball smaller than a duckling’s bill. Over centuries, eiderdown has been treasured by those who shared their lands with the eider. The Vikings apparently filled their bedding with it, while medieval tax collectors accepted it as a means of payment. Today, its buyers are the global super-rich. In Iceland, I heard stories about Gulf royals who sleep under eiderdown in the desert, and Russian politicians whose hearts can be warmed with the gift of an eiderdown duvet.
The properties of eiderdown – extreme lightness and insulation – make sense when you consider the life of its owner. The eider is a fat seabird, more penguin than duck, and many of them spend most of their lives in the Arctic Circle. Visit the Icelandic coast and you will see hundreds bobbing gregariously in the sea. Brash creatures, their boldness inspires admiration in the Icelanders. “The eider is an unsung hero, far braver than any bird of prey, which it is known to attack to protect its offspring,” one local told me. In a cafe in Ísafjörður, the pastor explained how he harvests eiderdown. As part of his parish duties, he runs a small farm, a throwback to earlier times when pastors in remote areas would survive off the land. Every June, he said, about 500 ducks arrive from the sea and waddle to his farm. Eiders do not naturally nest in such large colonies, but will congregate close to human settlements to seek shelter and protection. The ducks nest anywhere: in tyres, doorways and even houses. “I always take a lot of flags with me and I put a flag beside each nest so I will be able to find it again. Because they are incredibly camouflaged, these ducks. You can almost step on them,” he said. At night, the pastor guards the flock of eiders from their predators: seagulls, foxes and mink. “I was quite lucky in that I got interested in guns when I was just a little over 20,” he said. “It was before I started studying theology.” If he were to fall asleep, a fox would have a feast of sitting ducks. “It’s more than a financial loss, it’s also like they are depending on me. So I don’t want to let them down. I used to be a night watchman, so I have a little bit of experience staying awake.” In the middle ages, pelicans were thought to pierce their own breast to draw blood to feed their young. The mythical act was known as vulning, a Christ-like act of self-sacrifice. On the pastor’s land, the eider, too, makes herself vulnerable for her offspring, although it is down, not blood, that she draws from her breast. From this down she builds a nest for her eggs; her own bare skin, freshly revealed, covers them with warmth. She sits on her eggs for some 28 days, during which she may lose a third of her body weight; some mothers starve to death.
After incubation, the eggs hatch, the mothers waddle back to the sea with their offspring and the pastor gathers their down, his protection fee. “I never collect the down until they are gone,” he said. “I just like to leave them, not to disturb them in any way … If you frighten them, they jump up and shit all over the nest.” The “shit” he describes is not, in fact, excrement, but a brown oily liquid with an odour similar to that of frying liver. “[It is] so strong,” recorded one Belgian eider enthusiast, “that an egg touched with it is refused and even discarded by the hungriest dog.” The scene described by the pastor has been a common sight in Iceland for centuries. Down has been collected here probably since the arrival of Norse settlers in the ninth century. The sight of thousands of tame eiders close to human settlements astounded early European travellers in Iceland. CW Shepherd, an Englishman who visited the island of Vigur in the Westfjords in 1862, described a farm besieged by eiders: “On the ground, the house was fringed with ducks. On the turf slopes of the roof, we could see ducks; and a duck sat on the door-scraper … A windmill was infested; and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks and crevices. The ducks were everywhere.” Environmentalists, economists and ornithologists have all fallen in love with Icelandic harvesting. There is an irresistible simplicity to the relationship between the harvesters and the eiders. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more and more will come to nest, increasing the amount of down that can be gathered. In myths, fables and hagiographies, one often reads of the ability of individuals to tame wild creatures. It is said that St 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 St 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. 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 eiderdown harvesting teach us about our relationship with other species?
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. 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 and a layer of dust covered the work surfaces. 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 36 hours with no electricity, no phone,” he said. “I can’t be responsible for that.” 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 had 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.” Later, as we made our way back to the church, the pastor let out a cry and pointed to a nest that he had missed during the previous gathering. Covered in moss, grass and broken eggs, it looked like a furry grey omelette or pancake. He wedged his stick under the down, easing it gently from the grass, and picked it up. Laden with seaweed, twigs and dirt, it reminded me of the contents of a vacuum cleaner, half fluff, half debris. Unlike the clean down my wife had held, it had a pungent, mouldy aroma, suggestive of the sitting duck from which it came. Looking closely, I saw the remains of several eggs caught up in the down. Rendered rubbery by rainfall, their fragments were proof of what the pastor had said; he always allowed the ducklings to hatch before collecting their bedding. “Take it as a gift,” he said.
I followed Alexíus as he wandered across the island. We headed onwards to the island’s lighthouse, studiously avoiding puffin nests in the fissures that riddle the island. At the island’s tip we sat down on a rock, admiring the spouts of several humpbacks, there to feed in Iceland’s rich waters after journeying from their breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. The recent history of the Westfjords is really the story of rural depopulation, of a vanishing culture next to the Arctic Circle. Over the past decade, countless farmers have packed up and left the region, tired of the weather, isolation and poor roads. The region’s tunnels and bridges, intended to increase mobility, have served as escape routes, emptying the fjords of Icelanders. “The government is always making it harder for people,” Magnús said. “There’s so little money in it, being a farmer, it’s becoming a lifestyle choice.” Every season, the ducks came, and their down was harvested and shipped off to the middlemen for a stable price, much as has been done for centuries. And yet there were signs, too, that things might be changing, as Iceland continues to be shaken by the effects of the financial crisis, the influx of millions of tourists and rural depopulation. Like the sheep farmers, the eiderdown harvesters were getting fed up with the harsh weather and isolation. Many eiderdown farms, said Jón Sveinsson, another harvester, are merely summer houses, places of recreation for city dwellers. “The new owners are not interested in the pittance a few kilograms of eiderdown give. After all, they have come to the countryside to have a beer on the porch, fire up the grill and relax on the weekend, not to run around harvesting foul-smelling, flea-ridden eiderdown.” I tried to imagine what the Westfjords might look like in 50 years or so, as old ways of life faded away. “It’s not sad,” Jón told me, “just different. The world is getting smaller.” But I did feel sad, thinking that this tradition might disappear. When I returned to the UK, I made a habit of checking in department stores to see if they had eiderdown quilts or pillows. Finding them in a shop window, I always felt reassured that the traffic in down continued, that this tradition still had a place in our own century of synthetics and factory farming. Nestled in silk covers, the down was always hidden from view, its rich history condensed into a short description on the label. Tempted by an act of mischief, I almost wanted to rip them apart, allowing the down and its stories to expand and escape outward. Adapted from Harvest: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett, published by The Bodley Head on 8 August