In January I went to the Northern Lights film festival in Seattle to see “ASH”, a documentary about three Icelandic farm families´ experiences with the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2011. As the title may be intended to remind us, that was the eruption that sent up so much ash that it stopped air traffic to Europe for almost two weeks.
It is a thought-provoking movie, which may be why it has taken me over a month to share my thoughts about it. The eruption was seen through the eyes of the three families that lived in the shadow of the volcano, so it was not a detailed view of the whole spring eruption event. It skipped over the precursor eruption of Fimmvörduháls, for instance. And it did not go into the how and why of the impact on air traffic world-wide.
For me, the most interesting components of the film were the characteristics which contributed to the success, survival or ending of the three families’ careers as farmers. One family had been on their land for several generations – since early in the 20th century. They had the largest farm in the valley, they had many contacts in the community, and they had the resources to recover and expand after a natural disaster. Many volunteers arrived to help clean the ash of the buildings and front yard of their farmhouse. The wife baked cookies and the farmer served them to the volunteer workers.
The second family had started farming recently, leaving good (if not completely satisfying) jobs in Reykjavik to become farmers. They had met at university and the wife had a job as a highway design engineer that she could return to when they needed a financial infusion. She was equally enthusiastic about raising sheep, and quite knowledgable about the economics of rasing sheep. They both appeared committed to making a success of their farm, and the life it gave them and their children.
The third family had also started farming recently, leaving their lives on Heimaey Island to try to satisfy the husband´s dream of having a farm. In the film the wife was usually presented while in the kitchen, often looking out at the farmyard. I don´t remember anything being said about their education, but after they lost the farm, she became a beautician in a nearby village.
So while the film does a good job of showing the physical challenges that all three farms faced when Eyjafjallajökull deluged them with ash and flood waters, I, like many people intrigued by Iceland´s volcanoes, have seen a lot of footage of that eruption. What captured my interest was that the stories of these farm families could stand as models of how to succeed (or not) with a farm facing a natural disaster. It takes much more than desire for a farm to survive.