Of Birds and Barley: The Majestic Nuisance of the Swan
This article originally appeared in Orion, Summer 2020, pp. 32–41, and online at https://orionmagazine.org/article/of-birds-and-barley/
“Wait here a second.” Dagbjartur shifts the lumbering Jeep to neutral and steps out to pick some barley from his field. He rubs an ear between his thumb and forefinger. “Almost ready,” he announces, as much to himself as to us. I lean forward from the back seat, entranced by the contrast between the delicate autumn-green ear of grain and the weather-worked hand that cradles it. Then I realize Dagbjartur and Edda are laughing. The laughter is because I am taking a photo.
“Oh, these city children,” Edda teases.
“It’s supposed to be hard inside,” Dagbjartur says, tasting the grain. “That’s what the swans go crazy about. There’s the kernel.”
“Yes, that’s what we eat,” Edda says.
“It is,” Dagbjartur confirms. “That is to say, it’s good.” Edda and I chuckle at the suggestion of the swans’ refined taste.
We’re all sampling the barley now. The underripe nutty flavor leaves a bitterness on my tongue as I gaze out at the field, enclosed within electric fences under the watch of a makeshift scarecrow. There’s the kernel, indeed. This is what all the fuss is about.
Dagbjartur of a number of farmers who spoke with my advisors and me about the so-called plague of swans in southern Iceland. We had sought them out to understand how these birds have turned from beauties into beasts.
Iceland’s only swan species, the whooper, is a populous, widely distributed, and highly adaptable migratory bird that falls under international protection. Once hunted by Icelanders for meat and feathers, it was granted local protection in 1914, as part of a broader piece of wildlife conservation legislation. The government’s justification, however, was not that they were preserving an animal nearing extinction, but rather that it was “an exceedingly beautiful part of Icelandic birdlife” they hoped might become “tamer and more common.” Those hopes have certainly been fulfilled: the Icelandic whooper swan population has nearly doubled in the last twenty-five years, now comprising over thirty-four thousand individuals. This population trend can be largely attributed to the climate crisis – warmer, more favorable conditions in Icelandic nesting grounds fostering greater breeding success and higher survival rates – and the recent cultivation of barley, the taste of which seems, to swans, to be irresistible.
It’s the whoopers’ appetite for barley – grown in Iceland almost exclusively as livestock fodder – that has caused some to see them as a nuisance. After ongoing complaints from farmers about damage inflicted to crops by swans, the Farmers Association of Iceland began quantifying these losses. The data, however, must be read with caution, as an ecologist at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History warned me: the issue has still been framed as a problem with the number of swans, but agricultural loss is much more complicated than a one-to-one ratio of birds to damages. “The farmers’ frustration is mainly toward the birds themselves,” the CEO of the Farmers Association told me. “Of course, it’s also about government regulations” – grain cultivation has been encouraged from the top down, though without adequate subsidies, according to farmers – “but the birds are what you see every day at the farm.”
It is ultimately the power of the farming lobby, rather than empirical evidence or ecological concerns, that has pressured the government to determine the “ideal size” of the whooper swan stock. Proving the swans are too numerous, it seems, justifies the discussions that have flared about expanding hunting permits to include the intruding swans. That their protected status has been upheld in the past, argues the Farmers Association, is irrelevant now, given the recent increase in the swan population. And their grace and beauty might as well be an anachronism. One farmer, in an interview with the National Broadcasting Service, compared the reality of swans in the fields with the birds’ majestic image: “Two or three swans on the pond is really nice, but when that has become hundreds of birds eating up what the livestock should be getting, then people don’t find it so nice, and it’s far from being romantic.”
One November evening in 2015, the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet performed Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to a sold-out audience at Harpa concert hall – a stone’s throw from Tjörnin, the pond in Reykjavík’s city center, where swans and geese overwinter with food handouts from the public. As the ballet took place the day after a terrorist attack in Paris, the lights on Harpa’s facade displayed the tricolor, and the performance commenced only after the crowd rose for a moment of silence. There in the audience, these reminders of abhorrent, all-too-real human drama struck me as a poignant counterpoint to the fanciful crossspecies drama represented in the ballet. Is humankind so intrinsically ugly that we seek deliverance by not only yearning after, but also actually imitating other creatures, such that the aping of swans by skilled dancers has become a paragon of beauty and artistic ambition? And where were the real swans in the impossibly graceful Princess Odette: the swans whose enormous appetites bring farmers to their knees, the swans head-down in the polluted water of Tjörnin with their feet paddling anything but gracefully in the air? Is there some reason, some human need, to imagine swans as majestic?
I saw them during my fieldwork, hundreds and hundreds of swans in the fields, whitecaps on oceans of gold. The endless bevies struck me as an impressive example of what Kantian aesthetics calls the mathematical sublime, the experience of being awestruck by natural features of an immense magnitude, size, or number. But to the farmers I met, these flocks are nothing more than constant reminders of ecological imbalance. I saw the agitation during my fieldwork: defensive body language, irritation in voices. The wariness of the swans, circling and scanning the fields.
“They lend themselves well to these romanticized ideals of niceness that you find in the fairy tales,” Ólafía remarks as we stroll around Tjörnin on a crisp March afternoon. “There’s the purity, and the fidelity; you see a lot of pictures where they’re face-to-face and kind of look like a heart. They’re white and pretty and” – here she gags – “ugh, I could puke.” A no-nonsense academic in her late thirties, Ólafía is a longtime resident of Reykjavík and a self-proclaimed wildlife enthusiast. But swans never have tickled her fancy; she finds herself drawn to the underdogs, like ravens and vultures.
“Too easy a hero?” I ask.
“He gets by too easily on his good looks,” she agrees. She recalls bringing her son to Tjörnin to feed the birds – a popular recreational activity for young families in the capital – and noting his fear of the swans, stately and aggressive, “like great big white monsters coming at him.” It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate swans, she tells me, but she takes an egalitarian position. “We eat goose and duck, so why can’t we eat swan, if they’re not endangered?”
“So for you,” I clarify, “there’s no conflict between appreciating wild animals and consuming them?”
“Not at all.”
A merganser with a showy quiff catches Ólafía’s eye as it bobs up out of the water, and we go on to admire a pair of wigeons.
None of the other wildlife enthusiasts I meet have a problem with carnivorism, either, and furthermore are ambivalent about the implications of species preferences. But they disagree on the relative merits of sentimentality. Friðgeir, an illustrator and former nature guide, acknowledges that “it’s old-fashioned to prioritize some species above others and only see the beauty in some of them,” yet he believes that putting certain species on a pedestal is vital to maintaining our respect for the natural world, keeping the magic of nature alive.
So is it right, I ask him, that geese are culled but swans are not?
In response, he draws a parallel to the ongoing debates in the whaling industry. “Confronting the whalers, I always had to fight this silly way of thinking. ‘Oh, you’re just using sentimental arguments,’ they’d say.” Friðgeir continues with a crescendo in his voice and greater animation in his gestures. “If we’re not using sentimental arguments, and laws based on sentiment, then why don’t we throw our grandmothers out to sea? Laws reflect morals; morals are always bigger, more extensive, than the law. Yes, it’s unjust! Why not the goose? There’s more of them, they’re all over the place, they don’t get as nice a spot in your mind. Yes, it’s unjust,” he repeats, slower, pointedly, “but it’s understandable. The swan is symbolic.”
Certain animals’ conflicts with humans are hardly deniable as such. Geographer Rosemary-Claire Collard explores how people and cougars on Vancouver Island mutually alter each other’s behavior because of the deadly threats they pose to one another, finding cougars to be the key agents in mapping out which space is controlled by which species. Yet other conflicts with animals are more perceptual: in tracing the historical transformation of pigeons from urban co-inhabitants to pests, environmental sociologist Colin Jerolmack demonstrates how modernist notions of how humans and nonhumans should and should not overlap have led societies to create “problem animals.” Views about pest species often carry moralistic undertones, Jerolmack explains, and are manifest in metaphorical associations with other negative phenomena: rats are dirty and sinister, bats are linked to insanity and the underworld. Sometimes what is needed is nothing more than greater human tolerance. As conservation biologists Neil Carter and John Linnell stress with regard to coadaptation with large carnivores like wolves, big cats, and bears, “Coexistence does not preclude risks… rather, it necessitates human tolerance of these risks and bringing risks to tolerable levels.” Perhaps the same could be argued of species that pose no threats but are nonetheless considered nuisances.
Somewhere deep in the countryside, the farmer, slender and in his mid-thirties, has been moving bales. He steps out from behind the tractor and greets Karl and me in a polite enough manner, refraining from shaking our hands with his dirty gloves. There’s no time for an interview, he says – he’s renting equipment and only has until early evening to finish the processing. But we’re welcome to check out the field where the “bloody beasts” are still eating the grain that has not yet been harvested.
We drive to the barley field. Karl parks the car and we step gingerly between the wires of an electric fence. Ahead of us, in the middle distance, three swans sit in the field, three snow-white buoys. As we stalk toward them, they take flight and head over the horizon toward the farm buildings, while another group of five approaches from the opposite direction. They circle in a small radius, honking loudly and calling, scanning the field before they finally land some distance from us. During the hour we’re in the field, the swans continually come and go in small groups, mostly a few at a time, never more than seven or eight at once. At times, a flock of about twenty gathers in an area where the grain has yet to be cut.
Struggling to keep track of the birds, and knowing they are part of a larger raft somewhere over the horizon, reminds me of a detail from geographer Jamie Lorimer’s description of nonhuman charisma. Lorimer observes that “swarms” of animals – those we don’t differentiate as individuals – tend not to appeal to us. This may not always be true; consider the mesmerizing appeal of a murmuration of starlings. But it’s undeniably a very foreign experience to watch these large flocks of swans, these shifting mosaics in which each creature is deprived of its individuality.
We can’t get very close to the swans on the ground. Mostly I only see their heads and necks rising up out of the grain, then plunging down into it again. The closest I get to them is when they take flight and circle the field. Their necks strike me as impossibly straight in flight, their bodies sometimes too close together within their trios and quartets. Their honks, emitted in counterpoint, dominate the acoustic environment. Their heavy, rhythmic wing beats overhead give me a sense of the massive weight of their bodies; dense bodies that must need to graze all day to maintain their mass and store enough energy as they prepare for migration.
These swans will soon be off, back to the British Isles to overwinter in milder climes. I recall Friðgeir’s words about the whooper’s voice upon its return. His father, a composer, mocked the notion of the “swan song,” as he found swans to make a wholly unappealing sound. But, Friðgeir said, “There was this romanticism around the swan that even my father took that honking and made it into music. The swan would come in the spring, and its honking in the early morning twilight is one of the sounds of spring to the farmers. You know, the thawing out of the ponds and the moors – it gives it that romantic, beautiful cling.” A generation or two later, what must the arrival of the swans sound like to farmers today?
Karl and I sip coffee across an old oak table from Pálmi, a soft-spoken dairy and sheep farmer with graying curls and a kitchen full of bright animal drawings by his grandchildren. “I’ll tell you what I’ve experienced,” Pálmi says with a gentle smile. “I have heard a swan song. You know the expression about people’s swan song in politics, or in relation to this or that — I’ve heard this song.”
Gesturing over his shoulder, he continues, “There’s a pond behind the old farmhouse. It was early in the spring. The window was open, and I awoke to a sorrowful singing. I listened for a long time. I couldn’t sleep. When I looked out, there were a lot of swans on the pond. And when I came out the next morning, they had gone, but one was lying there dead, left behind. Whether it was that one singing or its companions, I couldn’t really tell. But it was very special. Such different sounds than you usually hear from them. Much more sorrowful.”
“So the swan itself is an emotional creature?” Karl offers.
“I can well imagine it in that way,” Pálmi admits.
“This thing about its song. Is that what many people connect to the swan?”
“Yes, the ‘swan song in the moorlands.’”
In Romantic poet Steingrímur Thorsteinsson’s well-known poem of the same name, the distant swan’s voice echoing across the heath is likened to angelic sounds, allowing the narrator a fleeting sense of union with the pastoral divine that elevates his spirit. And for the farmers we speak with, it’s precisely this distant swan that can, perhaps, be considered romantic, beautiful.
In some tentative steps toward defining an aesthetics of animals, environmental philosopher Emily Brady argues that expressive qualities, or embodied encounters between humans and the animal as subject, are the appropriate places to start. To flesh out an understanding of such exchanges, environmental aesthetics might benefit from looking to contemporary art theory on relational aesthetics. As defined by art historian Claire Bishop, relational art takes the intangible form of “intersubjective encounters (be these literal or potential) in which meaning is elaborated collectively.” Such art is participatory, socially engaged, and disrupts conventional relationships between artist, audience, and artwork. A meaningful aesthetics of animals would likewise challenge conventional notions of humans as subjects and animals as objects by focusing on interspecies interaction.
Whether through relational art or more traditional forms, contemporary art offers a capacity to engage with other species phenomenologically in ways the sciences cannot. There is particularly room in that space for embodied encounters that raise questions about animals’ experiences and animality itself. Art also readily lends itself to inspiring wonder at our points of contact with animals, especially insofar as they differ from us. Within or beyond the arts, experiencing this wonder through empathetic and embodied encounters with animals can provide an avenue for liberation from the confines of human symbolic understanding. As phenomenologist David Abram describes, “The songs of birds, utterances at the origin of human language, release us from the bounds of our own speech – as their winged forms, watched intently, sometimes release us from the grip of the ground.”
It’s the distant swan that’s beautiful. Such a statement isn’t surprising, given the destructive impact the swans have had. “They say one swan eats as much as a sheep with a lamb,” Arna tells us, “but you get something out of the sheep.” Her husband, Guðbrandur, continues: “You’re ready to feed ten or fifteen swans over the summer. You’re not irritated by that all. But when they’re coming in the hundreds…” he trails off, shaking his head. “I did some calculations, just for the fun of it. I was trying to analyze the loss we had suffered, mostly from the loss of hay. And we were coming quite close to 1 million krónur per year” (well over 8,000 USD at the time).
While the wildlife enthusiasts and the environmental policy shapers I interviewed conceded the aesthetic or sentimental value of swans in a generic, Platonic-ideal sort of way, the farmers articulated something different. In stating explicitly, as many of them did, that the cultural values of swans are contingent upon the right distance from their fields and upon limited numbers, they suggested an embodied, relational appeal of actual whooper swans. In other words, the appeal emerges through encounters with the animals, rather than as a mere projection of human values and images onto the birds. And for some of our farmers who have encountered enormous flocks of swans in their fields of grain and hay – a phenomenon, they told us, they don’t remember seeing when they were children – the huge gatherings of birds are a visible manifestation of an imbalanced ecology.
Back on Dagbjartur’s farmstead and logged on to Facebook, Dagbjartur shows Edda and me photographs of a pair of swans swimming with their cygnets. The same female, he tells us, returns to the sandbanks near his fields year after year, originally with one mate and now another after the first died. (“How do you recognize her?” asks Edda. “Well, I just know,” Dagbjartur replies, laughing. “I’ve been taking pictures of her for several years.”) They’re artfully composed, painstakingly captured photos with plenty of “likes.” But despite the tenderness of these photographs, despite his statement that “it’s nice to have them nesting all over, nice to have the young ones and all that,” he downplays any sentimental interest in this particular female and her young, seeing no fundamental difference between them and the troublesome flocks. “Sooner or later they will go into the grain fields,” he tells us. “So I think, Damn, she has too many young.”
As Edda and I approach the next farmhouse in the Landeyjar region, Rögnvaldur pulls up behind us in a tractor, his border collie close beside him. We introduce ourselves and walk inside, but hardly have time to take off our shoes before he pulls us over to the living room window and begins cursing the swans. “They just keep growing and growing and growing.” We take note of a sizable flock in one of the fields. “It’s the nonbreeding birds that have been increasing,” he clarifies. “The nonbreeding birds in the spring are the biggest pests. We used to put up scarecrows to frighten them away, but now they just laugh at everything.”
(Laugh, he says. They have no respect, clearly.)
“And the dog,” he continues, “he gets totally exhausted in the spring. It’s constant work for him.”
Of all the farmers we meet, Rögnvaldur is the most sensitive when it comes to talking about the animals under his care – his overworked dog and his comfort-worthy livestock, for whom he began growing barley for use as bedding – and he also reiterates his interest in animal welfare generally, criticizing the conditions under which imported meat is produced. At the same time, he is one of the most eager to lift protection of whooper swans and the least interested in discussing, even in passing, any of the swans’ merits. “It’s only beautiful abroad” is the best he has to say.
Although he makes his frustration about the swans’ impact patently clear, he still speaks of them as active, sentient, even intelligent agents, co-constituents of the land. And when discussing reducing the whooper swan population by culling, he flips his focus from social and economic impacts to issues of the swans’ ecology: “As the population grows, their territories are getting smaller,” he explains, painting a portrait of an unsustainable habitat. Intervention is needed, as he sees it, to save the swan from itself.
Rögnvaldur also considers the environment sensitively, reflecting on the nature of Nature and showing concern for its integrity. He points out that it is “not natural” for swans to eat cultivated barley or hang around hayfields.
But he is reluctant to shoulder any responsibility for this unnatural state of affairs, or for the swans’ growing population.
“We shouldn’t be able to grow things like barley so far in the north,” an ecologist at the Environment Agency of Iceland told me, “but still, we are doing it.” The shifting baseline for human consumption has demanded an increased livestock production, while the shifting climate baseline has framed the subsequent grass and grain cultivation as a pro-environmental maximization of resources. In this sense, positing “the swan problem” as an issue to be addressed through conservation reform and population control is a red herring that obscures the difficult but more pressing questions about agriculture and sustainability.
I certainly can’t blame Rögnvaldur, or other farmers, for not accepting responsibility for the negative environmental change brought about by the sudden changes in their farming practices. But who should take responsibility for the ultimate drivers of the human-swan conflict? Who should set limits on production that breeds animals destined for slaughter and that contributes so greatly to climate change?
As Karl and I leave another farm where we observed swans in the field, we come across the limp body of a gangly blond calf strewn haphazardly on the back steps of the cowshed, its eyes already pecked out by ravens. A tabby cat sits by its rump, looking at us sternly as we pass. Pulling away, we catch a glimpse of an old, large, blue-and-white sign on the cowshed with the unquestionable truism MJÓLK ER GÓD: milk is good. With this final image from the farm in my mind as we drive away, shame and sadness wash over me. Seeing the enormous flocks of swans in and around the fields furthers my sympathy for the farmers and their families. But this image of the disgracefully discarded calf with the pecked-out eyes is, to me, a much stronger and more indelible one. The image of an industrial by-product.
The fieldwork is done and dusted, the results nearly written up, when I happen upon a poem I had written five years ago. It borrows its first line from a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
So naked were they under the insufficient cloak of dusk
that I almost blushed;
so compelling their cries that I almost followed.
behind these corrugated walls
under these corrugated roofs
allowed their hearts to break just now
for those hoarse honks echoing with familiar disquiet?
Last night on TV:
the story of the vigilante farmers who blew up a dam,
protecting their slice of the wild:
my tenderness won’t do.
The swans who went over Reykjavík when I penned my poem were not the same kind as those who went over New England in 1921, the year Millay published “Wild Swans” in her book Second April. Mine were whoopers, whereas hers would have been trumpeters (or, possibly, mute swans, a species introduced to North America in the late nineteenth century). And although hers delivered an innocent invitation to freedom and expansion, mine were a conscience of sorts, witnesses to environmental changes on a scale that would have been unimaginable in Millay’s time.
When I wrote my poem, I was unaware of any conflict between swans and farmers, so discovering this depiction of farmers not as adversaries of wild nature but as radical environmentalists was all the more poignant to me now. As retold in the documentary Hvellur, a group of long-anonymous community members in rural northern Iceland dynamited a dam on the Laxá River in 1970. This sabotage and the dogged determination of the community led to the prevention of another planned dam, as well as protection of Laxá and Lake Mývatn, and introduction of environmental impact assessments for energy production. Just as it is said that Iceland’s first philosophers were farmers, so too were its first environmentalists.
Rather than pitting the three groups of interview participants in my study – farmers, nature lovers, and policy shapers – against one another, my work more and more appears to see them all as fellow dwellers of the same land. We have more interests in common than we may think. May the swans fly equally over us all.
And what of the swans themselves? British nature writer and self-described swan-watcher Jim Crumley traces commonalities among legends of swans dating back for millennia, spanning the globe, and reports in his book The Company of Swans:
At the heart of many of these legends is a single idea – that the human soul flies on in the swan after death… is an understandable obsession. So many races and tribesadhere to the idea of an afterlife in a place other than on earth… To reach such a place, the soul must have wings, and what better conveyance than the exquisite and seeminglyunstoppable flight of swans.
When on his own lochside he discovers the remains of one particular swan, a mute swan of whom he had grown unintentionally fond, the unmarked mound of feathers seems to him hardly a sufficient monument to her life. It stirs in him a solitary, melancholy question: “Who cares for the soul of a swan?”
Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic, but I believe we have it in us to care, if only we allow our hearts to break just now for those hoarse honks echoing with familiar disquiet. Then we might recognize that our plight is, more or less, one and the same.
This essay is adapted from “Feathered Majesty in the Grainfields? Conflict, Conservation, and the Whooper Swan in Iceland,” a thesis completed in partial fulfillment of a master’s in environment and natural resources at the University of Iceland, 2018. My advisors, Dr. Karl Benediktsson and Dr. Edda R. H. Waage, assisted on the interviews with the farmers, conducted in Icelandic; I conducted the other interviews in English. Interviewees’ names have been changed to maintain anonymity.