house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Last Transhumance

In the winter of 2012 I found myself in need of some old-style shepherds, for a story; some research later, I encountered a small and shrinking band of heroes: the traveling herdsmen of the Carpathians.

These are humble super-humans who take vast populations of sheep to pasture, traveling up and along mountain ranges, across borders and far beyond all ‘civilised’ world. All summer long, they guard their flocks, milk hundreds of sheep (twice daily), make cheese, play the pan pipes and the flute. 

Well. Things change. The flute may have been replaced - with a portable radio here, a cassette player there, the ubiquitous mobile phone. The cheese is too much work, can't ever meet new European standards, and certainly makes little profit, if at all.

There may be fewer traveling shepherds than polar bears left - thousands at the beginning of the last century, a few dozen now. This years’ journey up into the hills may be the very last.

It is known as 'transhumance' - defined as ‘the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between summer and winter pastures’. Romanian schoolchildren of my generation learned the word with their ABCs, and later found traveling shepherds in novels and in ballads (THE ballad, of course, that we all know by heart, Miorita - the story of a shepherd, his brothers, his sheep, and love and death and poetry as a gentle, cosmic lie). Transhumance reveals the song lines of our collective soul. 

Wandering shepherds featured in a BBC film about the large carnivores that still roam the woods and hills of Transylvania. The film makers were amazed, I remember, at how the shepherds, bears and wolves had found a way to inhabit the same ecosystem, in fluid harmony. A helicopter buzzed over dark-forested slopes and filmed a mild-green, mineral world, a heaven of sorts, far beyond humanity itself, touched only by beasts and shepherds. You can make out the ample flocks, ghostly-white, dotting the alpine paths and spreading into clearings just like clouds. 

In 1999 I found my own wandering shepherd, in a remote village in Albania. A Vlach who, thirty years before, had taken his flock across the hills, a familiar journey. He had reached Albania unaware of changing laws and politics, and the borders had closed around him like a net. When I met him he was already an old man, unfit for the long journey home. He spoke an almost-extinct Romanian dialect and still longed for his former flocks, his travels, his beloved Carpathian meadows and hills. All we could give each other was our common homeland: he gave me the country he had left behind, I gave him the country it had since become. The past for the present, a neat exchange.   

But by 2012 I needed even more stories about shepherds and their journeys. I asked around; every time I uttered the word ‘transhumance’, a name was promptly uttered back to me. Dragos Lumpan, find Dragos, I was told.

Dragos being one of the few (maybe the only?) city-dwellers / artists / modern humans for whom transhumance was more than a word; he had spent several years walking with the shepherds, camera or notebook in hand, traveling from hill to hill and from country to country. If anyone could shine a light on this vanishing breed, Dragos could.

He responded quickly and kindly to my rather pathetic, ignorant and formal email. When we met, Dragos held out a book he had produced, containing his beautiful, dream-like pictures of people and hills and sunsets, and sheep, always seas of sheep. He then proceeded to tell me such stories that only my old Vlach shepherd could have known (but in a dialect much easier to comprehend). The day grew dark and my tea grew cold and  all I wanted was to walk ten thousand miles behind a flock of sheep, just like some breathless damsel might have once longed to join the circus. 'Enough of that' I might have said, 'just tell me: when's the next transhumance?'

The next transhumance? Good question. Shepherds prepared to walk into the wild behind their thousand sheep are fewer every year. Dragos may have  captured the very last of this ancient journey - in his breath-taking photographs and the film he is now trying to edit and launch, The Last Transhumance.

In an article he wrote for the National Geographic, Dragos confesses that he followed the flocks of sheep because he likes the cheese.  I am writing this story because if Dragos is right and we are seeing the last transhumance - then he will miss the cheese and we'll forget the shepherds and that will be that. 

I’m fine about the cheese, not fine about the forgetting; the shepherds' superhuman journeys may have come to an end - but there is something I can do (write a blog, find my wallet) and there is something you can do (send some money, spread the word) to make sure there is a record of their story. 'The Last Transhumance' does what only the best ethnographic films do: it captures something all too elusive, but immeasurably important, about seasons and life, predators and prey, endurance, our song lines, the journeys that make us who we are. 

Photos and inspiration: Dragos Lumpan


At 12 July 2015 at 19:27 , Anonymous Marina Sofia said...

I come from a family of shepherds who used to do precisely that across the Carpathians (wandering between Transylvania and Muntenia, back in the days when they were different countries). And I love the cheese!

At 13 July 2015 at 10:41 , Blogger emwolfem said...

I know, I know! (and love the cheese as well...) - my mother grew up with these shepherds coming and going with the seasons. Some amazing stories, heh? (How are you? Moving continents now - and closer to you - perhaps a reunion soon ?) x

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