Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Summer is a moo-veable feast

As a child, I read the novel Heidi, about a little orphan girl who looked after the goats in the Swiss Alps with Peter, the goatherd, and Grandfather.  I also saw the movie, where Shirley Temple and her ringlets epitomized Switzerland for me until I discovered that’s where my ancestors came from... although I have absolutely not the slightest soup├žon of a ringlet.
     All this to say that goats/sheep/cows in an Alpine pasture was just literature to me, a scene seen on the silver screen.
     And then I came to France.  The middle of it, to be more precise.

Transhumance is a word I learned in French.  It means taking one’s livestock back and forth between summer pastures in the hills and winter barns in valleys.  I didn’t think the word existed in English, which shows you how knowledgeable I wasn't about All Things Livestock-y.  So I looked it up and found this: “Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. In montane regions (vertical transhumance) it implies movement between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter. Herders have a permanent home, typically in valleys. Only the herds travel, with the people necessary to tend them.”
An old photo of a shepherd on his stilts
     It was a concept I later saw with my own eyes.  But even before I’d experienced transhumance in action, I’d encountered it in the sub-titling phase of my translator/interpreter career.  Subtitles for the film-for-television version of a book called Jean de Chalosse, the life story of a fictional but archetypal shepherd, one of many.  Chalosse is a region of Gascony where one of the local mainstays is, or rather was, sheep.  In the winter, they were left to graze on the plains south of Bordeaux, and in the spring they set off for the Pyrenees, where they stayed until the autumn chill drove them back to the plains.  The shepherds cut a striking figure on their stilts (with a third equally long stick used as a walking stick and to form a tripod to rest on).  From that perch, they could see out over the sheep to the horizon, and easily keep up with their flock as it moved across the land.  All this was a part of France’s geography and history that I hadn’t known, and it fascinated me.
Salers cattle, with their recognizable color and horns
     Later I was to actually see the bovine version of this transhumance.  A friend took me on a trip to his native Auvergne, in the Massif Central, which is just exactly what it says:  a massive block of mountains in the center of France.  It was summer and we drove across mile upon mile upon kilometer of highland plains spotted with auburn Salers cattle... and not a person in sight.  Population is sparse up there, and it was almost like seeing the animals as they might have been before there were people to milk them.
Improvised herding of straying cattle
     When I returned to Auvergne on my own some time after that, it just happened to be in October, when the cattle are brought down from those highland pastures.  They’re herded along deserted roads and through small towns.  Tourists take photos; on-lookers help keep any strays on the straight-and-narrow by shouting and swinging their sweaters.  It’s quite a sight.
     All this reminded me of something I saw in Switzerland when I was very young, just after my father had traced the family back to the Bern region.  He drove us in a rented car over mile upon mile of backroads, to get a feeling for our roots.  In front of almost every dairy farm was a tall square - and open! - enclosure full of... well full of bullshit.  And cowshit as well.  All very fragrant, but rather perplexing to us asepticized Americans.  “Why don’t they put that in the back of the house where you can't see it?” my mother asked, not being Swiss at all.  We eventually found out that a pile of manure was a mark of wealth.  The bigger the pile, the more cattle you have, so the richer you are.  Some people buy Rolex Oyster watches, some amass cow patties.
     Now, years later, it’s spring again.  The noontime news is featuring a whole week of footage on cows being readied for their annual trek up the mountainside.  Today’s are in the Aubrac part of Auvergne, and the images show them being decked out in colorful flowers and wreaths and melodious bells for their trip through their native town, with the priest coming out to bless them as they pass his church.  It’s part of a fading past, but one that is still alive and well in certain regions:  the Massif Central, the Alps and even the Pyrenees.  Anywhere in France where there are pastures high up, filled with buttercups and tall grass swaying in the wind.  The cows won’t be back until October 13th, when people will hear their bells echoing down the road and run out to watch them pass one more time.

P.S.  Here's a short video about this phenomenon.  It's in French, but the pictures do the talking.  I love the way they have to go find them in a Jeep because they're just running around loose.  And that the calves are left to drink their mother's milk and not stuck in some fattening stalls.  The farmers brought up salt licks and check that the snow that fell overnight didn't create any problems.

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