a blog about Carpathian shepherds on the road, and other journeys


Monday, 15 July 2013

Carpathian Sheep Walk: a quest for the spiritual and practical essences of shepherding and transhumance in Romania

This is the start of my book on transhumance, a draughty draft, fragments of fiction and reporting, to kick start it.  There may or may not be more instalments of this novel-fact book, it all depends on how the drift takes me.  It's meant for Romanian and English speakers, so no apologies if I don't translate everything for everyone, nor that the action happens in a bewildering number of places, and through several different voices, not always connected...  It is a shaggy sheep story, after all.  

First, catch your quotations

Domnul paşte-mă şi nemica nu-m va lipsi; la locul otăvii, acolo mă l-au sălăşluit (opening of Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, from the first published Romanian translation of the Bible, 1688.)

In Romania there are two indigenous sheep breeds: Ţurcana and Ţigai. Both breeds are supposed to descend from the wild Ovis vignei arkar.  (From ‘Genetic diversity using microsatellite markers in four Romanian autochthonous sheep breeds’, Kevorkian, Georgescu, Manea, Zaulet, Hermenean and Costache, in Romanian Biotechnological Letters Vol. 15, No. 1, 2010)

Buna-i oaia săleaca, Cât traieşte, Te-ndulceşte, Şi hrăneşte, Daca moare, Te-ncalzeşte (The sheep is a blessing, for as long as she lives, she sweetens and nourishes you, and if she dies, her fleece warms you, Romanian folksong, recorded in 1898 and quoted in Mihai Coman, Bestiarul Mitologic Românesc, Bucharest, 1996)

‘Hai, hai...  Nu le bat, le chem - oaia nu se bate... oaia nu e pretenţios animal, nu ca vaca, nu ca porcul, nu s-apară ca nu apară cioban... (‘Come on, come on [to the sheep waiting to be milked].... You mustn’t hit a sheep... she is not pretentious like a cow or a pig; she can’t defend herself so the shepherd must be kind to her....’ Dionisie Dancea, sheep farmer, recorded at Smâlzul, the sheep’s milk measuring day, 1 May 2010, Rudăria, Caraş-Severin)

‘...working with sheep has a benediction all its own’. (H. G. Clarke, Introduction to Practical Shepherding, London, 1959)

‘Oile ţinem din dragoşte, nu numai să iau bani... ce să facem!’ (‘We keep sheep because we love them, not just to make money...what can I say!’ Dumitru Capota, sheep farmer who still goes on the road, Răşinari, August 2011)

‘[Oile sunt] animale blânde dar şi blestemate... nu se lasă să mulge...’ (‘[Sheep are] gentle animals but also bloody-minded... they won’t let you milk them...’, Dumitru Capota, while milking his sheep at the strunga later the same day at his fold near Poplaca

‘Sunt proaste pentru ca să duce una dupa alta... se înneaca daca e apa mare’ (‘They are stupid because they follow each other... they drown if they get into deep water’, one of Dumitru Capota’s hired shepherds while pushing sheep through the strunga with the aid of a whip, later the same day)

‘O vaca, o capra, un cal vin acasa noapte.... dar oaia nu vine... să se duce tot mai înalta... (Dumitru Capota, while milking his sheep)

Sheep, ridiculed for a non-questioning herd mentality, possess a sharp sense of individuality and can recognise the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years. Scientists at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge also discovered that sheep react to facial expressions and, like humans, prefer a smile to a grimace.

Further studies which reinforce the notion that sheep are more like us than previously believed involved tests showing they mourn absent individuals. (‘Sheep might be dumb... but they're not stupid’, Mark Townsend, environment correspondent, The Observer, 6 March 2005)

Are sheep stupid?  We have Wikipedia to thank for the following information:
“Sheep are frequently thought of as extremely stupid animals. A sheep's herd mentality and quickness to flee and panic in the face of stress often make shepherding a difficult endeavor for the uninitiated. Despite these perceptions, a University of Illinois monograph on sheep found them to be just below pigs and on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have shown problem-solving abilities; a flock in Yorkshire, England found a way to get over cattle grids by rolling on their backs. In addition to long-term facial recognition of individuals, sheep can also differentiate emotional states through facial characteristics. If worked with patiently, sheep may learn their names, and many sheep are trained to be led by halter for showing and other purposes.” (‘Everything you always wanted to know about sheep’, Su Jordan, Daily Info, Oxford, 6 April 2008)

‘There’s nothing special about being a shepherd; it’s a job like any other’ (Niculae Dordea, sheep farmer, Crinţ, judeţul Sibiu)

‘Oaia e un animal sfânt; cine se ocupa cu creşterea oilor şi albine va avea noroc la toate. Când nu vor mai fi oi şi albine, va fi sfârşitul lumii’ (The sheep is a holy animal; anyone who keeps sheep and bees will be lucky in everything they do.  When there are no more sheep or bees, it will be the end of the world’.  Quoted in Mihai Coman, op cit)

‘If you spend all your time with sheep you will end up by only being able to say “Baa”’ (Comment heard on BBC Radio 4)

Chapter One:  Trans-what?

Who apart from British farmers hoping to make a killing or a terminal insomniac would want to read a book about sheep?  It is a question that Clare frequently asks herself as she spends another small fortune on travels around Romania for the book she hopes to write.  Shaking the depressing thought out of her brain with a mental head butt, she counters it with one of her own: anyone with the imagination and tenacity to follow a story with as many twists and turns as the Minotaur’s maze must get somewhere.  It would be better than gazing at her navel in some old folks' home.    

A foreigner with only the haziest notions about Romania’s place in the world, she did not know – who but a specialist would have done? – when she arrived there twenty years ago, that this is a country which practically sweats sheep out of its pores.  Its pastoral traditions beat Britain’s by a mile, she thought.  Trouble is, sheep – and their shepherds - are not cool.  Things look a little better if you look at it through the perspective of transhumance, then you can start to see the romance of shepherding as a form of travel, letting your mind float into the starry realms of myth, with Jason and the Argonauts, Daphnis and Chloe, and such like.  Not what the sheep think probably, but this tale is more about the shepherds than the animals they farm.  

But come on, say it out loud: transhumance.  The very word is romantic, inspiring images of limitless plains, wild mountains and not a fence in sight.  All it means, literally, pedantically, is moving from one piece of land to another, and you can apply it to people as well as animals.  The dictionary definition would tell you that it is connected to the seasonal movement of animals between summer and winter pastures.  You can see it as a half-way station between nomadism and sedentary farming, but transhumance dates back to the Stone Age and, in some places, places that are generally regarded as poor, backward, and remote, it is still going on.  The transhumant life happened on every continent where people kept livestock on open ground, and needed to find grass all year round.  

Most transhumant farmers were mountain men, and needed to move their sheep, cattle and other animals down to the lowland to avoid the winter freeze, and vice versa in summer, when it was too hot to stay near sea level.  Such mountain men and women still exist in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and I have spent the past five years looking for them, and in some lucky cases living and walking with them and their animals.  Hence the title of this book.   

Chapter Two:  Clare's Story

Clare is researching the history of transhumance.  She is from London but fed up with big city life.  A series of chance encounters leads her to Romania soon after the Revolution.  She describes the experience as a kind of spiritual mugging.  Nothing prepared her for the beauty and the poverty she found there, but she became addicted to the country, cannot leave it alone.  As one wall came down, another went up, blocking off the path behind her.  She cannot go back, but the way ahead is far from clear.  Her interest in transhumance is almost instinctive; she wants to follow its story as a moth seeks the sun.  

Clare is afraid of progress but wants to conquer her fear by what she thinks will be a path to light and freedom. 

Her research brings her to Sibiu, Romania's shepherding capital.  Thanks to an introduction from a curator she knows at the National Peasant Museum, she makes friends with the Micleas.  This is a family who once lived in Rod, a village in the Cindrel range of the Southern Carpathians.  Rod is one of several communities that was renowned for its shepherding connections with southern Russia.  But that was long ago, in the first half of the 20th century.  Today Rod is little more than a ghost village.  

Ioan, the father, is a retired railway man; Sanda his wife makes pottery and Mariana, their daughter is also an artist.  There is a son, Radu, who is a petrol head.  Ioan and Mariana are intrigued by Clare's interest and bring her to meet Ioan's mother who remembers, vaguely, that her grandfather raised sheep somewhere in the Crimea. 

It seems so unlikely, these links with pre-Soviet Russia (now Ukraine), and as in a dream, Clare is drawn into skeins of history that have, in effect, woven a grand tapestry out of a modest, and very Romanian enclave in the southern Carpathians.  Not only Rod, but seven or eight other villages in the same area yield people who, with some effort of memory, can tell a similar story.   It captivates Clare that once upon a time, their inhabitants explored many lands that were new to them, because of a need for grass.  And it fascinates her that these almost forgotten individuals should have doggedly forged their way into other countries while the great powers slugged it out virtually over their heads.  She wanted to know who they were, how they lived, what happened to them.        

It is October, just before Sanmedru, the day the sheep used to leave the high pastures.  In a walled garden beside a back street in Saliste, Clare and Ioan meet Mrs V.  They sit together in her freezing kitchen with its pistachio walls, they listen patiently to a tale of such staggering courage and woe that hairs prickle on the back of Clare's neck.

Mrs V. is the grand-daughter of a shepherd who followed a different road, one of the many who were driven further and further afield with their sheep until they came to a stop in the Crimea, or in northern Caucasus.  They went because it was cheaper to find winter pasture there than at home, where the Saxon settlers had taken their mountains and the other fields worth grazing were needed for hay.  Mrs V's grand-father did well in Crimea, where the pastures were cheap and Romanian shepherds appreciated for their hard work and the quality of their wool.  

The Romanians introduced salty sheep's cheese they call telemea to the Russians; telemea is like feta, and it was Greek shepherds in Dobrogea, that part of Romania that touches the Black Sea, where so many Romanians wintered their flocks during the Turkish period, who gave the Romanians the idea that you could make a longer-lasting cheese out of sheep's curds by adding salt to them.  

Mrs V's father left school at 14 and joined his father in Crimea.  It was still part of the Tsar's land.  Then came the October Revolution.  Things weren't too bad in the early 1920s, and her father married a girl from Saliste, leaving her there to bring up Mrs V.  After that, collectivisation, persecution, famine, deportation, war.  Mrs V. never knew her father.  He disappeared during the famine.  She told Clare and Ilie that people were so hungry they would eat each other's children. 


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