From Wales, Romania seems too far away. The likelihood that I’ll be able to make a speedy return is not great. The winter here has felt long, cold and wet. It has also been sad because it brought the death of one of my heroes, the travel writer, Michael Jacobs. Michael began his writing career as an art historian but got so absorbed in the way other people live that he abandoned academe for the road. Spain and South America were his favourites but he went more or less everywhere. One of his first books was about artists’ colonies, and that brought him to Baia Mare and the Nagybanya School in north-west Romania. I was lucky enough to meet him in 1993, shortly after my first trip to Romania, and he not only gave me loads of contacts but put my name forward to write the Blue Guide. Michael was a kind, generous, funny, wonderful person and his vanishing, after a short illness, came as a huge shock.
Yesterday I sent a text to Ghita wishing him well on the spring road. The shepherds should have left their winter quarters on the 1st of April. But I’m out of touch: my last news was that Ghita had opened a cheese shop in Bucharest, and who knows but he is travelling the world in his new-found guise as Ghita Ciobanul. I can’t believe that fame will change his character: he won’t let it go to his head, and if he does, his friends will tease him to bits.
Living without a regular fix of Romania is hard, but I have spent the last six months writing – and rewriting – an article for Pastoralism Journal. It’s called Dupa coada oilor (After the sheep’s tails), and is an analysis of the way transhumance has developed in Romania and a look at its contribution to cultural and agricultural life. You can find it here:
After submitting the piece, I found some of George Monbiot’s articles on rewilding the countryside, and his comments on overgrazing by sheep. He says that the people who say that grazing animals help preserve biodiversity are only interested in ‘flowers and butterflies’. I don’t think they are that simple, but George Monbiot claims that there are too many sheep on our British hills. There are never fewer than 20 million, I heard the other day – in a radio broadcast about Philip Walling’s new book, Counting Sheep – making our national flock the largest in the EU. So do 80 million-plus high-heeled trotters compact the ground and cause flooding, as George Monbiot says? Somehow I can’t help feeling that concrete does more harm, but the prospect he brings of reawakening people’s appreciation of nature, and fighting the commodification of the natural world is a great one.
For more information about my searches for Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus, please visit this page and follow the links.