Autumn road

It was 7.30 on a balmy evening in late October. Ghita, his friend Dinu and three hired shepherds were about to set off with their combined flocks on their six-week trek to Salaj.  I wanted to go too, but circumstances – lack of suitable gear, fears about my safety, issues that seem craven in retrospect, held me back.

Earlier that evening, after waiting all day for fear of missing them, I had walked from the village to the point in a lonely, narrow valley where the autumn transhumance would begin. Ghita, Dinu, Andrei and another hired shepherd called Nicu S, were with the sheep. They also had seven heavily laden donkeys and a couple of extra dogs. The sun cast long shadows over the golden hills which were dry as dust from another summer without rain. Even so, as the day’s heat evaporated, we were smitten with the scent of fertile land.

There was an easy comradeship among the shepherds. It dissolved the barriers between bosses and employees. Their excitement infected me. Here we were, making our way quietly along the hill tops, giving trouble to nobody, engaged in the demanding business of herding animals to shelter, health and ultimately productivity.  It was a forcible contrast to the so-called progressive, industrial farming that was so eloquently predicted by ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Here, in the warm glow of a mid-autumn afternoon, it seemed crazy to think any other way of living could possibly be better.

It took us two hours to reach the other shepherds. They were waiting with the sheep at one of the rented grazing areas on the open hills. It was already dusk. Ghita and his companions spread lumps of grey salt for the sheep to lick.  His father, the diminutive Simion, a wit of 65 summers who had spent most of the past one living out with the flock, was reluctant to leave.  “I’m not going home”, he said flatly, when I told him Ghita had arranged for me to walk back with him to the village.

I was in several minds myself.  Nicu R, who had returned to his job after 18 months in jail, asked me, “Aren’t you coming?  Go on, it would be fun.”  Nicu R’s crime had been to react too violently when a landowner attacked Simion for letting their sheep stray onto his lucerne. He had brained the man (the landowner luckily recovered). I wanted to go, but Nicu L’s drunkenness and Ileana’s warnings  – ‘You never know what the shepherds will do’ – were still ringing in my ears. It wasn’t just I who might suffer. If something went wrong it could make things tricky for Ghita.

Things happened fast.  One second I had been trailing desultorily behind Nicu R and Simion, wondering whether I could change my mind or not, and whether there was really any danger from Nicu S, who although very sweet when sober, often gets drunk; the next, Ghita was gripping Simion’s hand, they were exchanging formal goodbyes, ‘Sa traiti. Drum bun!’ – the family ties sparking like flint.  Then G grasped my hand too:  ‘Doamne ajuta!’ was all I could manage, my feelings overcoming my powers of speech.  No time for elaborations.  He was off into the night.

farmers have to trust their companions. If not, disaster may fall. Dumitru Budrala’s 1997 film, La Drum (On the Road) made that appallingly clear. A Jina sheep farmer was murdered in a forest while the film was being made, and Budrala incorporated the funeral into the opening sequences. Earlier this spring I had seen how precarious the interactions are with my own eyes. *

Simion, Andrei the orphan shepherd, and I picked our way home in the dark. We all had torches but the men did not use theirs. I soon realised why. It was more pleasant to walk in the moon’s patchy light than the torches’ artificial glare. I switched mine off too; if I broke my neck, it was too bad. We padded along the sandy tracks past ghostly trees under the black velvet sky, hardly speaking at all.

We were not alone: there was Stela the seven year old mare who clopped along on her inch-high calkins without needed a halter. There was her foal, a dark phantom whom I heard rather than saw. There were two leggy pups that had been bundled into a deseag (a sack-like shoulder bag made of rough, scratchy wool) and slung loosely over a cojoc across Stela’s back. The pups soon fell off, lying in a heap on the ground, where they squeaked in terror. After they fell a second time, Andrei slung the sack over his shoulders. There were two other dogs. I had the privilege of leading one called Linda, and was astonished that she actually walked to heel. The dog which Simion was holding kept dragging him back towards its mates who had gone on the road.

Although the village is not my home, it felt like it that night. As we struggled up the last steep banks to Simion’s house, panting but victorious, lights twinkled around us. Smells of dewy, herby grass wafted towards us on the breeze. It was two and a half hours since we had left Ghiţa and the others. .

A team of reporters from Pro tv made a short documentary about my passion for Romania. Paul Angelescu, Teodora ‘te iubesc’ (that’s her nickname, I don’t know her surname), and Sergiu Matei (‘the mighty midget’) burst in on us like roistering kids, teasing a laugh out of me and the audience. Good-naturedly, Ghita agreed to be filmed on the road even though he was miles away. It meant he had to hold the flock for hours on a hillside, battered by an arctic wind, until we showed up. At the end of the sequence, the camera swung to the shepherds who sang a traditional Christmas song for the public. Dinu accompanied them on his pipe.

It was nearly a month to the day since I had last seen the flock. Talking to camera, Ghiţa declared that he loved this way of life but could not tell how much longer they could continue to go on the road. Off the record, he said a hunter had shot one of his dogs.

The item was screened on 1st December 2012, Romanian National Day.

When I wrote this, Nicolae D from Jina and Coman S from Rasinari had given up on transhumance. That left Dumitru C from Rasinari, four others that I knew of in Jina, and one from Gura Raului. Doing a survey was not easy – nobody announces this sort of thing publicly, and I had to rely on nosiness and luck. A good guess was that since 1989 the numbers had fallen by nine-tenths. Before land restitutions began, at least 50 flocks from Jina made long-distance journeys on foot.

Two hired shepherds walked out on Ghita: one had been threatening to do so for several weeks, but the other went without warning, taking one of the dogs with him.  Andrei had left the flock in the summer; he said he wasn’t keen to work with Nicu S, but there was probably another more important reason – that it is a hard life, and imposes social restrictions that few young people can endure.

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