Calling the bear

Maria Sterp is a poet with a wonderful memory for folklore and traditions. She grew up in Jina where she still lives, and experienced many of the festivities she writes about. Her ability to recall names and faces as well as places and events means that she carries much of the village’s history in her head.

Maria Sterp is a poet with a wonderful memory for folklore and traditions. She grew up in Jina, a Transylvanian village where she still lives, and has experienced many of the festivities she writes about at first hand. Her ability to recall names and faces as well as places and events means that she carries much of the village’s history in her head.

As she invites me into her modest kitchen-cum-sitting-room-cum bedroom, Maria Sterp appraises me warily.  Am I going to turn out to be one of those literary vultures who have been using her work to promote their own glory?  It is a forgivable thought, since as a prolific creator of verse without any institution to protect her, she is vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation.

Maria had loved making up poems as a child but never had the time to concentrate on this passion until a bout of illness in her 60s prevented her from returning to her work as a cheese-maker in the mountain folds.

Her writing is simple, repetitive and direct, but its content is profound.  It embraces everything she knows and cares about, the real people and places that have shaped her life.  Maria models her poetry on strigături, the taunting call-and-response sequences between men and women, accompanied by a lot of stamping, that are used to entertain audiences at traditional dances and concerts.

Here she is talking about why she writes:

Tot am vrut să fac şi eu
Ceva pentru satul meu.
Daca aş fi ştiut cânta,
Îmi stâmpăram inima.

Dar dacă glas n-am avut,
M-am gândit la ce-am putut:
Să scriu despre fiecare
Care unde moşii are.

Aşa am vorbit cu drag
De toţi oamenii din sat
Şi am vorbit cu mare dor
Despre moşiile lor…

(Everything I have wanted to do
Has been for my village.
If I had known how to sing,
It would have soothed my heart.

But if I didn’t have a voice,
I had to think what I could do:
To write about everyone
Who has their family here.

So I have spoken with love
About everyone in my village
Am I’ve written with longing
About their homes…*

(*This is my translation.)

I first read about Maria in a book she collaborated on with the film-maker, Dumitru Budrala.  This publication, called Ultimi Păstori and put out by the Astra Museum, Sibiu, in 2006, reproduces many of her verses, is full of luscious photographs, and it gives a good deal of historical background about the village of J.  Although Dumitru Budrala praises Maria Sterp’s unique talent, you could be forgiven for assuming she is a rather naive, unschooled individual, and that he ‘discovered’ her, in the same way that Svengali discovered Trilby.

It was not until I met Maria herself that I realised that she was nothing like this image: she is not only beautiful and distinguished-looking, she is nobody’s fool, and although modest, she would pass for an intellectual in any company.  Maria has written several books of her own about J (they are published by Editura Salgo in Sibiu).  What drives her is a passion for her birthplace, her fellow villagers and their history.

The more I read of Maria’s – and other local writers’ – work, the more I want to know.  It seems to me that this village has a special personality: it is both rural and sophisticated, down to earth and spiritual, go-getting and relaxed.  It has these qualities because there are still a lot of children and young people here as well as maturer bodies, and because it is far enough away from the big urban centres to be a self-reliant community.

It is said that the people of J were proto-capitalists when the rest of the country was still communist.  They have certainly had some advantages – managing to avoid certain taxes which allowed individuals to build up their own, personal flocks, but the village has made plenty of sacrifices, too.  During 1761-62 when Nicholaus Adolf von Bukow, an Austrian general acting for the Empress Maria Theresa, ordered all Transylvania’s Orthodox churches to be destroyed, many people from J and other Mărgineni communities fled over the mountains to the south taking their animals with them (1).  Those who remained clung to their churches and refused to become Roman Catholics.  J was one of the villages that held on to its Orthodox Church, and very pretty it is too.

Later, though, the men of J were persuaded to join the Habsburg army as border guards; in return J received a great deal of mountain pasture which it preserves to this day: its gain was other villages’ loss.  An often-quoted statistic says that J’s total land holdings cover same area as Bucharest but the land in question is pasture rather than built-up, and it still looks and feels like a village.

A legend says that J was founded by a fierce, brave woman from Oltenia who led the original inhabitants up into the mountains to escape from persecution by the Saxons.  Her name was Zina, which in Romanian means something like Fairy.  This happened in the 1390s and the first houses were built on a hill to one side of the present-day village; it is called Nedeie, commemorating the annual girls’ fair that was held there, in June.

Wandering there one hot day last October, I found a handful of lonely-looking colibi (summer farms) and an overgrown cart track leading through a wood of tall silver birches.  Passing an orchard I caught sight of Ghita’s uncle tending his apple trees.  He gave me a bottle of spring water to quench my thirst.  A flock of sheep came down from the hill top way above our heads.  Ghita’s uncle asked me, “What on earth are you doing here?”.  It was quite a sharp question, as though I had no right to be so far from civilisation.  Yet we were only a mile or so from the centre of J.  The ground was dusty and practically bare, because of the drought and so much grazing.  On my way down a steep lane to the valley before Nedeie, I had startled a black squirrel, but the heat was searing and there were hardly any other signs of life.

As the shadows lengthened, the deep silence of the mountains and the pure, warm air created a feeling of languour and reassurance.  It was as though the mountain was mine.  From where I was standing, you could survey a quarter of the Transylvanian Plateau, its business trifling and remote.  Tiny puffs of white smoke rose from the huge wood processing plant in Sebeş to the west, and on the horizon you could just see the gap in the Apuseni Mountains where Cheile Turzii, The Keys of Turda, cut its way through the karstic ranges some 70 miles away.

On my way down from Nedeie, I saw wild boar rootlings.  When I got home to my lodgings, my hosts, Ileana and Ion, scolded me for going there on my own – the danger of gadina (wild beasts) is no joke – but their admonishments only made me feel gladder that I had done it.

Two days later I was sitting at a table with Ileana’s sister in law – also called Ileana – in her neat kitchen.  Ileana is a large, friendly, direct woman who understood perfectly why I wanted to know more about shepherding.  She had invited some of neighbours to come and talk to me about their lives in the folds.

After offering everyone shots of cherry brandy, Ileana said that she and her mother had been employed as baciţe (cheesemakers), at a time when three or four flocks were kept up at a coliba together.  They had cows there too – as they still do today, when some families, including Ghiţa’s, decamp to folds in either the hotarul de jos or hotarul de sus (hotar is a boundary separating the lower and higher pastures, and separating J’s pastures from those of other villages), with all their animals including pigs and hens.
Ileana recalled how it was during the 1950s, when she rotated between three different mountains in four years: Haneşul, Şerbota and Salane (the first two belong to J, the third to Poiana).
“Every day began with making caş (sheep’s cheese), and then brânză de burduf (caş which is salted and chopped into fragments, then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach or a tube of pine bark), jintiţă (a curd drink) and urda from zer”.  Urdă is a much softer cheese made from boiling the whey left over from the caş.  Nothing got wasted.  “In the second half of the season, but before Sfânta Maria (15th August), we’d make telemea”.  Telemea is a creamy, white cheese, sometimes made with added water so that it is soft, like feta.  “We also made sheep’s butter.  And after Sfânta Maria, we’d make brânza de burduf, but it wasn’t easy to sell that; the price wasn’t high.”
A jolly looking, blue-eyed man who looked much younger than his 72 years, chipped in to say that he had been a shepherd from the age of 12, in 1952.  His name was Mitica.

“My dad had sheep, and I went up to Şerbota.  We had an angajat (a hired man) called Nicolae.  We had 1200 head and Nicolae built up his own herd while working for us; he had 50.  So we had 700 mioare (female lambs) and we ran two folds with between 400 and 500 mânzare (breeding ewes), and each fold had 20 cows.  Boy, it was hard work but we had fun up there!”

Mitica recited the names of other folds and mountains belonging to J: Grupata, Gungurezu, Domnilor, Oaşa, Muncelu, Picioarele Cailor, Groapele…

“Each fold had four or five baci – or baciţe – who milked their employers’ sheep and made the cheese in each communal flock.  In the autumn they took the cheese home, having stored it in barrels to keep it fresh.”

They sat round the table, reminiscing about days long gone.

“In October the farmers took the sheep away for iernat (over-wintering), to a place they had rented – it could be near Satu Mare (a county on the north-west border of Romania, some 300 km away).  They weren’t part of the state or cooperative farm system.”

Ghiţa and a handful of other young shepherds that I know carry out the same routine, but compared with the hundreds of transhumant shepherds that Mitica was talking about, they seemed isolated and forlorn.

“How did you sell the cheese in those days?”

“The same as now: negustori (traders) came and bought it from each household.”

“And how was it on the road?” I meant transhumance.

Mitica took a while before answering.  There is so much that happens on transhumance, both good and bad.

“Deci, la drum, as now, the ewes lambed on the road, and it could rain for a week.  Then your cojoc (long sheepskin cloak made from hairy Ţurcana skins) became terribly heavy and all you could do was to sit by the fire – in rain, wind and snow.  You know we call the cojoc ‘casa ciobanului’ (the shepherd’s house).”

I nodded but wondered: I had heard other shepherds say that the cojoc was designed to withstand rain – it was meant to roll straight off the oily wool – but I could imagine the sodden leather hanging around your shoulders like a dead weight.  These cloaks are bulky enough to handle even when dry.

Ileana, sparkling in congenial company, told me that the women would spend the winter weaving.

“They made their own clothes, bags, dowries; they dyed their own wool and wove it on their own looms.”

“In the communist days, a good fleece weighed three kilograms but two kilos had to go to the state.  All the sheep were counted – a fost plătit slab (we weren’t paid well).  And from every 100 sheep, we had to give ten to the state.”

It was a different story from the ones I had heard – and read in learned articles – about the enormous wealth that Mărgineni shepherds accrued under Ceauşescu’s rule.  What Ileana and Mitica told me did not invalidate the other tales, but it showed how important it was to take individual cases on their own merits.

The radiant faces in Ileana’s kitchen told me two things: that their memories of working up in the summer folds were good, and that they wished that life was still possible.  Nedeie, a festival which allowed local youngsters to get to know others from more distant communities (and presumably to strengthen the gene pool), was a marriage opportunity, and an important part of that life – although there was lots of socialising on other occasions.  If young people got engaged on the mountains they waited until they came back to the village in the autumn before getting married.

Listening to their reminiscences reminded me of Maria Sterp’s poetry, in which every location has a special character, and a particular meaning to those who spent so much time there.

Maria has not only written her own, original verse, but she has collected hundreds of poems and songs from other people in the village.  When I was with her last October, she mentioned a custom that caught my attention right away.  It was to do with calling bears.  Bears are magnificent, beautiful creatures but they are also a menace.  Climate change has affected Carpathian brown bears like everything else.  Warmer winters have provoked them to stay awake instead of hibernating.  A bear that is awake and active is also hungry.  Cases of bear attacks on shepherds as well as sheep have grown in recent winters and when I was in Sălişte last November my hostess told me a bear had taken two piglets from an orchard on the edge of the village the previous night.  So Maria’s mention of the traditional bear call got me thinking.  What was it all about?  On my flying visit in January I grabbed the chance of asking Maria to tell me more about this odd ritual.

What follows is an excerpt from a recording that I made with Maria Sterp in January 2013.  I am attaching part of the interview to this post (it is in Romanian, and to hear it, please click here).  Below is a transcription of another section of the recording – please forgive me for any mistakes.  I have added a brief English summary at the end of this post.

CJ  Am vorbit despre strigătura impotriva urşii.  De ce e vorba de, de, fetele, de fete care sunt la, la coliba?

MS La stâna

CJ La stâna, da

MS Daca s’întimpla ca sunt doua fete baciţe într’o stâna, şi cu acelaşi nume, să sui intr’un brad, întoarsa una intr’o parte, una a cealalta, e să lasă pletele pe spate, stau cu capu gol, şi lasa pletele pe spate, şi striga cât pot pe tare să s’aude, cât mai departe:

Uiuiu, fecior de popa,
Cât se aude glasul meu
Nu calce piciorul tău

Şi atunci, aşa se zice ca ursu numai vine pe acolo, pentru ca el ar fi fost ce ştiu un băiat unui preot, un fecior de popa, şi ce or fi făcut de tata sau l’o blestemat, l’o şi ajuns să urs şi nu îi place sa vine urs, pe acolo numai – ce zice cineva “fecior de popa”, gata!  Nu ştiu daca e adevărat sau nu, dar, aşa avea de vorba de popor…

Mr Sterp breaks in here, about “oaie” (sheep)

CJ  Şi aţi auzit poezia narativa asta din J, de la J?

MS  Da

CJ  Numai de la J sau altoriunde?

MS  Daca or fi şi din alta parte nu mai ştiu.  Nu ştiu.

CJ  Şi cine v-a spus…

MS   Peh, asta o ştiu din, de la bun… de la strabunici!  Din, de cănd, ca oarecum a fost, um, aşa de la multe vorbe care, care le spuneau, dar înca, atunci nu mi-am dat seama ca o ajunge să scriu, şi să am nevoie de ele, numai ramas memorate ceea, căte ceva, şi atunci sunt slabit de tot memoria.  Acuma aud, acuma uit, acu nu me l-ai pot zice dar, tot cazul aştia, nu le am ştiut de mult.  Da…

CJ  Foarte interesant, când au început.

MS  Vă să, ce se aude…

What is this all about?  Maria told me that when there were two girls with the same name working in the same sheep fold, they would go outside, climb a pine tree, face in opposite directions, and with their hair flowing down their backs and their heads bare, they would shout as loudly as they could:

Hey, hey, hey, my dear priest’s son,
As long as you can hear my voice,
Don’t you dare bring your feet anywhere near me.

The conceit of turning the bear into the person of the priest’s son is very curious – especially given the evidence of a prehistoric bear cult discovered in Romanian caves – and I’d like to know if anyone else has come across it.

(My thanks to the novelist, Mariana Aionesei, for helping me translate the bear call.)

(1)  A Romanian writer called Ioana Postelnicu (1910-2004) wrote two epic novels about this phenomenon, Plecarea Vlaşinilor and Întoarcerea Vlaşinilor, published respectively in 1964 and 1979.  Both stories were made into films.  Ioana Postelnicu had family ties with another village in Mărginimea Sibiului which von Bukow persecuted.

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