Novel dreams about non-electric sheep

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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