Portrait of a shepherd

Nicu R is scouring pots by the fire.  He has his head down, concentrating on scraping off the remains of polenta which have solidified on the metal.  When he looks up I see that his eyebrows meet in the middle, making a curve like an arrow’s flight across his forehead.  His sardonic expression suggests that he is older than his 21 years; his small stature and sweetness of countenance make him seem much younger.  When he holds his soggy footwraps to the heat, they steam as though in pain.

Nicu may be short but he is immensely strong.  He proved his strength a couple of years ago, when he brained a landowner who had knocked down his boss, Ghiţa’s father, over a disputed trespass.  I had heard a version of the story from Dragoş Lumpan: the shepherds were taking the flock to their winter grazing, it was nearly dark, and the sheep may or may not have strayed onto a field of lucerne.  When the angry landowner floored Simion, Nicu attacked him with his bâta, a tough hazel staff.  As Nicu went for him, the man had raised his forearm in self-defence.  Nicu broke that as well.

He was put away on a charge of attempted murder.  He could have got 15 years, but, happily, the man Nicu attacked survived.  Ghiţa hired a lawyer to defend the young shepherd.  After 18 months in gaol, Nicu returned to the fold.

Nicu comes from Mediaş, a town in central Transylvania, and has worked as a hired shepherd for eight years.  Here he is, at 9.30pm on 30th January, drying his ciorapi after a supper of pastrama (mutton) grilled on the embers, and bread.  Above his head, the stars are diamonds in black ink.  Scents of sheep’s dung and wood smoke mingle with frost: I could make a pretentious reference to olfactory challenges here but will not.  I can think of few more live-giving smells.  The sheep, gathered a few yards away in an unfenced orchard, gossip and bicker among themselves.  A molly ewe shimmies down to the fire, nosing for scraps.  Her silky tresses glint in the firelight. *

Ghiţa and the other three men, Tica, Dinu and Sorin, had left for the night, leaving Nicu to look after the sheep.  Ghiţa was going to his wife who was staying with her mother, 15 miles to the east.  Andreea was expecting their first child and Ghiţa was more than usually preoccupied.  Like Ghiţa, the others were two hundred miles from home.  They had come north from the Southern Carpathian Mountains to help him build a lambing shelter.  I did not know where they were lodging.

I was there out of curiosity: having started a book about transhumance, I wanted to know more about what shepherding in Romania was really like.  It was hard to tell what effect prison had had on Nicu, but his self-possession was impressive.  He was articulate too.  This surprised me: although I knew it was patently untrue, I must still have thought that being often illiterate, hired shepherds were idiots as well.  I did not know if Nicu could write, but his brain seemed as sharp as an icicle.

Ignoring Ghiţa’s advice to doss down with the pups in the barn, I accepted Nicu’s invitation to make my bed on a slope in the orchard behind the yard.  He brought an extra cojoc for me to lie on, then helped to  lower me like a ladder to the ground, where I lay like a shag pile mummy, listening to the sheep’s jaws clicking as they snipped sparse shoots of grass.

“Cojocul e casa ciobanului.”  ‘The shepherd’s house’ is what they call these armless, ankle-length sheepskin greatcoats which make the eastern European shepherds who wear them look prehistoric.  The cloaks have the fleece on the outside, and once installed, you feel as safe as a castle.

Nicu lay about three feet away in his own cojoc and asked me about sex.  For some reason I did not mind all that much.  It was like being interrogated by a younger brother, or a nephew, and whatever the reason for his enquiries, I took them as genuine curiosity, not seeing any prurience or other suspect motive behind them.

Time passed, and I remained rigid in my cloak.  Cold crept from my feet up to my shins, not quite reaching my knees.  I kept my head tucked well inside the tickling hairs, lulled by the ewes’ stertorous breathing when they finally slumped down to rest.

At 2 am, a call of nature made me get up fast.  Nicu had disappeared.  A silver light glinted on intricate patterns of pale grey-green lichen which grew on the bark of the plum trees.  Although it was nearly freezing, there was an exhilarating tang in the air.  It consisted of sheep, wet earth, snow, and countless other night-time smells from woods and mountains.

At 8 the following morning, Ghiţa shattered my fragile peace.  He was furious.  “Where the hell have you got to?  Why aren’t the sheep out on the hill?  What the damn do you think you’re doing letting the donkeys into the hay?”  For a moment I thought he was firing all that at me, but as his boots stomped past my head, I realised it was Nicu he was after, so I kept cavy.

Five minutes later, I picked my way down to the farmyard, carefully keeping the cloak out of the mud.  It was too late for that; the beautifully tailored skins which Ghiţa had dropped onto my shoulders the previous evening were already besmirched with snow and soil.  Probably I had twigs in my hair.

Ghiţa was so cross that I was afraid to look him in the face.  I felt a sudden empathy with the bitch who cowered on the edge of the human circle with her tail between her legs.  We were both ravenous.  Sensing the tension, Tica, Dinu and Sorin were pretty quiet, too.  Not knowing what to say, I lifted the cojoc onto a gate to dry, and returned for the other, smaller one.  Having acted as my mattress, it was in a far worse state.  There was no sign of Nicu.

Dinu fashioned a spatula out of a scrap of pine that had come from a pallet.  Instead of leaving its sides smooth and ordinary, he cut symmetrical steps into its shoulders making a piece of rubbish into something special.

“Doamna, mâncaţi!”  It was an order, but welcome: I was afraid Ghiţa would ban me from eating.  We had bulz.  This is a wodge of mămăliga squashed around melted sheep’s cheese so that it resembles a miniature rugby ball.  We cooked our own in the ashes of the fire which Tica had started again, amongst the sheep and donkey dung.  Trying to distract myself, I looked for abstract patterns in the shit.  I scoffed my charred bulz while it was still burning, cradling it in my hands like a grenade.  It was delicious but stodgy and there was nothing to wash it down with except chemical green juice from a two-litre bottle.  Sorin passed it to me; the sugar rush was surprisingly good – in the circumstances I was grateful for anything.

An hour or so later, Ghiţa handed me a plastic carrier bag.  “Will you take this to copilul?  He hasn’t had any breakfast.  He’s over there, on the other side of the hill; go past that big tree up there and keep heading to the right.”  Copil means child: since the youngster had defended Ghiţa’s father, there was a close bond between them, though given the force of Ghiţa’s rages you might be surprised to hear that.  I scurried off, glad to be doing something useful.

The hills were cheetah skins: spots of sodden black earth spattered with beige grass, and melting snow.

Nicu was standing in a wide hollow.  For an instant, in his conical căciula, he was an emperor surveying his kingdom.  An amoeba of sheep were his people: they nibbled submissively around him but could explode into 500 hydra at any minute.  His dog, an elderly, dark grey Puli bitch called Linda, was keeping close to Nicu’s heels.

“What was it like in prison?”

“A fost, a fost…. între Dumnezeu şi dracul.  It was hell.  La început, a fost cumplit.  Horrible at first.  They kept moving me from place to place, so I never got to know anyone.  N-am potut să mă obişnuiesc cu nimic.”

“Were you lonely?”

“Da. I felt like an animal’s prey.  Nobody helped you.  Have you seen those films about American jails?  It was like that.  Think about it.”

He was looking straight at me.

“They beat me too.”

“Why?”

“I had a phone, and it wasn’t allowed.  So…. two or three of the prison inmates piled on top of me, and beat me up.”

His jaw was set.

“This, this… stuff you’re giving me, it’s useless.”  He peeled one of the mandarins I had brought, along with chocolate and bananas, as a present for the shepherds.  “We need more than this.”

Who ‘we’ were, and what more, I did not ask.  It felt insensitive, as though I ought to have known: Nicu is one of the thousands of destitute Romanian kids who are struggling to make a decent lives.  And to make themselves heard, I thought.  When we met at Stâna Domnilor the previous autumn he told me he had been to school, but I did not believe his assurance came from book learning.  Nicu knew what the world was about, and he did not need any footling do-gooders muddying his waters.

“Ghiţa taught me to use the Bible.”  He opened his hands as though proffering a copy of the precious book.  So he could read after all.

“Tu te sălbăticeşti.”  You get a little wild here.  Nicu’s gaze wandered off to the horizon.  “Şi m-am întors la oile.  E liniştit.  E bine.”  (“I came back to the sheep.  It is peaceful.  It is well.”)

Before I could reply, he sped away: the flock was on the move and keeping them safe was his first and only responsibility.

It was time for a discreet withdrawal.  Lambing had not yet started, and although
Ghiţa had said I would be welcome, my time was running out.  A friend, the abbess of a nearby Orthodox monastery, said I could stay for a while and I decided to go there before I flew back to a country where, in theory at least, a beneficent state looks after the weak.

At the edge of the road that ran down to the village, I looked back.  The sheep had come over the ridge before me, and were heading slowly for the farm.  Nicu was concentrating on keeping the animals together and had his head down.  I called “Să trăiţi” – which means something like “Take care”.  He looked up briefly and shouted, “Drum bun!”

In the farmyard, Ghiţa explained his outburst: “I was worried about you; you could have got ill.”  I was sad to have upset him, and moved by his care for me.  But I had wanted to hear Nicu’s take on things for a long time.

Who learnt the most from our meeting?  Spending time with Ghiţa and his shepherds had blasted my preconceptions about what poverty means.  There is a loyalty on both sides.  Travelling together over such long distances, far from help, they have to rely on each other.  I have heard hired shepherds complain about their conditions, and their bosses complain that their employees live in clover.  I could not endure the shepherd’s life, but then I have not grown up the same way.  It is easy for people in remote offices to dictate how others should and should not live, while not really understanding what their lives are like.  (For a similar discussion which is much better informed, see anthropologist Katy Fox’s doctoral thesis on life in two rural valleys of northern Argeş).

I cannot bear to see small farms disappear in a welter of ignorant bureaucratic huffings, and financiers’ greed.  They are destroying things which are beyond price – extended families and closely-knit communities which are part of a social order that works, not to speak of ecosystems, clean air and water…

There is much talk about bad shepherds in Romania, where, as in Britain, farmers are generally despised.  No doubt there are dreadful, tragic cases, but I saw every instance of negative press about close shepherding and transhumance as another nail in the coffin of a tradition that had so much to recommend it, not only because it stands at the other extreme from factory farming, but because it gives people and animals a sense of belonging to the universe which you never get in an office – and certainly not in an animal processing plant.  That statement presupposes that Ghiţa’s animals are humanely slaughtered, which I am pretty sure they are not.

You can find a discussion of how sheep are treated when they leave the farm in the post, ‘Stand up for sheep’, in this blog, but both shepherds and animals need understanding if we are not to disappear down the Polish road demonstrated by Tracy Worcester’s film, Pig Business.  (As to that, Smithfield, the giant American food corporation, has already arrived in Romania so my bland hopes are also too late.)

Nicu and Ghiţa are among the shepherds whom Dragoş Lumpan has interviewed for his forthcoming film, The Last Transhumance.

*Ghiţa’s sheep are Ţurcana, whose ancestors scampered about in the Himalayas.  Although their wool is too coarse for fine city clothes, they are good all-rounders, and hardy enough for the bitter Carpathian winters.

During the Communist period, Romanian shepherds were persuaded to abandon the Ţurcana in favour of fattier types which gave softer wool (Ţigaie and Merino), but since 1989, most oieri (sheep farmers) have returned to their trusted long-haired breed.  (During Ceauşescu’s rule, Romanian sheep farmers benefited from fixed prices for milk, meat and wool.

After the Revolution, the market for Romanian sheep’s wool more or less collapsed, in line with global trends.  Competition from New Zealand forced Romania’s lambs’ meat and wool trade down further, and although there are signs – in Britain – of new uses for wool, for example, as buildings’ insulation as well as a revival of wool as clothing and carpets – exporting lambs for meat is Romania’s great hope in terms of making sheep farming a viable business.  Romania has one of the largest national sheep flocks in Europe.)

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