[This post relates to a few days in the second half of October 2012 just before the autumn transhumance began.]
Of all the events in the shepherding calendar, washing the sheep causes the most ribaldry. It takes place over a week or so from around 14th October (which could be Sanmedru or St. Dumitru’s Day?), when the flocks have come down from the summer pastures. La baie signifies that the autumn transhumance is at hand, and for the handful of sheep farmers who continue long-distance transhumance from the village of J, once the sheep and the dogs have been subjected to a ducking in the chemical dip, there is nothing to hold them back.
I had been waiting to catch this ceremony for several days. Meanwhile I was staying in J with a friend who has founded her own pastoral museum and had been amusing myself by wandering around the village, exploring the many paths that lead out into the mountain pastures, interviewing local characters and generally settling in.
Trying to pin shepherds down as to date and time is impossible. It takes time and a great deal of patience to learn that they do not organise themselves like we do in the city, planning everything by the clock, opening and closing their offices according to a pre-published schedule. Everything depends on the sheep and the weather, and if you want to fix an appointment with a shepherd, you might as well attempt to coordinate thistledown. This is the beauty as well as the pain of shepherding life. As for waiting to see the sheep come to the bath, there was no public announcement (why there would have been, I’m not quite sure!), and I had to gauge things by hearsay. I was thrilled when, one morning at 6, I heard a patter of feet like a hailstorm and the warm, deeply reassuring, though off-key, melodies of sheep’s bells, passing right by my window.
It was not Ghita’s flock but his would soon be along, I had heard. I wanted to see what was happening anyway, so I hurried down one of the steep, sandy lanes that leads to the bottom of one of J’s many valleys. The village has sprawled over a series of peneplains, steep rounded hills and valleys that contain orchards or gradini as they are called here (it’s a word that normally means gardens, but a garden in J can be an orchard, paddocks and fields combined), and some of them converge right in its heart, so that you can get a grandstand view of one of the most dramatically plunging valleys of all from close to the main street. Plans for a commercial ski run were well advanced, and the sheep wash stood at the bottom end of the newly-excavated slopes, with here and there a tall Evening Primrose plant defying the bulldozers. The poplars were in full shiver, and the temperature was well into the twenties: it had been another scorching summer with very little rain.
Watching sheep being washed may not seem like a huge deal of fun, but for me it was another chance to see shepherds at work, and enjoy their good humour and boisterousness. I sat on a hillside and clicked my camera, wrote notes and absorbed the sunshine, the subtle smells of wet sheep, ammonia and mud, and the cacophany. And at one point I found myself in charge of the sopping flock as it mauthered its way up the same hillside, chewing on the few dry stalks that remained to be chewed, and threatening to drift entirely out of sight.
This flock seemed to have about 1000 sheep in it. One of the shepherds kept an eye on the main body of the flock, while another three cajoled about 100 into a small ring, and proceeded to shove them, often head over heels, into a narrow channel which was fed by a hosepipe from the nearby stream. Eventually I recognised one of the men: he was the father of Dinu, and of another boy who had got married in J. on the previous Sunday. I had spent a pleasant if sad half hour talking to Dinu’s mother, who told me her eldest son had been killed by a traznet, a lightning strike, two years earlier. His dog and two of his sheep had also been killed. She showed me photographs of her son before and after his death – in life, he had been an extremely handsome young man, and his passionate devotion to his flock had shone out from his mother’s tearful description of the prizes he had won at some of Romania’s agricultural shows. They were all good friends with Ghita.
“We put the shepherds in here too”, joked Dinu’s father, whom I knew only as “Dumitru Lupescu”, a nickname, like that which I now recognised Paraschiva, “Chiva lui Dochie”, meaning Paraschiva daughter of Evdochia.
Ghita himself appeared half an hour later, to give his friends a hand, and then Andrei appeared in purple shirt sleeves, to help dunk the unfortunate animals who crawled out of the slurry with eyes, ears and mouths streaming, then huddled in an unhappy little metal-fenced squash until they were released to shake themselves properly and begin drying in earnest.
Dappled shadows played on the red clay and sandy soils, on the dung coloured sheep and the brown faces and limbs of the shepherds. They did the job with the maximum of shouting and the minimum of fuss, glad to be together with friends after four and a half months on the mountain tops.
What the chemical content of the sheep wash consisted of I could not say; it was just a plastic bottle emptied into the channel, and it had to be some guard against the ticks and other infestations that would otherwise plague the animals to death.