The ancient tradition of shepherds taking their flocks up to the hills and living with them is dead in the U.S., but can “transhumance” hold on where it has been practiced for generations in Europe?
By M. Michael Brady
Shepherds have tended their flocks and herds for centuries. In the lingo of agriculture, what they do is part of pastoralism. In countries with mountains, pastoralism includes transhumance (loan word from French), the seasonal movement of livestock that exploits differences in climate with elevation, with herds and flocks moving up to high elevation mountain pastures in summer and down to lowlands in winter. In countries where livestock farming has been industrialized, pastoralism has nearly died out. But it has survived elsewhere, until recently including the USA.
In 2001, Montana rancher Lawrence Allested followed the practice of generations of his Norwegian American family. Assisted by two hired hands, he took his sheep 200 miles into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains on a federal grazing permit. In so doing he became the last person to practice transhumance in Montana, an event culturally so significant that a documentary was made on it. The film was directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, an anthropologist at Harvard University and produced by his wife, Ilisa Barbash. After eight years of cinematic work, it premiered at the New York Film Festival and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. Entitled Sweetgrass, after the name of the county in which much of it was shot, this is a film to see and savor; view the official trailer here.
Rancher Allested’s penchant for pastoralism most likely is ancestral, as in Norway, pastoralism is as old as agriculture. The Norwegian languages (there are two) reflect that in specific words, including seter, or its variants sæter and støl, which is a herder’s cabin, and budeia, meaning “milkmaid at a seter”. Tales of life at a seter are deeply ingrained in the folklore of the country, and the best-selling Norwegian post card of all time is Seterjentens fridag (“Milkmaid’s holiday”), featuring a black-and-white photo taken in 1932. More than two million have been sold. The Maihaugen outdoor folk museum at Lillehammer (site of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games) has a collection of seter buildings and a regular program on their use.
The real-life story of the photo on the Seterjentens fridag postcard confirms folklore. Milkmaid Anne Skår (1913-1991) was born at Borgund in Lærdal in Sogn og Fjordane County on Norway’s west coast. At age 12, she began assisting at a summer pasture farm. At age 19, she was a qualified milkmaid working one at Galdestølen, on the road in Mørkedalen on the way up to the Hemsedal massif. The work was hard, the days long and the pay low, giving a monthly salary of just NOK 25, equivalent to $115 in today’s money.
Like other farms of the time, Galdestølen literally was on the road, which ran between the cowshed on one side and the farmhouse on the other side. One day, a sow kept at the farm stubbornly stood in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Traffic on the road was negligible, but milkmaid Anne knew that the sow couldn’t just stand there, blocking the road. Persuasive calls and pushing didn’t budge the animal. So Anne tried the ultimate trick of jumping on its back, to ride it like a horse. A tourist staying in a nearby cabin saw and photographed the curious sight of a milkmaid riding a sow. The rest is history.
The Galdestølen summer pasture farm where the Seterjentens fridag photo was taken now is abandoned, but at this writing the buildings of it still stand. It’s in Sogn og Fjordane County, just to the southeast of Riksvei 52 (“National road 52”) between Borlaug on the E16 highway and Breidstolen to the southeast, GPS coordinates N 61.04350, E 8.00722.
Of the other countries that still practice it, transhumance is most widespread and arguably most vivacious in France. The word comes from French, which also had the adjective transhumant and the noun transhumer, a person involved in the practice of it. The routes followed by sheep herders are called drailles, the oldest of which date from the Neolithic Period, also called the New Stone Age. There’s some evidence that the drailles originally were the tracks of animals followed in their migrations between lowlands and mountains. If so, transhumance predates recorded history.
Today transhumance is part of rural life in several regions of France, most prominently those including or near the major cordillera, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Throughout these regions, transhumance is celebrated when it happens, often with village festivals that have become tourist attractions. Three prominent ones in 2015:
May 24: Saint Chély d’Augrac, Aveyron Department, www.tourisme-espalion.fr
June 14: Aigoual, Gard Deparment, www.causses-aigoual-cevennes.org
June 12-14: Haut-Salat, Ariège Department, www.transhumances-haut-salat.com