In Which I Become A French Cowherd
One of the things on my bucket list may strike some folks as slightly odd: to help with taking a herd of livestock (any kind) to summer pastures. It’s a historical/cultural experiences that I wanted to have because I fear that it won’t be around in another generation or two.
As of Friday, I can now check that one off the list.
Yesterday afternoon, I was taking a nap in my little stone house, when the farmer knocked on my door and said something that sounded like “Do you want to take a walk with the cows?” Since I had yet to get the adult cows to let me get within 5 feet of them, I jumped at this opportunity, though I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant.
Well, I’m glad that I grabbed my water bottle, because what happened afterward was quite possibly the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done.
I can now say that I’ve been a cowherd.
What he meant by “take a walk with the cows” really was “do you want to hike 10km up a steep, rocky incline while constantly trying to keep wayward cows from running off?” We were taking the cows from their pasture by the river at the bottom of the valley up to their high pasture near the top of the mountain. This entails around 10km of hiking, including a 2500 meter increase in elevation in the process.
We picked up the cows from their low pasture (5 cows and 1 bull, named Bruno) and immediately started to climb up roughly a 45º incline, liberally studded with rocks, thorns, nettles, and other fun things (did I mention that I was wearing shorts?). The cows were a constant struggle to keep in one group, as they were ecstatic at the opportunity to chew on more tasty things than grass, such as the branches of cherry trees or a farmer’s pristine wheat field. We all carried long sticks with which to control the cows either by hitting the ground in front of them or the cows themselves (apparently they don’t like to have their ankles touched), though 1-2 of them would still make a run for it every 3-5 minutes, entailing a stop until the escaped cow could be returned to the herd. We hiked roughly 8km this way on a combination of roads, farm paths, and mountain trails. Taking the cows on the road is easier, but it can cause quite a traffic jam, as there’s no way for cars to pass us – one poor car tagged along behind us for a 30 minutes before we moved back into the trees, and I’m sure there were many peasant-themed epithets being hurled at us from behind the windshield – I turned toward him, gave something of a shit-eating grin, and shrugged. After we reached the mountain pasture and let the cows loose, we hiked a further 2km to the nearest hamlet, where we all hitched a ride back to the farm on a passing truck.
The whole experience was extremely exhausting, and there were points where I wanted to just sit down and call it quits. However, since we were in the middle of nowhere most of the time, this just simply wasn’t an option. It’s amazing what kind of willpower you can drum up when you have no other option. Getting to watch the family use their ample skills to control the animals was really fascinating, and they taught me a lot about the process as well. I think I could now control 1-2 cows on my own with some degree of competence. I feel really privileged to have gotten to take part in this tradition.
Sadly, because I was usually very busy trying not to get trampled by cows, I was not really able to get many photos, especially while we were “under way”. However, I did manage to snap a few, and here they are: