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On The Upland Pastures

A Shepherds Tale


THE winter is a quiet season in the mountain valleys. Out of doors little work can be done. The men busy themselves mending their tools and implements or making new ones; the women sew, embroider, spin and sometimes weave on their hand-looms.


But preparations for the spring begin very early in the year. On St: Ivan's Day, in January, when the mountain slopes are still deep in snow, the villages are alive with thronging crowds. The Jews set their stalls in front of the church and sell all kinds of useful wares to the haggling peasant customers, and there is all the bustle of a country fair. Later in the day important open air meetings are held with speeches and heckling and voting by acclamation. This is the day when the “ officials “ for various local posts are elected the village postman, the messenger whose task it is to deliver summonses from the district court, the parish clerk, the verger.


Most important of all is the yearly appointment of the senior shepherds and herdsmen, who will be in charge of all the cattle, horses and sheep which will he driven to the upland pastures to graze during the warmer months.


Not everybody can become a chief herdsman or shepherd, and the selection is made very carefully. The owner of the largest flock or herd has the most Usually he proposes a candidate of his own and tries to persuade the others to vote for him, but it is open to anyone to raise objections and to propose somebody else. Whoever may be finally selected, it is to the interest of the whole community that the man who cares for the animals should be skilful and trust­worthy. He is usually an elderly and experienced person who knows his job well and whose honesty is beyond doubt. He appoints his own assistants who work under his orders; he organises the milking and cheese-making and the storing of the milk in special pails. His duty is to see that the animals under his care come to no harm; if a cow falls ill or a ewe is bitten by a snake he has to doctor them, and at the birth of a lamb or a foal he acts as midwife. His wages are fixed according to tradition and are mostly paid in kind, with maize and oats, milk and cheese, and only a small sum of money.


As soon as the snow melts in the mountains the great trek to the highland pastures begins. Led by their guardians, the flocks and herds trample along the mountain tracks. It is a long way to the upland meadows which in the warm months of the year are sprinkled with gentians, buttercups, heartsease and wild geraniums. Here, at a height of four thousand feet or more, above the vast expanse of forests, these sheep, cattle and horses roam about freely, as freely as the clouds which often sail in the sky before the fresh breeze. The lonely mountain slopes are their home until the first snow falls.


Life is strangely quiet in these upland pastures, and it is an event when someone arrives from the village to fetch the milk. They come on foot or on horseback, carrying wooden vessels for the milk, and their coming makes quite a stir among the shepherds; for everybody is eager to heat the news from their native village. The regular visitors, who have come a long way, often stay the night in the shepherds’ huts, simple and frail structures with a slanting roof made of twigs and a fence round the open sides to keep out the animals.


Before night begins to fall the shepherds blow their huge horns to round up the scattered herd for milking, and after-wards large fires are lit in the meadows to keep off beasts of prey. Then the shepherds sit down outside the huts by a fire and eat their simple supper of bread, cheese and onions. Here they rest after the day’s work. Sometimes they tell strange tales of the witches who turn their husbands into horses after sunset and ride them all night over the pastures ; of the devil’s wicked tricks, of treasure hidden in the rocks, or of the robbers who used to roam all over the country wreaking stern vengeance on the people’s oppressors. One of their favourite tales is the story of Oleksa Dovbus, the popular robber-hero, who won great fame among the people of the Carpathians.


Last Update: 03 August 2002


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