Since Biblical times, shepherds throughout the Mediterranean basin have herded their flocks from winter grazing areas in the lowlands to summer pastures in the mountains and back again in a millenia-old practice known in French as the “transhumance,” literally “across the ground.”
The weather report has promised sunny weather and high winds. But as we drive up the sinuous road from our village to the Croix de Bauzon, a 4200-foot high plateau in the Ardèche, a department in southeastern France, the sky becomes increasingly menacing and the temperature drops from 55 degrees to just above freezing. The rising sun outlines the pink and lavender clouds in gold. When we get to the top of the Tanargue Mountain, named after the Celtic name for Thor, the thunder god, we are above the tree line. After passing a shuttered ski resort, we drive over a rutted road along the desolate plateau to the “parc” where the summer shepherd has brought the four flocks he has been tending since mid-June.
Being a summer shepherd is a lonely job. He or she lives alone high in the mountains in a rudimentary cabin without electricity for three months, bearing sole responsibility for hundreds of sheep. One year the four shepherds hired a summer shepherd who unbeknownst to them spent his evenings drinking in a café halfway down the mountain. They got a frantic call reporting that the sheep had migrated down the mountain en masse and were devouring the surrounding gardens and vineyards.
My friend Jean Marc and the other three shepherds divide up their herds by running the sheep one by one through a chute and pulling those bearing their brand into a separate pen. Clouds conceal the nearby mountain peaks as a thick fog sweeps over the ridge. The wind howls–I have on four layers of clothing and I’m still freezing. I plunge my hands into the pocket of my raincoat, wishing I’d brought gloves.
When Jean Marc has assembled his 70 sheep we set off along a deep track formed by the pounding of ovine hooves, water erosion, and more recently, SUVs. As we walk along the rocky track we can see for miles in all directions–to the volcanic plugs of the Puy de Dome to the north, to the Pre-Alpes to the east, and to Mont Ventoux, about 75 miles to the southeast. Tiny villages we passed through on the trip up the mountain nestle in the valleys, surrounded by verdant pines. The bells on the lead sheep clang, creating a constant dissonant din with a humming overtone, like a chorus of tone deaf Buddhist monks intoning Om.
Jean Marc’s son Blaise and his girlfriend Camille, now in their mid-twenties, are trying out the pastoral life—they’ve agreed to work with Blaise’s parents for a year. I try to imagine what it would be like to work day in and day out with your boyfriend and your “in-laws,” especially at a job that requires constant cooperation and direction. I hope Blaise and Camille will decide to stay on after their one-year trial period is over; they seem to love what they’re doing, and having three shepherds instead of one means that Jean Marc and Edith, his wife, can have a bit of free time—she’s learning to play the flute and spends the winter months painting portraits.
Jean Marc, who, with his full beard and long hair, looks like a portly John the Baptist, was one of the many young people–known as marginals or babacool (hippies)–who came from the industrial north of France to the Ardèche in the 1960s, looking for a more authentic rural way of life and cheap housing. Edith, who grew up in the Netherlands, came to the Ardèche on holiday, met Jean Marc and never went home. She once showed me a photo of when they were in their twenties–they look very thin, almost malnourished, and very happy. They started with nothing, living in a relative’s unheated stone basement, until they could construct their own house, gradually building a herd, a family and a way of life.
The pastoral life is demanding–someone has to take the animals out twice a day for at least three hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year, rain or shine. If a shepherd wants to go on vacation he or she arranges to trade places with a shepherd from a different region, enjoying a change of scene while they take care of each others’ herds—a pastoral variation on the busman’s holiday—when a bus driver taking the bus to go on vacation.
By the time we reach our lunch destination, a grassy area at the Croix de Milet, a mountain pass, I’m ready to die. My leg muscles ache–it’s odd how strenuous walking downhill can be, especially when you’re putting on the brakes. After a leisurely lunch and a sieste on the grass, we start down a dirt road, mercifully rock-free, that winds through a forest of chestnuts. The trees once provided local peasants with a vital source of protein–they ground the dried chestnuts into flour to make bread, ate them in soup and spread the sweet chestnut paste on bread.
When we start up again, Jean Marc walks with us for awhile. He and his friend Jean Claude, a farmhand, discuss an especially plump sheep. Each time they mumble her name they laugh–it starts with a B and ends in “ette.” “Do you know what that means?” Jean Marc asks me.
It’s one of those situations where you can pretty much guess. But you don’t want to say yes, and admit you know a dirty word (or get it wrong). On the other hand you don’t want to say “no” and have the meaning explained in graphic detail.
“Yes,” I venture.
“I guess it’s better to have a fat one than one that’s moribund,” observes Jean Claude.
Ah, the wonders of the French education system–a farmhand knows the word “moribund,” can use it in a sentence, and chooses it to describe a sheep’s vagina.
We see Rocher, a village across the valley, its church belfry rising above a cluster of red tile roofs. Soon the path leads past huge stone farmhouses that have been converted into summer homes. The sheep grab frantically for the trumpet vines, passion flowers and kiwis, and the occasional bunch of grapes. I try to shoo them off, tapping them on the back with my baton, before the property owners peer out their windows. A Dutch man wrapped in a towel rushes out of his house to take our picture—I smile as I masquerade as a native providing local color.
We veer off the main road and enter a small valley where we’ll spend the night. Jean Marc assembles a makeshift pen, driving stakes into the ground with a rock and then unwinding white netting around them. He hooks up a battery to the fence and attaches a clamp to a grounding iron. There’s a question as to whether the wire netting is taking the charge, so he asks me to touch it. I feel the slightest impulse–will the sheep notice it? Jean Marc and Blaise herd the sheep into the enclosure and tie it shut with a string. Are there still wolves in the Ardèche? I hope not.
We walk up to the clearing and have a cold supper of lentil, tomato, cucumber, pasta and beet salads, as well as paté, hard sausage and cheese. And of course pastis, beer and red, white and rosé wine. Luckily Louise, a retired editor from Paris who prepares the meals and delivers them to us, has asked me to share her tent–otherwise I’d be sleeping on pine needles under the stars, buffeted by the wind. I crawl into bed at 10 o’clock and immediately fall asleep. The wind howls through the pine boughs all night. When I wake up Louise’s tiny Scots terrier is nestled at my feet.
We get up at 5 am, have a quick breakfast of tepid coffee and breakfast rolls, and set off with the sheep in the dark to avoid the morning traffic. After a few minutes, nature calls. I drop trou and crouch down on the side of the road. Midstream, a car approaches from behind, it’s headlights illuminating my backside. It’s Jean Marc. I know he’s chuckling to himself–I could care less. For a moment I feel French.
The sheep frantically devour anything in sight–grass, weeds, kiwis, rose and blackberry bushes, scrub oaks, chestnuts and acorns. Their favorite delicacy appears to be grapes, now almost ready for harvest. We turn off the main road to take a path bounded by high stone walls–the countryside is crisscrossed by passages like this, built over the centuries to channel the herds and protect the fields.
Now it is sunny and almost hot. On either side, low walls built of large reddish stones create terraces that stairstep up the hill. When we get to an arched stone footbridge, Blaise tells us not to rush the sheep or they might bunch up and fall off the bridge. Soon, we arrive at an abandoned railway tunnel. Blaise asks us to form a solid line behind the sheep and turn on our flashlights, shining them on the walls of the tunnel–if they get spooked in the dark passage the sheep might stampede. As I shine my flashlight on the tunnel wall, hoping to reassure the sheep, I remember what Churchill said about Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader who defeated him in 1945–that he was a sheep in sheep’s clothing.
We emerge from the tunnel and walk along the disused track. When we cross over a high railroad bridge with flimsy netting that resembles the sheep enclosure, someone speculates that it has been installed to prevent people from jumping off the bridge into the stream far below. I’m reminded of the many people we have lost to suicide in our village–at least five over the 25 years we‘ve been there, out of a population of about 300, including an 85-year-old woman who walked to the middle of the bridge spanning the Ardèche, took off her slippers, hooked her cane to the railing, and jumped off–she didn’t want to submit to the hip replacement operation scheduled the next day.
We arrive at our destination at about 11 am. By now it’s sunny and hot. After a much-needed cup of coffee, I struggle to the ground–my muscles ache so much it’s difficult to sit down. After I’m down it’s next to impossible to get up, so I ask someone to fetch me a glass of wine. A fellow from Paris with soulful eyes takes an accordion out of its case, saying his friend recently taught him a few songs. He plays the intricate runs with surprising fluidity, not missing a note. After we finish lunch, Jean Marc regales us with stories of Balazuc characters–the used car salesman who sold an ox to his uncle. Awhile later, when the ox scratched his head against a tree trunk, his right horn fell off. The uncle picked up the horn and examined it–his nephew had glued the horn on the animal’s head with Superglue. The man threw the horn on the ground–there was no way he could sell a one-horned ox at the market. Another involved a man named Fabrigoule who lived in a large stone house some distance from Balazuc on the windy plateau called the gras. He had a grudge against the postman, so he subscribed to the local newspaper, forcing the postman to walk the two miles to his house every day to deliver the paper, knowing full well that Monsieur Fabrigoule couldn‘t read.
I curl up on a rock and fall asleep. When I wake up, I keep my eyes shut and eavesdrop on the murmured conversations around me.
“Look, there’s a wild boar!” someone exclaims. I sit up and look to where she’s pointing–high up a steep, barren hill. There he is–a huge boar, barreling across the ridge. He turns and starts coming toward us, his tusks gleaming in the sun. Weighing up to 500 pounds, a boar can gore a person or total a car. The sheep baa plaintively, their bells jangling. The boar has second thoughts and veers in the other direction, disappearing over the ridge.
We scan the hillside for Edith, who’s bringing the goats to join us–the two herds haven’t been together for three months. A tiny dot appears on the top of the ridge, and then a few horned heads. The sheep stare up at the goats, bleating softly. It occurs to me that both sheep and goats made it into the horoscope hall of fame. Edith and the goats make their way slowly down the steep hillside. The sheep greet them shyly, but do not mingle. Louise’s tiny Scots terrier lunges at the goats, barking fiercely, and has to be pulled away more than once.
Earlier in the day I discussed with Suzanne, a woman from Bordeaux, the economics of raising goats versus sheep. Goats provide milk six months of the year, which Edith makes into cheese and sells to local restaurants and a faithful clientele. The sheep are shorn once a year, but the herd is so small it’s not worth selling the wool. The male lambs are sold to Muslims from Largentière, where there’s a large community of harkis, Algerians who supported France during the Algerian war and were resettled in the region after the war. They will sacrifice the lambs for Eid. But other than that, and a small subsidy from the European Union, the sheep are not a source of income—they’re not rentable, as the French would say—cost effective. If Jean Marc and Edith sold off the sheep, they’d cut their work load in half–70 animals to look after instead of 140. I broach this to Suzanne in hushed tones, embarrassed by my Yankee practicality.
“But Edith loves her goats, and Jean Marc his sheep. They argue over their virtues–which animal is dumber, which is more obedient, which has more personality. A chacun sa passion–to each one his passion,” she replies with a shrug.
I feel hopelessly American.
Carol Merriman spends her summers in a village in the Ardeche, an arid region in south central France. She is currently working on a novel about three generations of peasant women who raise silkworms. When she’s not in France she lives in North Haven, Connecticut and enjoys hiking, writing and playing the piano.