Transhumance is about as ancient activity as human culture itself, and being so ancient means that it’s encoded with a wealth of cultural meaning. The cattle or sheep and indeed goats are moved up to mountainous grasslands where there are rich wildflower pastures that cattle understand and select from. These cows were the happiest and healthiest I’d ever seen.
Typically unprepared we hadn’t grasped that the late night drinking and music were connected to an event – transhumance – which may be associated in these parts of France with Pentecost, bearing in mind that Pentecost, being linked to Easter, and consequently linked to the first full moon after the equinox has a bit of a six week wander around the calendar from year to year. Pasture, on the other hand, pays no attention to such cultural frills and will burst into life when the weather and daylight conditions are right; so as we are discovering on the allotment year by year – spring is driven by weather and pays no heed to gardeners’ and farmers’ careful plans.
So let’s imagine that there is a solemn congregation of pastoralists in Aumont Aubrac that – after a long meal and a good deal of roughish wine – each year decide when the animals will be moved to the hill pastures whereupon plans are made, cellars stocked and musicians booked for the parties in the local villages. The huge circular stone watering ponds that speak of bigger flocks and better days are checked and the best animals are selected for a bit of dressing up.
Because, of course the transhumance isn’t just about good husbandry; it encodes meaning, history, poetry and relationships . In the way of these things, it’s important because it encodes a whole bunch of stuff that the governments of the day – or indeed the landowners – may not be so keen on. Oliver Cromwell was at least right in the reason he gave for banning music, carol singing, Christmas and dancing which were dangerous to the powerful because they embodied that thread of life-giving energy that gives the marginalised people of the earth hope for better things. And so these ancient festivals are greeted with suspicion by the powerful because they simply don’t get it. On the downside there’s a lot of potential for these ancient festivals to become overwhelmed by extreme right populists who feed on the anger of the marginalized whilst stoking up anger for their own reasons which are rarely to improve the lives of the poor. I remember well the St Paul’s riots in Bristol when the extreme right laid on a coach to take the local Southmead lads – who had a well deserved reputation for flaring up and rioting – down to St Pauls. I was working in Southmead as a community artist and I knew them all well. But they refused point blank to get on the bus because they saw immediately that this was not about St Pauls and neither would it help Southmead but an obvious attempt to use them to stir up trouble. I’m pretty sure that, had they got on the bus, there would have been photographers from the right wing press waiting at the other end to photograph them as they got off it. On another occasion our local community policeman came to see me with an inspector in tow after a flare up on the estate. The inspector – not a sympathetic man – said that it was the worst riot he’d ever seen in Southmead. Henry, the community policeman reprimanded him and said “that wasn’t a riot it was a carnival!” It reminds me of the time a bunch of Hell’s Angels turned up at a local village and behaved themselves impeccably. Then reporters from the News of the Screws turned up and offered them £1000 to kill one of Lord Methuen’s peacocks – an offer which they politely declined. Well perhaps not politely!
Anyway, to return to Aumont Aubrac; aside from the noisy parties and the menacing drunks passing our little tents we had no idea what was going on and so the photographs I took of the herding of the cattle were taken from half a mile away. They’re at the top of this piece and you can – if you inspect the photo carefully -see that some of the cattle are decorated with a French Tricolour (see above) and some with less potent symbols. We only noticed them at all because of the clanging of their bells, and the sound of some kind of band coming up behind, and I’m pleased to say that no government officials were harmed in the course of the transhumance – any sore heads were most likely self-inflicted.
But there was another transhumance going on at the same time; the relentless passage of pilgrims in search of some other kind of rich pasture but nonetheless inspired by the ancient culture of pilgrimage. Some, very few, were doing it the old way but others, and I suspect that this group of walkers is one of them, were making use of the huge infrastructure that’s grown up around the pilgrimage. Transit vans, cheap (not that cheap) beds for a night and basic food every day.
Since I didn’t have any idea why I was there it would have been churlish to take a position on their efforts. One person in particular has stuck in my mind. He was German and with our Serbian translator’s help, we discovered that he was walking from Rome to Santiago and picking up a stone at every place he slept. His wife, in Berlin, was dying from cancer and this was his desperate supplication to save her life. Sometimes crazy and beautiful flow together in the same stream and I hope, against hope, that he was choosing small enough stones to get there and big enough stones to impress God.