HERDING GOATS IN THE ALPS
Beñat and Natahlie will spend July and August in a hut in the Swiss Alps, almost 2,000 metres above tyhe sea level, looking after a herd of goats and making cheese. Their sons 7 years Kemen and Oihu of the year and a half have come up with them.
At 5 o’clock in the morning Beñat leaves the cottage, gets away 400 meters, not to wake up the family, and whistles. Whistles three or four times and then shouts –toz, toz, toz- many others, removes the ear plugs, stays quiet and tunes his ear trying to hear something. He repeats the same ritual once or twice more and returns to the hut, prepares the coffee maker, pulls out the spoon, sugar and a cup at the terrace table and waits until the coffee is made. While taking the freshly-brewed coffee, he begins to hear the bells, distant at first, but after each drink they seem to sound closer. Mixed with the sound of cowbells, occasionally it is heard the bleat of a goat.
When the sun rises in the morning, Spulüi looks like a beautiful place although it is not ideal to locate an alp. That is what the last herdsmen though when they abandoned it in 1933. It is situated on an artificial terrace, built in a hard stony slope where only nettles grow; in the middle of a small clear of Chiol forest; a fir trees forest on the slopes of the Brunesc peak. Grass is not good there, that’s why goats tend to go on the other side of the mountain as soon as Beñat loose them.
Eight years ago, Giacomo Fiori took charge of this hug, which remained empty since 1933, and joined a project that emerged around the village of Brontallo, to recover the livestock and agricultural traditions of this part of Switzerland, including mountain herding. It is three years ago that Beñat cares Giacomo’s goats, and it is also the third summer he is here, in the alp. He will take care of 95 goats and 8 kids, including Niko, a small goat brought to be the male of the herd when it grows up.
Beñat is from the Basque Country and Nathalie and Beñat once had a project there, in the Valley of Baztan; a life consisting on a small cottage restored with much effort, long hours of work and with little money, a donkey to bring the food home and a flock of sheeps. But they were not able to develop that project, so they decided to try a new one in the alps. Nathalie is from Ticino, Switzerland, and taking advantage of that excuse, Beñat wrote a letter in a journal of livestock farmers in that area, offering himself to work for free, in exchange for learning the trade of herding goats. Upon the magazine was published, Giacomo wrote him asking if he wanted to work for him, but he made it clear that the job is never done for free. Some days later Beñat, Nathalie and Kemen were in Brontallo, ready to start a new life.
Nathalie, Oihu and Beñat have breakfast as Kemen plays his drummset. Behind them, the tops of Zucchero, Poncione della Marcia and Corona di Redorta mountains. Spulüi (Switzerland). July 3, 2014. (Gari Garaialde / BostokPhoto)
In Switzerland they call alp to herder’s huts which are 1,500 meters above the sea level and Spulüi is 1,827 meters above, in the District of Vallemaggia, in the canton of Ticino. Spulüi means rock or cliff, and apparently, a big rock that was used from long ago to shelter the flocks is the reason why the hug is named this way. A stone where you can still see the marks of the buildings that were once made onto that rock.
There is no road to get to the alp. The 4 x 4 climbs by a rudimentary track from the stable to a small clear in the forest and from this point it is necesary to walk over one hour to get to Spulüi. At that same point where Beñat has parked the car, is the starting point of a small cable car that Giacomo built some years ago. It doesn’t move people, but is a system very comfortable to get food, medicine for goats and what they need while they are on the mountain. When they notice the lacking of food in the pantry, they call by phone to the colleagues who work in the stable, in Brontallo and they pass them the list of what they need, so that the purchase can be made and uploaded through that small cable car which they call funivia. It is also used to load the alp, to supply the cottage at the beginning of the season, but most tackle gets by helicopter: the kettles of milk, clothes, toys, utensils for making cheese, 3 pigs and the kids… Nathalie, Kemen and Oihu also went up in a helicopter.
Beñat will be in the alp until 30th. or 31st. Of August, but Nathalie will descend ome 10 days before, with Kemen and Oihu, as Kemen begins the school year in late August. Nathalie, Kemen and Oihu will spend all summer for the first time in Spulüi. Previous years, they remained in Brontallo, at home, taking care of the vegetable garden. Furthermore, last year Oihu was almost newborn and didn’t make much sense spending the summer in the alp. They used to go up to spend a few days, but Beñat was the only one who completed the season here above. This year, however, Nathalie will be in charge of making cheese from goat’s milk, so they have decided to be there all of them.
Nathalie cleans the kettles before making cheese for the first time. Spulüi (Switzerland). July 2, 2014. (Gari Garaialde / BostokPhoto)
Beñat begins the day at 5 in the morning. It seems incredible light to be so early. He calls the goats and while the flock gets down the mountains, he haves breakfast; he gets a great cup of coffee, which will help him to wake up. After putting goats in the fencing, he gives them fodder to eat, milks them by hand, one by one and brings together the kids with their mothers, so that they can suck. The family wakes up slowly. Kemen is first getting out of the hut, he fits his mountain boots and gets to see how his father works. He enters the enclosure, takes the kids, brings the feed and do not stop asking about the flock, the mountain, about the Basque Country and the life they led here… about anything; It is 7 years old and it is very curious. Nathalie and Oihu appear soon after, to tell them good morning. Nathalie prepares breakfast and she sits down to have breakfast with the children. When Beñat finishes with the goats, he joins them, for breakfast for the second time. They are nine and a half in the morning and already wrists hurt him.
They have decided to make cheese every 3 days, because the days that make cheese, Nathalie spends almost the whole day on it. The work is not hard, but the process is very long and you can do nothing to accelerate it. Kemen, meanwile does not stop messing around with tackle, he plays with the hose and asks Nathalie if he can help.
As days pass, they have caught the trick to the rhythm of the alp, but the early days, things were not easy. To the daily tasks they had to add the work to accommodate the cottage and the surrounding area, as the entire structure is removed at the end of August, so that the snows of winter will not wreck everything. They have built a fence around the hut, they have prepared all the infrastructure to make cheese and even they have got an inflatable swimming pool… Beñat also knows that within a few days, the goats will obey easier, it will take him less to rule them, or at least that’s what he thinks. Now they give him too much work. Although he calls them over and over again, they do not want to enter the enclosure, half of them do not come down from the mountain and he have to go to look for them… In addition, Kea, the dog, neither helps much; It seems that he has also noticed the change of the house and have gone lazy, lying by the fire.
Young dog Kia looks outside from the hut. Spulüi (Switzerland). July 2, 2014. (Gari Garaialde / BostokPhoto)
When it is sunny, the environment is beautiful. Zucchero mount, Rasiva, Redorta Crown or Broglio peak can be seen right in front of Spulüi. All mountain range seen beyond has more snow than ever before, since winter has been hard. It has snowed more than in recent years and the snow season has been extended till late. A few mountaineers who passed through Spulüi have commented that Fiorasca, the Valley which is behind the Brunesc, is full of snow. “If there is snow, the goats at least won’t go there”, Beñat has thought aloud.
The sun warms up much, so they put a sheet in order to have a bit of shade in front of the house. The cottage looks to the South and at noon the sun gives no truce. With good weather they spend whole the day outside, because when it’s cold or rainy they have to spend too much time indoors, with a lighted fire. Those days are hard for Kemen. When the it does not rain, he have plenty of things to do: he helps his father, picks flowers, sees to his mother working, plays the drums (they have assembled him a battery with plastic buckets and food warmers, so he can make some noise – daddy, do you want to see a spektacolo?-asks him in Basque, with a hard Swiss accent). But when it rains, a 7-year-old boy drowns in a house which is less than 20 square meters. He has games, takes his parents’ camera, makes the duties of the College and at times, too many times, he tides the dog – Kea, come here! – that is also the only word Oihu says, or this is the only one that they understand, -Kia- says strongly. It seems that the name has forged the personality. If not, it would seem that name is put after the child, because he spends the day shouting. He doesn’t cry much, but it squeaks every time it is happy, or protest, or wants something… shouts strongly. Oihu means Yell in Basque language. It is curious how languages flow in Spulüi, how the cange from German to Italian or Basque, depending on who is speaking.
The goats inside the fence. Behind them, the stone that gives name to Spulüi. Spulüi (Switzerland). July 2, 2014. (Gari Garaialde / BostokPhoto)
Some days when Beñat goes out with goats to seek for other pastures. Kemen always goes with him, most of the time he goes behind the flock with Kea, so no goat falls behind. He imitates Beñat in almost everything, he looks at how his father moves the arms and tries to do the same, he speaks at the dog with the same tone that his father makes it and gets a blade of grass in his mouth. Beñat tells him all time how he must do the things and why – Kemen, don’t get there because they get afraid, always keep a distance, be careful with the stones…-they talk a lot, look for dead goat or sheep bones and put them in the branches of the trees, they play, they lie down a while at the top of the mountain and Kemen imagines that there he has a home, a castle, a tank or whatever he wants. They have lunch, they spend time together and go down, leaving the goats to graze.
Everything is done without haste in Spului, the only clock serves to control the time of cheese, everything else is made when has to be done, when they can, or when they finished with what they was doing before.
Dinner time is the same, They have dinner when all the rest is finished and generally tends to be later than Beñat would rather. -Damn, again it is nine-thirty and I’m trapping. After dinner, I’m going to bed and i wont wake up till six o’clock-
At 5 o’clock in the morning Beñat leaves the cottage…