The Fabulously Free and Extraordinarily Powerful
** Translated by Antonia Sampalean **
When Dragos Lumpan refers to someone using the expression “that shepherd”, he’s thinking of the kind of man who is powerful and free, who for thousands of years has been living according to the cosmic calendar. This type of man finds his demise in the era of technology and closed borders.
After 5 countries and 10 years of documenting the lives of several shepherd families, Dragos Lumpan will be distilling thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of filming into 90 minutes called “The Last Transhumance”.
For the final 100-yard stretch of this huge project he launched a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo’s website in order to carry out the necessary marketing and touch-ups.
500 years ago, narrates Lumpan, the shepherds from the ethnographic area called Marginimea Sibiului wandered over half of Europe in their transhumance movement.
Later on, their routes became more restricted. In the 19th century, shepherds got as far as Crimea and south of Caucasus Mountains.
“In the 20th century, frontiers appeared around national states causing the shepherds to remain inside of the country. Afterwards, during the communist period, shepherds were allowed to practice transhumance because there was a permanent need for alimentation and they were bringing in milk products. As a result, the Party said OK, let them.
During this time things went smoothly for them. They were well-known millionaires and no one bothered them. But after ’89 came the partitioning of land, the development of infrastructure and the large number of cars which impeded them more and more.
When he began photographing shepherds and their families in 2007, there were 20-30 families in Marginimea that were still practicing transhumance. As you read this article, you’ll learn there aren’t even 10.
It took him a year to find a point of entry for this story. He knew there were still families shepherding their sheep on the road and practicing transhumance. However, these families proved themselves very hard to find.
“10 years ago, I definitely knew less that I now know about transhumance. I knew that there existed employed shepherds who would embark on relatively short journeys between summer to winter, journeys that were a few tens of kilometers long. In the winter, they would return and disperse through the village.
This type of method of raising sheep is called seasonal pendular transhumance. There’s also the option of raising them next to your home but there are few exemplary cases of this.
Truthfully, I had heard that there were still some going on transhumance in the sense of long journey – as in they settle down in a particular place during the summer only because that’s when sheep produce milk and require milking twice a day.
During the remainder of the year, they descend from the hilltops in the fall and bring their sheep through pastures even in the winter months. Finally, during spring, they travel as much as hundreds of kilometers.
It seemed extraordinary so I said: Great, let’s create a documentary about it. But at that time, these things were an approximation, legends.
In the summer of 2006 I went to Marginimea Sibiului, to villages trying to find these families. When I arrived in the villages, they’d say: Uh, ya, these families do exist but they’re at the stable.
OK, where’s the stable? Uh, take this path, go on that trail. But there never was any trail or path that you could see clearly. And keep going for about two hours. They would tell me something like: Head in that direction and you’ll bump into them. This approach didn’t work.
Dragos Lumpan returned to Marginimea Sibiului for a shepherd festival. At this event he came to know the goodwill of some artists.
“I found this family. They were perfect. Young, beautiful… they had a small child then, they were the perfect family. I shared my idea. They told me that in the summer they keep their sheep on the land of a man who is the director of Astra Film. His name is Budrala.
Well, I know this man. I had a photography exhibit at the Astra Festival and he calls me once in awhile. I used to tell him what kind of camera to buy for himself. I know him!
The couple agreed to take me to the land and they left me a phone number. They told me that if they don’t answer its because they have no service, I should just send them a text message and they would respond when they get service. I was so happy. Yes, communication is possible!
I went back to Bucharest and readied my belongings before giving them a call: Look, I want to come and meet you. They sent me a text message back saying that it wasn’t a possibility any longer.
At some point, I managed to get a hold of them. I wanted to understand what happened so I said: Look, I’m not going to insist to come, I understand that going with you is no longer possible, but I would like to know if I did something wrong.
So they told me: remember how we mentioned that we keep our sheep on Budrala’s land? Well we told him that you wanted to photograph us and he threated to kick us off his land if we allowed you to. Oh, great!”
In terms of helping him, the Shepherd Festival helped in a mysterious way. A few of the photographs that were taken by Dragos ended up with a shepherd’s family, who then searched for him.
“He called me and I asked – are you going on the road?. Well ya, we’re going. Will you take me along to take pictures of you? We’ll let you come. I then told him: Look what happened to me with the others and Budrala. I don’t want to create any problems for you.
And then he said something very beautiful: So what?! Is Budrala our boss? I liked his response so much that I said: Great, I’m ready, I’m going with you.
This one was the harder find. From this point on, things just strung together together like pearls on a string.
On August 15, 2007, Dragos Lumpan went on transhumance with that family of shepherds. Since then, he’s participated in 21 journeys.
“I will never forget my first introduction to a stable. There was nothing idyllic about it.
It rained on me for about two hours. Even though it was the month of August, it was cold and they gave me a long fur coat. It helped and then it didn’t help since it was very heavy. Very heavy.
After that, I got to the stable where I walked straight into mud. The dogs kept trying to bite me, not only for the first few hours but even the next day, while the sheep, who can easily retain the image of a human face in their memory, kept running away from me.
Everything seemed to be a disaster. But after a few days, the sheep started getting used to my face and the dogs got accustomed to my face and smell.
The title of the documentary, “The Last Transhumance” is sad in a sense. After 12 journeys with this particular family, one day the shepherds called him and said: We give up.
And they didn’t give up to escape the man with the camera.
“Just like that, they gave up on their journeys. It was hard but this society allows other means of raising livestock that are easier for the owners, especially because they are not supported in any way when carrying out this demanding work. So for the family, it really was their last transhumance.
At the end of 2008 Dragos believed that he had come to the end of the road. He thought that he would select photos from the 25,000 he had captured over the years to create an album for the exhibit. But in order to carry this out, he needed some money.
Around this time, the other photographers who were documenting transhumance in their own countries all over Europe and who had ultimately received funding from the Central European Bank to bring their projects to fruition contacted him.
In 2010, he obtained financing from the Romanian Cultural Institute despite the fact that wherever he went, he was told that there was an economic crisis and that he would never find money for a project about sheep and shepherds.
Encouraged, he decided to lengthen the documentary with more video footage. That’s how he came to film transhumance in five other countries with other people, other habits but also a good amount of similarities.
The family that Dragos was filming in this phase of the project was named Danulet.
“Their son, who was already old enough to go on the road, is named Gheorghe. After a few years, I recommended him to Vodafone and since then he’s become the world famous Ghita Ciobanu (Ghita the Shepherd).
Gheorghe, for example, walks from Marginimea Sibiului, from Jina specifically, all the way to Zalau. He arrives in the village near Zalau in winter.
Presently, he only does a partial return because he can’t find sufficient grazing ground in the mountains close to Jina that would suffice for all the sheep. So he just returns with the sheep they call barren.
They return with the barren sheep and those who produce milk remain near Zalau. They make the cheese and whatever else can be made there. He gets on the road with half the herd…
Even this is a sort of giving up, it’s a sign indicating that things changed next to 10 years ago when I asked how many families in Jina were practicing transhumance, there were 20-30. Now, there aren’t even 10 families that practice transhumance.
Dragos Lumpan managed to retain - as much in his memory as on film –a lifestyle that doesn’t resemble anything that someone who grew up in the city can imagine.
After being with them for so long, some of them call me on the phone. They ask me: How’s the weather over there? I’m ashamed to tell them that it really doesn’t matter for us.
You stay home and you experience a variation of a few degrees. On the bus or in the office, there’s air conditioning. So I don’t tell them about the weather anymore.
For them, weather is survival.
If there’s a heat wave, the sheep get too hot and the shepherds have to find them shade. If there’s a draught, you have to think of where to bring there so they can drink water. If those animals die, you die too. Or you have to find a new trade. As long as your livelihood depends on animals, then those animals need to be well.
A lot of things are radically different for them. They sleep outside throughout the year, fall and winter. That calendar, the notion that they live according to a cosmic calendar is real. They truly live in relation to cosmic space, something that we don’t have.
NASA might launch a satellite here and there… It’s fabulous, but that doesn’t affect me at all. I look at those images and say: Wow, how cool! And that’s it. But these shepherds launch rockets to Mars every day. They launch it daily! And they do it naturally! It’s their life. It’s a natural process, without force.
That expression to move mountains is applicable in their case. Somehow, they can move mountains from where they stand. That’s really what they do, they move sheep from one mountain to another. This is what it means to take care of 1,500 sheep in conditions where there are wolves, bears, peasants who don’t understand you and police officers who create more hardship…”
Now, the photographer can calmly explain the difference and similarities from one country to another when it comes to the never-ending journey of the shepherds.
The shepherds in Albania no longer practice transhumance, they only use the pendular method. In other words, they journey between summer and winter is completed in a day, maximum two. They don’t practice anything but this pendular method, descending to the village in the middle of fall and ascending back in the middle of spring, approximately.
Those in Greece practice transhumance: in fall, they descend from the mountain to the pasture, close to the sea. On the way back, the agriculturalists have already cultivated their lands so they don’t let the shepherds through. They bring their sheep back up the mountain in trucks, that’s how they get back.
The same thing happens in Italy. It’s a semi-motorized transhumance.
In Turkey, I went to two places in the North and South and there are very few shepherds who still use this method. Most Turks don’t even know this kind of thing exists. There, they were nomads who had goats. In the same way our own shepherds transport their things on donkeys, the Turkish shepherds transport them on camels.
In the United Kingdom, the differences are huge. To us, they were like aliens. They gather the sheep from the hills around the farm and that happened about three times a year. There, sheep are unguarded, there are no fences and they’re not even milked. It’s entirely different story.”
Our politicians who are eager to regulate something they don’t understand have contributed to the disappearance of transhumance in Romania.
“From time to time, a particularly idiotic law will suddenly appear. You’re only allowed two dogs. Two dogs for 1,000 sheep means you really are out of touch with reality. Parliament members shouldn’t be coming to tell the shepherds that their sheep need to be fenced up during the winter. It’s an aberration.
I spoke to veterinarians who have sheep: if you keep what is considered a large sheep here in Romania closed up for two to three years, the sheep will die. They aren’t adapted to these kinds of things. They’ll die.
If the laws and regulations that are proposed and accepted in the first phase by men who sit in some building were to be applied, over 70% of the sheep population in Romania would die.
These days, Dragos Lumpan is unraveling the second stage of the fundraising campaign in order to finalize his documentary.