The chore of bringing cows down from high summer pasture becomes the celebration of viehscheid in the Alpine villages of Germany and other European nations. Festivals may differ, but they all include the essentials: bovines and beer.
September is intensely beautiful in southern Germany. In fall gardens, the dahlias have grown round, bright and dense as ear muffs. Rain showers have turned the slopes iridescent green, and once the clouds pass through the Alps and the fog burns away, the light is so clean, each tree and rock seems to have been outlined with steel wire.
Something is about to happen. You can see it in the busy scattering of mown hay. In every field and against every house, cut wood has been stacked high and tight as a puzzle. We are in Buching, a town of about 1,000, on a Monday morning. Young women carrying clarinets are striding up the road, their hair pinned into intricate knots of braid. A Volkswagen steers in to unload several fellows wearing lederhosen; one carries a French horn and another, opening the trunk, pulls out a giant drum. The townspeople are trickling out of doors to wait along the street. Other out-of towners, like us, are standing around excited and baffled, fiddling with cameras.
Then you hear it: a rumble at first. The tone slowly rises into clonk-a-donk of bells. There’s a scuffing sound as, rounding the corner, cows, each with a headdress of evergreens, flowers and berries, are led into town. The band, now about 30 members strong, has filed into the street ahead of the animals and struck up a march.
This is the viehscheid, the annual cattle drive from Alpine pastures into the valleys for wintertime. It takes place in scores, probably hundreds, of towns across the region each fall. In Switzerland and France they call it “desalpe,” in Austria “almabtrieb,” and in Germany “viehscheid,” which translates to “cattle-divide.” In most of these villages, herds share the upland meadows all spring and summer. Come fall, they are led down and parceled out to their owners to spend the cold months in the valley fields and stables.
This has been going on a long time, a very long time – some think about 4,000 years.
We’d scheduled a trip to Bavaria around the viehscheids not knowing what we’d find. Germanic FFA competition? Historical re-enactment? A parade put on for tourists? Dirndl market? Non-German speakers, we’re still not sure what we saw, but a bit of all this, we think, and a lot more.
Bavaria’s small cattle farmers have tended herds in these meadows for centuries. Now their livelihood is fraught with many of the same problems faced by Johnny-come-lately dairymen in the U.S.: milk prices are volatile, the farmer’s share of profits is too small, and public support for quotas and other protections is eroding.
If people are discussing such issues this morning in Buching, we can’t tell. More pressing concerns seem to be getting one’s fluffy gamsbart (a splendid brush of mountain goat hair) pinned on straight and restraining a particularly energetic Brown Swiss from veering off course and eating a patch of street-side marigolds.
In Buching the cattle are led down one at a time, each with her own dazzling ornamentation, though honestly it’s hard to tell who’s leading whom, as young men in their spiffy trachten (native Bavarian costume) strain with panicked faces to keep the animals from galloping into town. For events we saw in Maierhöfen and in Nesselwängle, Austria, the herdsmen took less of a beauty-pageant approach. Only a couple of the lead cows wore crowns, big glorious ones with mirrors, metal crosses and embroidery, and the rest of the cattle followed in a clanging crowd, kept orderly by unrufflable women and men wielding long sticks.
Each of the events we were lucky to see unfolded the same way: The cows come down from the high meadows along an avenue lined with spectators. The animals are penned near the center of town and admired by everyone. The farmers find their stock and take them home, and then people either drift off or settle in for a festive afternoon and evening under a big tent.
In Maierhöfen there were a couple of simple rides for the children. In Pfronten, a 60-piece band took the stage and, without much ado, several large painted cowbells were awarded. Were these prizes for the best milkers? We couldn’t tell. Buching included the widest array of vendors: people selling wool hats and socks, knives, honey, shoes, and wreaths of dried flowers. Nesselwängle’s celebration, the smallest we attended, featured an accordionist, stand-up bass player and guitarist, yodeling in otherworldly three-part harmony.
In Pfronten, we missed the cattle but found the party well underway. A tipsy young farmer offered us beers, cracking jokes in German far faster than we could translate. With a leer, he bent over and slapped the leather rump of his lederhosen shouting, “Crazy German boys!” In Buching, a team of draft horses festooned in white and blue, Bavaria’s colors, pulled a barrel-laden wagon behind the town musicians, the horses guided by four men in black vests, pants, and jackets and the round, low-crowned hats of Southern Tyrol. Trotting behind the wagon, wearing the same outfit in miniature, a blond boy with eyes ice blue held out a tray of beer-filled cups to spectators.
The late, great anthropologist Victor Turner discerned the strange power that ritual has to change things – or at least to change how we perceive those things. He called it the “mechanism that periodically converts the obligatory into the desirable.” He must have seen a day like this in Buching. Getting the cows safely off the mountain every fall is required, is work. But when viehsheid crowns it, serenades it, feeds it plum cake and slaps it on the rump with sunlight, it’s ecstatic too.
Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop are Daily Yonder contributing editors.