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Alpine meadows in the Carpathians and life of Hutsul herdsmen


Polonyna is what the Hutsuls, who live in the Carpathian Mountains, call alpine meadows. Polonyna is an integral part of the Hutsuls existence and has played a vital role in their life for centuries. This essay, based on Mariya VLADs reporting, investigates why.


Shepherd Hutsuls

It is not known for sure when the people we now call Hutsuls settled down in the Carpathians  it must have been centuries and centuries ago. It did not take them long to discover that in most places where they lived the soil was no good for tilling and growing grain crops. At best, some vegetables and some corn or oats could be grown. Descriptions of the Hutsul villages that we find in documents and literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries indicate that the fertility of the soil was low and could support only grasses that could be used as hay for feeding the domestic animals, and such crops that could add vegetables to the diet of the people. No roads either. Under such conditions, it was but natural that the Hutsuls of the Carpathians were forced to resort to animal husbandry as their main occupation. Sheep and cows provided wool, skins, meat and milk. Raising cattle was not just an occupation  it was the way of life, for all practical purposes the only means of survival.

But sheep and cows need to graze in fields  and what kind of fields can you find in the mountains? The Carpathians are rich in alpine meadows, polonyny, of great beauty and abundance of grasses. It was this green bounty that proved to be of vital importance for the Hutsuls  they could take their sheep and cows into the mountains for grazing all the meadows throughout the warm season. But you cannot spend several days climbing the mountains and driving a herd of sheep or cows, only to return back home after the animals have grazed in the mountain natural pastures for a day or two. And the Hutsul shepherds stayed in the mountains for the whole of the grazing season. When the Land of the Hutsuls was under the Austrian domination, the Austrians used to say Hutsul was just another name for shepherd.


Polonyna as a life style

There must have been times when all the male Hutsuls were shepherds tending their own animals. But with the passage of time, some of them got rich, and other became poor. The poor ones were hired to look after the sheep, cows and horses that belonged to the rich Hutsuls in the polonyny which also belonged to the rich.

Sheep were the most important domestic animals for the Hutsuls. Historical evidence suggests that in the nineteenth century there were about a hundred polonyny which were used by the Hutsuls as pastures for the sheep, cows and horses.

Polonyny differed in size, in the quality of grasses and the convenience of access to them. Some owners of the polonyny rented them to the owners of the sheep, cows and horses. In one of the documents of the nineteenth century, we read that one Stefan Bilinsky from the village of Yaseniv, rented his polonyna called Barchyna for three years to another Hutsul Sebastian Krekhovetsky for three hundred gold coins for the term of three years; the document also says that 25 rams and unspecified number of sheep could be allowed to graze there. It means that Polonyna Barchyna could not have been a large one. From other extant documents it is known that polonyna owners from the villages of Zhabye, Kosovo, Yaseniv, Kryvorivnya had in their possession polonyny of hundreds upon hundreds of acres.

In most cases the polonyna owners, who were called deputaty (deputies), worked too, and worked hard, but if the polonyna was big enough, and supported many grazing animals, help was hired.

Mariya Vlads grandfather Myrin owned a polonyna from 1920 to 1950. He worked as hard as the hands he hired, and changed dress only on Sundays, putting on a clean, white shirt. He shaved with a piece of a broken scythe, leaving a drooping mustache; he cut his own long hair with scissors to the shoulder length. He had fourteen children but some of them died in childhood. All the children worked hard starting from young years.

Myrin made wooden vessels for milk and diary products himself; these vessels he took with him to the polonyna which he loved as though it were his child. When the winter began to die and the warm winds began to blow, the snow in the mountains began to melt; small mountain rivers would turn into turbulent streams, the grasses and wild flowers began to grow on the meadows  it came time to drive sheep, cows and horses to the polonyny. One part of each polonyna was used as pasture, and the other part for mowing hay. Usually, the part used for grazing animals was closer to the forest where mowing could be a problem. Troughs were made by the side of the streams from which the sheep, cows and horses could drink with more convenience.


Life in the polonyna

There is little that changed in the life of the Hutsuls over the centuries, except for the ownership  under the soviets, all the land was owned by the state.

When the shepherds and the deputat and the cattle arrive at their polonyna, the staya is built. Staya is a sort of a house where people live, with pigsties and corrals and stables situated next door to it. Every staya must have an easily accessible source of water, with large trees nearby, so that the animals could find shade in the heat of summer or hide during snowstorms which happen in the Carpathians even in the midst of a warm season. Corrals have partitions for little calves, grown-up animals and for sheep. There is no ceiling in the staya, only a roof, with no fireplace either  the fire is kindled right in the middle of the floor, with smoke escaping through the door. A big cauldron, which is suspended over the fire, is used for cooking, boiling milk and making cheese. Cheese is the main product made at the polonyna, and it is also the Hutsuls staple food.

Vivchari  shepherds proper (sheepherds) look after the sheep, and cowherds look after the cows, and pigherds look after the pigs, and horseherds look after the horses, with the deputat being in command, and also working hard. The deputat hires a vatah, a head shepherd who supervises over all the herdsmen. There is also a polonyna hand who looks after the fire, brings in firewood and water. The herdsmen and the deputat wear shirts which were previously boiled in oil or in oxen fat  such shirts do not get easily soiled and no vermin can live on the human body clad in such a shirt.

The vatah and a couple of herdsmen are the first to come to the polonyna, ahead of everybody else. There are age-old rituals that the vatah and herdsmen observe. The first thing that the vatah does is giving a prayer: Thank you, Lord God, for protecting the staya, for helping us and all the Christians and the animals to live through the winter and for helping us to live through the summer.

After the prayer, the vatah builds the fire and he does without matches, using a millennia-old method of rubbing a wooden stick against wood, and with dry grass to catch the sparks. The fire will burn until the end of summer.


Photos by Dmytro CHORNOKOZA


Ivan Orynchuk lived in Lukovytsya, a Carpathian polonyna, for 60 years, that is most of his entire life. Upon returning in 1945 from Germany after the war where he had been taken by the Nazis for forced labour, he settled down in Lukovytsya, which used to be his fathers polonyna. He was married with two daughters and many grandchildren for whom he built houses in the villages situated at the foot of the mountain. But he himself stayed put at his polonyna, among the meadows and forests. He used to have cows, oxen and pigs; he grew potatoes, beets and oats. Except for salt, he had everything he needed for food. He made cheese and butter which he took, alongside with the meat, to his children and grandchildren who lived in the villages. Among the things he bought once in a while when he came down from his polonyna were newspapers, bread and cells for his portable radio.

He lived all alone in his polonyna, his only visitors being bears, wolves and wild boars whom he chased away. In winters, after heavy snowfalls, he had to use snow for getting water from it. He had enough hay and fodder stored for the animals that spent the winter in the corrals to which he could get through a corridor right from his house without going outside. He had food stored for the whole winter and enough firewood to last him throughout the cold seasons. He never went hungry; neither was he ever cold. He died when he was 89.

He was never forced to live alone  it was his own choice.


Feast of the departure to polonyny

It is a feast that is held every year. This year a particularly picturesque feast was held in the town of Putyl, in the heart of the Hutsul land. There is much joy and much sadness in this feast. The joy comes from good expectations  the animals will return well-fed, and thus they will be able to winter well, or some of the cattle can be sold with good profit; a lot of cheese will be made. Sadness is present at any departure. Besides, there are wolves and bears in the Carpathian forests who can attack not only sheep and cows but people as well. The herdsmen are armed to protect themselves and the livestock from predators  animal and human.

This year the hero of the feast in Putyl was Dmytro Karapka, a veteran vatah, who had been conducting sheep and cows at the polonyny, and supervising herdsmen for many years. He is responsible for every herdsman, for every animal.

Many guests from other regions of Ukraine and even from abroad came to attend the feast in Putyl which was held at the local stadium. The guests and the herdsmen listened to well-wishing speeches, attended a wedding, were treated to local traditional dishes. The departing herdsmen marched past the stands in a solemn parade. They carried away to the polonyna the presents they were given for good luck.

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