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Life in the Polonyna
Roman MYKHAYLYUK, a professional photographer who is enamored of the Carpathians, spent several weeks in the Carpathian Mountains, observing the life and work of vivchary, Carpathian shepherds.
Those who come to the Carpathians as tourists can hardly help being fascinated with the beauty of the mountains. They enthuse about the bluish undulating mountainscape in the distance, about fast mountain rivers they come across in their wanderings, about the rumble of waterfalls, about the crystal-clear, delicious water of the mountain springs, about dense forests with their salubrious, fragrant air, and about picturesque villages in the valleys and individual peasant houses that stud the slopes.
At local markets, which are hardly less picturesque than the mountains themselves or the local dwellings, tourists can buy wood carvings, leather and wool items of exquisite workmanship, ceramics, embroidered shirts and dresses in the local and traditional Ukrainian styles — the list of only the most conspicuous things of the definite Carpathian design and make would take the rest of space allotted to this article.
And even longer is list of the local dainties and food products that Carpathian farmers offer at the local food markets — mushrooms of all possible varieties, cooked, pickled and fresh, all sorts of berries and nuts, honey and herbs to make herb teas, medicinal plants, cheeses hard and soft, to mention but painfully few items. And mind you — there is a lot of foods that have local names, so even Ukrainians from other parts of Ukraine have to enquire what hides behind the fancy names. If you can talk Ukrainian, you may strike a conversation with the vender and learn exciting things about the products he or she sells, where they come from, plus a lot of other interesting things.
In many places in the Carpathians, high up in the mountains, and lower on the slopes and in the valleys, which are locally called “polonyna,” you can see little wooden houses locally called “stayi”. They are summer houses of the shepherds who take the sheep and other animals for grazing in the mountains. Incidentally, in wintertime, these summer houses can serve as a refuge for tourists in their wonderings around the mountains when they feel an urgent need to get warm.
But from late May until the end of September, stayi are occupied by shepherds, though many of them remain outdoors all the time, close to their herds, even at night — there are wolves prowling around, and there are individuals who think they can use a sheep or two for their own purposes, so shepherds have to be on their guard.
Vivchary (also called chabany) go to sleep as the darkness sets in and they get up with the dawn — among the many things they have to do is the milking of their sheep. Depending on the number of shepherds and the size of the flock, the number of sheep to be milked by each shepherd may vary from 50 to 200. The milk is used for several purposes, the main one being making of cheese. Then fires are built, meals are cooked and the sheep are led to the best grazing grounds.
Summers can be very hot in the Carpathians, and when September comes it often brings rain and even snow. Shepherds stay out in the mountains in all weather taking care of the sheep.
They move from place to place, over dale and hill, through dense woods, across fast rivers in which the water is very cold. The shepherds make sure they do not lose a single sheep while they are on the move, or while the sheep wander over the grazing grounds. Little accidents do happen — some animals can get too stubborn, dogs can bite, stones underfoot can treacherously give way.
The nights do not often are the time of relaxation after very tiring days — all the sheep have to be watered, and then herded into corrals, the fences of the enclosures must be checked for holes, and only after all these things are done, comes the time for dinner and short rest. What with the milking and processing the milk, there is very little time left for any real relaxation.
I watched in fascination the deft movements of the vivchary who filled bucket after bucket with a seeming ease and in such a short time (only when you try to do it yourself you realize how hard it in fact is!)
The bucketfuls of milk are poured into a huge cauldron and the fire is built under it.
Often, when the night settles in, vivchary still have work to do. All sorts of things are added to the milk to get it to the right condition and achieve the desired flavour. The cauldron is hung above the fire from a contraption that allows it to be rotated so all the sides of the cauldron are sequentially exposed to the fire. The vaternyk, a sort of fire supervisor (vatra — is “fire” in the local dialect), decides when and how the cauldron should be moved.
When the vatah, head of the group of vivchary and milk processing supervisor, says “Get the cheese out!”, the part of the milk that has come to float on the top, is removed, and then the parts of the curd are selected for a different sort of cheese. Then the excessive fluids are pressed out and the future cheeses are placed into moulds. Some moulds with cheese go to be placed up in the attics of the stayi to be exposed to good winds, and others will be hung near the fire. Some cheeses will be put away for long storage and others will be used shortly — at wedding or birthday parties, or sold at the markets.
Everyone in vivchary teams knows what he is supposed to do (Carpathian shepherds are all male), at which time and where. The discipline is rather rigid. The sheep that make up the herds belong to various owners — some send a couple of sheep up for mountain grazing but others may send several dozen — and the shepherds are responsible for all of them.
When the summer turns out too dry or too wet, it affects the milk yields and consequently production of cheese. And cheese is not only a staple food — it brings in money, too.
Wolves continue to do some damage as well, no matter how hard you try to keep the sheep from trouble. Some of the sheep, even though they manage to run away wounded, later die of their wounds or get further hurt when they fall down the slopes.
I discovered that being a shepherd in the Carpathian Mountains is a tough occupation. Dinner comes as a relieving respite after a hard day. Shepherds pray before the icons set in the corners of their stayi, then sit down to their dinner which usually consists of kulesha (a sort of a corn dish), budz (a sort of cheese), and homemade bread (often enough, just a slice for each). Practically no alcohol is consumed because several hours later they have to be up and about starting a new busy day.
When you spend even just one day with the shepherds, walk the distances they walk, spend the evening by the fire in the open air, eat the vivchary food, you tend to see the mountains, woods and stars above in quite a different way, and a new respect is born in your heart for the people who live in the mountains, for their traditions, for their handicrafts and their handiwork which are not part of museums’ displays but are part of the living reality.
I do hope the people of the Carpathians will continue to maintain their traditions for all time to come, that the Carpathians will not turn into just another major tourist area with the locals dressing up just for posing for photographs, and that they will retain their true and rather severe but very honest, age-old way of life.