It’s been a long winter.
Especially for my sisters, one in the Midwest and the other in New England. Long months of below average temperatures, and lots and lots of snow and ice. But hardest of all, the endless grey – day after day of overcast skies. Short days without the life-sustaining brightness of the sun.
Last weekend, Mac and I spent two nights in the Engadine Valley, in the tiny mountain village of Guarda (pop. 170). We just happened to be there to witness Chalandamarz, the ancient rite of spring. The pagan ritual dates back to when this part of Switzerland was part of the Roman Empire, and probably pre-dates Christianity.
Dressed in traditional blue smocks, with bright red toboggans on their heads, the local children, oldest (wearing huge bells), to youngest (wearing small bells), line up in the town square. And they walk in a procession from house to house, calling out the evil spirits of winter. Each moves his/her whole body to make the clappers ring as they are yoked around their shoulders. And they sing bright songs to chase away the darkness, to make way for spring.
Seasonal Affective Disorder on display and exorcised for all to see.
Being the last day of February, there’s still bad weather to come, no doubt. But something in this valley is turning, the light is shifting and there is a new smell of wet, steaming earth coming up through patches in the ice. Everyone, especially the animals, can sense it.
Obviously, cows are hugely important to Switzerland. Farmers have relied on them, along with goats and chickens, to support a way of life still practiced in the mountain communities. The farms here are small, not like the corporate sized ones in the United States. Still, the cow carries a large burden, providing milk and cheese and meat.
And to look at the bells that they wear is to see the relationship displayed. They are handcrafted brass or bronze, each with a unique pattern to identify ownership, attached to thick, soft, leather straps. And the clang is deafening. No cow can go undetected into a ravine. I don’t see how the animals bear the weight or the racket, but they don’t seem to mind.
All winter long they have been safe in the barns, let out into small, patchy yards only to move around. Their coats have become dull and oily, matted and scruffy-looking. But at least down here they have been kept warm.
And their bells have been hung up, to wait until warmer weather. And at that time, they will be polished and fastened to the cows’ necks, and adorned with ribbons and wildflowers. And they will be escorted, like bridesmaids, up to the steep Alpine pastures. There they will roam and graze and calve throughout the summer months.
It was uncomfortably cold standing outside on the cobblestones, waiting for the little parade of children to start. The snow was icy in places, and I was shivering, after falling on my butt in my no-traction Uggs. I wanted my coffee back in the inn.
The contrast was not lost on me, how soft my life is. Farm life is but a romantic idea to me. The storybook Heidi, mixed with a few memories of visiting a family farm in Upstate New York as a child, are the extent of my knowledge.
But I definitely remember the smell of the milking room. How I had anticipated a sweet and creamy aroma, a froth of deliciousness. Instead it was a thick, animal stink that you couldn’t filter though your nose – grassy with notes of dung and piss, no undertones of Breyer’s vanilla at all.
And the metal suckers on the milking machine looked cold and pinching on the poor animals’ udders. The plumped up cows were strapped into place with no room to move. It didn’t look like a tacit agreement between farmer and cow. I felt disappointed and vaguely ashamed.
Like in upstate New York, winter is harsh for those in the Engadine Valley. Work is physically demanding and unremitting. And while the schedule is grueling, it seems like the small breaks they get are savored.
Anyway, it’s easy to romanticize farm life.
Still, I appreciate how the Engadine farmers respect their heritage, in a way that is decorous and dramatic. Dressing up their animals, creating a pageant to mark the schedule in such a brutal year. Festooning a dirty bovine and leading her up the muddy path, they’re attempting to put a sweet note on things.
Stories and traditions do this. They lead us by the nose, out of the muck, into the larger green.
And, though I’ve never been a jolly positive person, I get it. Granted, I’d rather have experienced the ceremony a few hours later in the morning. It was frigid out there, the wind bit and chapped my face, and the grey morning light leached my spirit.
But I got why it was important to welcome the dawn, to be reminded that the sun is slowly growing stronger.
And as I looked above the rooftops, the harsh mountains were staggeringly beautiful. The trees were heavy with snow, so serene. They have stood like that for generations, an unchanging backdrop to the Chalandamarz.
After breakfast, I was told that the children walked for two hours, to every single house in the village. And, at one point, they passed by the cow pasture, where the big beasts were lined up against the fence, like gossiping neighbors taking a smoke break. And as the kids clanged the huge, beautiful bells, the cows got strange expressions in their wide, rolling eyes.
I bet they were wondering why the peculiar humans were wearing their necklaces.
And some of them actually started to kick a back hoof or two. Anticipation of the frolic? Memories of tender green tugs of grass?
Or were they just terrified of the bells? Maybe they dreaded the ponderous weight around their necks.
We are all ready to be free of the yoke of winter. It may be another month or so before we can raise our faces to feel the strong warmth, but we’re patient. And I’m ready for the cold and snow to give way to the big melt that comes off the mountains.
But I’m here to report that I have heard the Swiss cowbells, the deep clangs, and the small tinkling brass peals. And, if you close your eyes and try to picture these Alps, maybe you can hear them too.
And very soon, when the cows are finally let out into larger pastures, out into the open mountain air, and you hear them ring in the distance, we’ll know it’s truly spring.
Because the animals know. And they’re frolicking, absolutely sure that the evil winter spirits are gone.