The nice couple I’d befriended left for home, and I promptly moved back into the guest apartment. Earlier that day I’d arranged a departure date myself with the farmeress, and it felt good knowing exactly how long I had left of the farm.
What George Lucas Jacked from the Herb Garden: While working in the herb garden, I realized that flying beetles sound like light sabers as they whiz past your face. This new discovery was rather exciting to me, so when I spoke to a friend on the phone later that night, I asked: “Did you know that flying beetles sound like light sabers?” There was a slight pause before she repeated, “Flying beetles taste like Life Savers?!”
Day Sixteen, or Alm-most There:
A week earlier, the Sennerin (remember that word from our vocab lesson?) had said I could come and help drive the cows from the low Alm (remember that word?) to the high Alm. Most of the day was spent in preparation for the next day’s cattle drive. I amused myself with the thought that driving the cows makes me a cowherd, or rather a cowherdess, which sounds almost like “cowardess”…but my little pun was of course in English, which saved me from the embarrassing situation of actually uttering it aloud. (And now that I’m putting it out there, I can properly share an embarrassingly awful pun! Enjoy!)
Day Seventeen, or A Farewell to Alms:
When my alarm went off at 5:20 in the morning, I was already wide awake. I’d slept terribly—if at all—in anticipation of driving the cows from the low Alm to the high Alm. It was a distance of 11.5 km (7.2 miles) that we’d be driving the cows on foot, using sticks as prods to keep them all in line. It was such a novelty for me that I could hardly contain my excitement!
When we reached the low Alm, the Sennerin was waiting for us with the cows. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my excitement, as the Sennerin had also hardly slept at all in anticipation of the drive! But for her it was also a move to a new alpine hut for the next 5-6 weeks until they return again to the low Alm, and it also meant transporting all of her belongings up to the high Alm later by Jeep.
I had no idea what to expect, and I was given absolutely no instructions as the cows began to exit the stable. I was given a long stick to use as a cattle prod and watched as the farmer’s sons and daughters began to drive the cattle down the lane. There were 12 cows to be herded, and we scattered ourselves throughout the line of cows to keep them moving and together on the path. I had only my camera and my “cattle prod” with me, and at the risk of being labeled a tourist (because, let’s face it, I was!) I faithfully documented the experience.
Fortunately for us, cows are pack animals with a herd mentality. Driving cattle is much easier than, say, driving cats. Cats (oh what a nightmare!) would scatter when pushed in one direction; cows, for the most part, follow the leader. The challenge arises when one cow decides to stray from the pack and the others inevitably follow suit. When one or many wander off, you must jump into the woods or scamper up the hill or do whatever is necessary to bring those misguided souls back to the (not so) straight and narrow path. The trick, I discovered through trial and error, is to approach the cow from the side. Cows, I learned, are fast. They can gallop. It’s a lumbering gallop, but a gallop nonetheless. If they see you running up behind them, they’ll simply run away from you in whatever direction they happen to be facing. If you can approach from the side, you can use your prod to urge them back to the right direction.
Some cows seemed to respond well to a simple tap with the stick, while others required an all-out whack across the back. It was relatively simple to drive them up to the high Alm, with only a few exceptions that required the strategic roundup skills of a fledgling cowherdess.
As we were slowly driving the cows up the mountain, I thought of all the agrarian Scripture passages that were becoming so much more real to me as I worked on the farm. As much of the Old Testament is concerned with figures who worked the land, I now felt much more of a connection or an understanding for those who had to work the field or attend the flocks. That, after the Fall, man was punished to work the land by the sweat of his brow—I know that sweat! That people were constantly tending their herds and flocks—totally! That Jesus talks about the one lost sheep that goes astray and the shepherd who leaves the other 99 to go and look for it—I understand why the illustration wasn’t with cows instead! (Though I know absolutely nothing about herding sheep, I now realize that if the one cow had gone astray, the other 99 would have followed…and that would have been a totally different lesson!) Even the Psalms became more alive to me—after all, David spent a bunch of time out in nature with his flocks too!
It took about 3-3½ hours to reach the high Alm. It didn’t feel like we had gone 7.2 miles uphill, since the grade was gradual and, since it was essentially hiking with cows, it was slow going. Ambling, even. When we reached the alpine hut, we all sat around and snacked, just as the cows seemed to be doing in the pasture below. The view from the alpine hut was spectacular—from that elevation you could finally see the mighty Alps stretching out as far as the eye could see. Layer upon layer of rocky, craggy mountain ranges stretched out in a gently receding snow-covered panorama. For the first time since being in Tyrol I really felt like I was indeed in the Alps. In fact, I could hardly tear my eyes away from the view.
Most of the others left the Alm at midday, but I remained until the evening and got to observe the Sennerin for the first time as she milked the cows with a machine that looked like a giant metal octopus. First, she cleaned the udders and milked each one a bit by hand to get the impurities out. Then she attached the milking machine, which vacuum sucks a tube to each of the four udders and then pumps out more milk than I ever thought could come from a cow! (Two cows can fill a knee-high container, which must hold at least 5-7 gallons of milk.) Then, once the milk stops flowing and wrinkles appear around eat teat indicating empty udders, the milking machine is removed and the udders are rubbed down with a Vaseline-like ointment to moisturize, prevent chapping, keep clean, and repel flies. I watched on in “udder” amazement and hoped that I’d be able to help one of these days!
After all the cows had been milked, the farmer demonstrated how to use the 150-year-old centrifuge that separates the milk from the cream. This contraption is cranked quickly by hand and it separates the heavier cream from the milk—for every 10 liters of milk, you can get about 1 liter of cream. (The cream is then used to make butter and the milk is used to make cheese.)
As the farmer was pouring the milk, still warm from the cows, into the centrifuge, I asked if the milk would have to be pasteurized before drinking. To my surprise he responded that it was drinkable already. “Really??” I asked in astonishment. I mean, I know that back in the day people had to get milk straight from the cow, but I really though that nowadays milk was unhealthy to drink before it’s been pasteurized. That’s what illogical city girls think, anyway.
The farmer offered me a glass of fresh milk. With some degree of trepidation, I took a sip…and it was amazing! So rich and so pure—whole milk with the cream still in it, and pleasantly warm from the cow. (There’s a word for this in German, actually: cow-warm-milk.) I drank the whole glass and I could feel the creaminess coating the inside of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth.
My first impression of getting up to the high Alm and seeing the view was: This makes it all worth everything and worth coming to Tyrol just to come up here and be in this awesome creation. This is gonna be good.
I had quite a day with the cows. I observed, I learned, and I amused myself at their expense….
Highlights: Herding cattle requires more than just a strong hand with the cattle prodding stick. It requires many a sharp yet encouraging word to drive them on. While the others were able to get the cows moving with a few choice words in dialect, when I uttered those same words they just came out sounding weak and silly. What better chance, I thought, to use all the cowboy slang I’d picked up from all those old Westerns my mom watched when I was a kid? If I was going to sound silly yelling at cows, I was going to sound silly in my own language! I took to yelling things out, such as:
These all, of course, came out with a cowboy accent. If yer gonna herd them cows, ya better herd ‘em proper!
Observations: Cows are simple creatures. They don’t seem to think independently that much. They seem content to go with the flow. They’re powerful yet gentle. They don’t seem to know their own strength, but you get the impression they wouldn’t exploit it if they did. Cows have kind, gentle eyes. They seem almost huggable at times…but they also have a lot of gooey snot. They can be kept clear of a field with an inch-thick band of plastic tape strung from spike to spike—they don’t necessarily need a whole fence to keep them out; they see the barrier and they accept it. I’ve decided I like cows.
Scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head: I finally learned what Little Bunny Foo Foo was onto: field mice sound just like squeaky toys! When the cat caught a field mouse out in the pasture, it made the same noise as when you whack the gophers with a mallet in that carnival game. Go figure!
On Tyrolean Farmhouses: I didn’t realize until I got to Tyrol why Austrian farmhouses look so big: because they’re a house and a stable all in one! The farmer’s house is also like that, and even the alpine hut opens straight from the kitchen into the stable. As far as I know, American farmhouses are not like that!
Day Eighteen, or Buying Time:
The Sennerin agreed that I could come and stay with her on the Alm for a couple of nights. After the day of the cattle drive, I went back to the farm for a day off, buying time as I prepared my things for the next 2-3 days on the high Alm.
The high Alm is situated at 1400 m (about 4600 ft) above sea level. But don’t let that fool you—although it lacks the base elevation of Rockies, it’s just as spectacular, and the treeline is much lower in the Alps. The alpine hut is a wooden structure about 300 years old, in typical Austrian style: a tiny one-room hut with a bed and a wood-burning stove (with storage rooms to either side) and a door opening from the main room into the stable. The WC is an outhouse to the rear of the hut, and the water comes from a hose outside connected to a natural spring on the mountain. The generator provides electricity at night, and the wood stove heats the hut. It was rustic and sweet and I couldn’t wait to take a mini-break from the farm and work on the Alm.