“Ruby! Eh! Vieni qui!”
The shepherd’s attempts to re-herd his cows were at once firm and compassionate. Although to us they all looked very much alike, he had a name for each individual cow.
We met him wandering the old abandoned Stelvio Pass road one chilly morning as his livestock grazed and the crisp air turned our breath to condensation. We brewed up a tea in one of our old enamel cups and took it over to him, and immediately struck up a conversation amidst the towering snow-dusted mountains.
Born to a Romanian family, he told us he had been working as a shepherd for the past six years, having decided to give up his training as a mechanic for his love of the outdoors and animals. He found life in the town of Bormio far too hectic and stressful and so moved to a small wood and stone hut on one of the slopes with his cows, but could not understand why his kids were so interested in the internet and their phones that they could not enjoy the great outdoors.
As he sipped his tea and herded the occasional cow back into the pack, we peppered him with our curious questions about the life of a shepherd.
He enjoyed the solitary life, he told us, estimating he must walk around 40km a day and to over 2,000m of altitude. He patted his thick leather boots with a flourish, explaining that he needed these in order not to injure himself or freeze his toes. We pointed to Ben’s bare feet in sandals and the shepherd laughed and shook his head.
Being grey Alpine cows we learned they had a tendency to migrate to higher altitudes, which caused the shepherd some headaches in the snow when he needed to keep the herd at lower levels lest they injure themselves or go hungry. But with the fierce pride of an Italian he told us that his cows’ milk was by far the best as they grazed exclusively on Alpine grass from high up in the plains and drank only fresh stream water; they never consumed chemicals. He would make cheese in the summer and butter in the winter, and the locals would come and collect the dairy products from his home.
To us, raised in a world where milk only comes from the supermarket in big plastic bottles, this seemed a far cleaner and healthier alternative.
When it was time to move the herd on we asked if we could take his portrait before he left, and as he stood there leaning on his wooden cane while we snapped a few quick shots he explained that he was the only shepherd in the area to use the handmade whip he was holding. The other shepherds tended to use dogs, he told us, but he preferred the whip as a gentler alternative as dogs were likely to distress the cow and cause it to fall and injure itself.
On that note he wandered off in the same direction from which he’d came, leaving us to stroke his cows as they peeked their curious noses inside our van with no fear of humans, and we contemplated the idea that compassion and clean air is all you really need for a cow to make good milk.