Winter Nomads

Gleaners have traditionally been viewed as good-luck charms dating back to Biblical times, and this interesting documentary features 800 sheep gleaning leftover crops from harvested fields. Switzerland's "Hiver nomade" follows the transhumance (seasonal movement of livestock accompanied by humans) of a flock of sheep throughout the French-speaking Swiss countryside during a four-month trek.

Take 800 sheep, 3 patient donkeys, 3 hard-working dogs, 2 shepherds and 1 eager puppy, then send them out on a 4-month migration designed to fatten the sheep for market using nothing more than passing fields and pastures.

Several things impressed me:
  • No ropes; nothing to lead the donkeys, no leashes for the dogs, no fences for the sheep. All the participants flowed from one grazing site to the next as a unified whole with the dogs trimming the edges and keeping the flock together.
  • Generosity; property owners along the way made our group of nomads welcome, explaining where the best grazing could be found and offering hospitality along the way.
  • Gourmet food; our folks dined on truffles, fondue, pâté de foie gras, local wines and other mouth-watering contributions from local residents.
  • Obliging motorists; at times this mass of animals had to use roadways and overpasses. We saw patient motorists and townspeople gawking at this unique sight.
  • Two bellwethers (ewes who wear bells and lead the flock) knew their own names! Of course they were first trained with bits of bread, but to see them come when called was amazing.
  • This 54-year-old shepherd and his 28-year-old (female) apprentice seem to have an interesting relationship. He is a stern taskmaster and she wanted a job in the outdoors. Hmmm....
Ever since my parents explained The Gleaners, a painting by Jean- François Millet which hung on their bedroom wall on our farm in South Dakota, I've had an interest in this marvel.