The 200-Year-Old Cauldron

It is 10am, and Schwand Fridu leans against the massive cauldron in which he has just made cheese, in which cheese has been made for more than two centuries.

It is the same one that towered over him when he was a boy, so fascinated by the Alpli he was late for school. It is the one his father used, and his grandfather worked on. It is, in fact, older than even this old wood Alpli called Baumgarten (where Baum is a tree and Garten is garden), made in the spot where rocks from the Hohgant don’t fall down.

It was David Gerber who built this hut, and there were two others that existed here before that, huts that have disappeared since, lost to the mountain. But David has lived on ever since, inscribed in copper over milk and cheese, under old wood black with centuries of smoke.

Why here? Because this is just beyond where the boulders fall down the mountain, just beyond the bowl of the Jurtenfluh, with its loose sides that threaten destruction. It is blank space without a hut, and the next Alpli is Luterschwändi, on the other side. This is also the source of the Baumgartegräbli and the Schwandgräbli (Graben means to dig and a Gräbli is a little stream in the local dialect).

Annamarie knew Fridu long before she married him, right from they were children. She comes from Kircheggli (where Kirch is the church, and Eggli a corner: it overlooks the church in Schangnau), and dreamt of leaving the mountains and living in the flatlands, but ended up at the end of a dead-end track just under the cliffs of the Hohgant. Annamarie, recovering from a wound from the Alpauffahrt (the annual Swiss migration), when she was gored in the back.

And Nora the Bläss from St Gallen, who you think is old but is only seven, shy and shrinking away from the camera, retreating from all the attention to the sitting room. There were always Blässes here, and before Nora there was a Bläss called Bläss, and before that there was Barry.

And Eduard Kreis came here to work on the Alpli when he was 24, and has stayed ever since. He is 60 now, with a pipe permanently stuck into his rough, chiseled face. And, like all the locals, known by a nickname: Schwand Edu, after Schwand, the farmhouse by the Emme where Fridu comes from, and which he retreats to in winter.

Fridu has recently had his chest cut open for heart surgery, and he proudly shows off his scar. He isn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than five kilos, which “isn’t a lot” he complains, so Klötz Hansu (named after his father Hans Klötzli) from Grossenbumbach helps him make cheese, riding his dirt bike from the other side of the Emme every morning.

Schwand Fridu has visitors from the next ridge this evening, and we sit in the little room while a summer thunderstorm rages over the mountain, drinking coffee with Bätzi. Someone cracks a joke about the hard life on the Alplis here, and says “Schangauers don’t want to leave and Bumbachers don’t want to come back…”

But Fridu has turned his head and is looking outside the window, beyond the cows and goats and pigs, to the patch of white on the grass where the Lischebüscheli grows, hinting at the source of water, the Baumgartegräbli or the Bühlmanschwandgräbli. Sources and names and memories sometimes get mixed up here. The Lischebüscheli always grows in the wetlands, and although cows don’t eat it the plant is useful because farmers cut it down and leave it to fertilize the soil.

“This Alpli,” says Fridu, “was always my life.”

Hans, who helps Fridu make cheese

Schwand Fridu & me at my exhibition