Billy’s Last Summer
Life & Death on the Alp
Over on the next mountain lay Billy, breathing in his last summer, half blind, half alive. He lay cocooned in an ancient coat that had never been brushed, on an ancient stone floor of a hut built onto a ledge on the side of the mountain. Not even the Subarus of Schangnau ventured up here, at the end of a dead-end dirt track of loose rock that was part road without cars, part hiking trail without hikers.
This was Obermastweid, a hut just under the vertical rock face that led to the top of the Hohgant and shut out any hope of any sunlight reaching here after the shortest of summers. Ober means over, Mast is fertile land, and a Weid is the field where cows graze.
Billy had seen 15 of them and the plan was to put him to sleep before he could suffer another winter, but he beat them to it, dying before Theres and Fritz could take him to the vet in Eggiwil who put water lilies in her pond. And so they buried him on the alp. Billy, the Border Collie- Appenzeller mix, the only black puppy in a family of brown. Billy grew huge and was too friendly to be a worker. He just couldn’t bring himself to bark at cows.
Obermastweid has been in Fritz’s mother’s family for five generations, since June 21, 1903, when they bought it from the man they worked for, Friedrich von Tscharner of Morillon, one of the Berner Patrizia, the landowners of Bern.
It consists of a hut to live in, another little one on stilts (so rats can’t climb up) to store cheese, and a barn of cows. Fritz and his wife Theres spend summers here, and head downhill in September to the house from his father’s side of the family, on Ober Pfaffenmoos, over the moor named after a forgotten priest.
Fritz is stuffed tight into a t-shirt that says Napf Marathon 2013, which he’s never run, as we sit down in the sun and eat old bread drowned in molten cheese. Cheese made on this alp in a massive copper cauldron over a wood fire and aged in the cellar under us, mixed with leaves of bear’s garlic, Bärlauch, that Theres collects from the damp folds of these slopes.
Not many people make cheese like this any more, and not many still live lives so dictated by seasons. Most live far more comfortably in the valley below. But Theres grew up in a little apartment in the bleak urban flatlands of Aargau, more known for its endless knot of train tracks, unravelling towards better places. And Theres wanted to be somewhere else.
We nibble on leftover claw-shaped Christmas biscuits called Krabbeli, and talk of the third house she will migrate to, this one her last. Because Ober Pfaffenmoos is too small for everyone once her son has married his girlfriend and has children. The next house will be her Alterssitz, site of her old age, crammed down a steep ravine so deep you barely see the sun and never see people. The last house at the end of the dead-end road barely wider than a car, barely hanging on to the last field above the Emme. And the Emme, after having trickled through the mountains and squeezed itself through the horror of the Räbloch gorge, suddenly wide and shallow, comatose and without direction.
This is Untergustiweid. A Gusti is a cow around one to two years of age (older than a calf, or Kalb, and younger than an adult cow, or Rind). A Weid is a field for cows. And Unter means under, because there’s another house a couple of turns above called Gustiweid.
Walter has just finished pouring a solution against fleas over the backs of the young cows. He lights a cigarette over the Emme, so still you can barely hear it, before heading indoors to punch the new coffee machine with enormous fingers. He rents the house from Theres, and runs a catering business with his partner, Monika. Barry, a 10-year-old mix of a Bläss, sits between us, waiting for everyone to leave so he can get on the sofa. Because there’s nothing to do outside, nothing except fall into the river, or haul oneself out of the valley up to the village of Siehen, which means to see. But down here there isn’t much to look at except the snow-covered banks of the river as it flows reluctantly away.