Follow the Emme

Somewhere deep in the heart of Switzerland, high up a valley as it squeezes into the alps, starts the river Emme.

Where exactly it begins is a mystery: a no-man’s land of many sources and mountains that few people have heard of. And from these obscure origins, the Emme flows down the valley, or Tal, lending it its name: Emmental.

The Emmental of picture-postcard Switzerland, of rolling hills and cows. The Emmental of Emmentaler cheese.

And yet, turn away from all this and you’re in another world: deep in the mountains where the Emme is only a cold stream so thin you could stop it with a few stones, a land of rock and snow and farmers so rugged it is referred to by other Swiss as the Wild West of the country. Earringed men whose children wrestle for sport; farmers who gather monthly to dance, stone-faced, to alp music; prefer their coffee with apple schnapps and their deserts with meringue.

On the slopes of the alps are the farmhouses called Älplis: massive, centuries-old structures made of wood turned gray in the sun. The Älplis were, for thousands of years, lived in during the summer, when the mountain slopes were green, and abandoned in the winter, when the farmers would take their cows down to the villages on the valley floor, while the Älplis were cut off by snow.

And while many have settled permanently in villages, there are still those who make this annual migration that is at the heart of Swiss life, economy and culture.

This is how they survived. For long before the Swiss became rich, they were poor, on scraps of barely-accessible land, unusable under snow for half the year. This is where they made their cheese each summer: simple, hard and dry. And this is where they had time. Time and reason to develop specialized skills that would one day be sold to the world. Because without that there was nothing, just the Älplis on the alps.

And this is that story, on the alps, today.

Somewhere between the peaks of the Hohgant and the Augstmatthorn, somewhere over the sources of the Emme that start somewhere under the Emmental.

Deep in the nameless depths under the Ringghuppi, far away from tourists, the mountains leak so much water in so many places no one knows which one is the source of the Emme, or if they all are.

And here, far away from everyone, without a road, a cellphone signal or even a hiking path, you will find a hut. And outside this hut sits a man. A man with a big beard and a earring, listening to the sounds of the world through a little radio with a bent antenna tuned to Eviva. A man with a pair of binoculars who will most probably be looking straight at you.

Wernu is 60, but has been a shepherd for only two years, after losing his job at the recycling plant at Hasle where he had been working since 1977. He won’t get another. “I’ll become a shepherd again next year if I’m still alive,” he says. “My father broke his hips twice when he was my age…”

Wernu takes care of someone else’s animals: 45 cows and seven calves. He stays at this hut called Chumi under the Augstmatthorn for four weeks around June, and heads towards the top of the ridge to a hut called Schneenenbiel, or Schönbuhl, where he will stay till September, before coming down to Chumi for another month and then abandoning the mountain in winter.

Chumi, which is also the word for cumin, sits right on top of a stream that Wernu calls the Emmesprung, or one of the sources of the Emme. He drinks water from another source closer to the hut. The water mixes with soil when it gets stormy.

The original hut was on the other side of the water, where you can still see its stone foundation, but it was destroyed in a rockfall.

But there are no rocks falling down on him today, so we sit on his patio drinking his favorite drink: coffee with apple schnapps called Bätzi, served in a cup with water from the Emme, sweetened with a couple of spoons of sugar. Because Bätzi and Käfeli without sugar is no good, as Wernu points out, even if you usually drink your coffee plain. And he’s right.

And here we are, months later, on top of the ridge that forms the backbone of the Emmental, at the hut called Schönbuhl where Wernu spends the summer. On the other side are all things people know: the stunning turquoise lakes on either side of Interlaken, and the alps beyond. But here, on the north side of the ridge and under it are the deepest recesses of the Emmental Alps.

Wernu is in his Sunday best, in a loose, rough shirt with American surfer and palm tree graphics stitched on, held to him with suspenders peppered with an Edelweiss monogram. He is, as usual, drinking Chrüter (schnapps with herbs) in his coffee while keeping an eye on everything below us with his binoculars, looking like some sort of benevolent Emmental god on holiday.

Over on the other side of the valley is the Schrattenfluh, with its face of karst raked so distinctively it has inspired legends about a jealous spirit that clawed it over a woman. Wernu says he saw the devil on it once. “There was a special light…”

We sit on his bench outside the hut, with its Swiss flag that stays up when Wernu is here so everyone down in the valley knows. Wernu is thumping his fist on the table, flattening horseflies called Bräme and upsetting the coffee mugs. They look rustic but they’re from a multibillion-euro German empire called Bertelsmann.

Wernu is snacking on biscuits his daughter baked and brought him the last weekend. He doesn’t like sweets. He misses bread, especially Ruchbrot, or rough bread. He misses meat, but there’s no fridge or electricity. He cooks pasta and Rösti from packets. He speaks of an aunt who emigrated to the UK and now has children who only speak English, family he has lost to language and distance.

Last year, one of the cows broke its foot on these slopes and had to be shot. Wernu lost ten kilos that summer as he ran after the cows over the mountain: it was so foggy he couldn’t see them.

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 Patricia, the patriarchal 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.

But the water flowed past Fritz too, as he howled Howlin’ Wolf’s blues and dreamt of leaving the cold and the mountains. This was the wrong place for someone who didn’t like cold toes.

This afternoon he’d had his arm deep inside the goat, twisting around the half-born kid in the barn above where the Emme widened into pools for a moment, lingering a bit, before disappearing into the winter.

It was a Biblical setting, with cold sun the color of milk coming in through two opaque windows: light soaked by hay trampled by 20 white goats, each softly glowing. And every one of them staring at us.

Fritz dreamt of leaving the mountains, of leaving the hemmed-in Swiss-German life, where there was always a neighbour, the roads were narrow and you checked the oil in your Subaru every 5,000km. Most of all, he dreamt of France, where life, he said, was léger. He’d been to New Zealand on his honeymoon, but he’d never been to France. “When I was 30,” he says, “I thought I should’ve left when I was 20…”

But he stayed. He wanted to become a football player, a singer, a mechanic. His father, who he is named after, and who was in turn named after his own father, had wanted him to become a farmer.

When he was 25, Fritz took over the Älpli called Imbrig and lived there 13 years, raising a family with Marianne just under the claw-raked cliffs of the Schrattenfluh. Those were perhaps the best of times, far away from everyone, with one side of the mountain all to themselves. They made simple mountain cheese called Hobelchäs, the type not sold to tourists. It is so hard and dry you have to eat it in slices so thin they’re almost translucent, shaved by a traditional slicer called a hobel. Cheese made on the highest slopes is Alpchäs, while that made lower down the mountain is Bergchäs (Berg being mountain, and Chäs cheese).

“New Zealand was good. It was warm. You don’t have cold hands and feet.” But while Fritz spent his youth dreaming of faraway places, Marianne’s life and love revolved around farming, family and land. Her maiden name is Fankhauser, which means she comes from Fankhaus, the valley between the town of Trub and the mountain of Napf. And she isn’t interested in faraway places, or with cows that have numbers instead of names. Farming is very personal here, intertwined with family life.

“But they have hundreds and thousands of cows in New Zealand. That’s a problem. No Jessica or Petra. Only numbers.” Marianne is someone who takes out the baby rabbits for the children to play with, lets the hours-old calves suckle on her thumbs and is overcome with emotion when the cows are let out of the barn after the winter, running and jumping like puppies on the grass under the Hohgant.

“I’ll sell the farm when I’m 60 and leave for France…” says Fritz.

Rösi used to miss the view when she left her village on top of the mountain for the house under the Hohgant, but that didn’t matter as much since she lost half her eyesight. She was now so deep down the valley the sun never touched the old house in winter.

We sit in the massive, dark farmhouse that Daniel had rebuilt in 1953. It had been much worse then, so soaked in water and shadow they had to drain the land, and Rösi had to cook for 13 men. They cut the trees and moved the hut for storing cheese, the Chäs Stöckli, closer. But they could never get to the sun in winter, and it took till almost midday to light the field just beyond the house.

Daniel’s family had been living here for seven generations. His great-grandfather was David, who’d owned all the huts on this road up the Hohgant, all the way up to Glunti and the desolate moor of Hennenmoos (which had also been his until it was protected under the Rothenthurm Initiative, which still gives him compensation).

All the houses and huts on this road have variations of the same name where Buch refers to the beech tree, the Buche, while Hütte is a hut, and Hüttli might be a smaller hut.

There was Hinterbuchhütte (hinter is behind; this is where the Hadorns live), Unterbuchhüttli (unter is under), Vorderbuchhütte (vorder is before; this is where the Siegenthalers with Maxli the dog live), Oberbuchhüttli (ober is over; this is where the coffee baron comes for holiday), Mittelbuchhütte (mittel is middle; this is where Stefan has his hut), Oberbuchhütte (this is where Stefan’s aunt has her hut).

Rösi had met Daniel at the horse market, and he’d ride up the mountain pass of Schallenberg to see her. On top was a stunning hamlet of a few houses perched on a ridge looking over two valleys on either side, with hundreds of kilometres of views. This was Schallenberg-Gabelspitz, Gabel being a fork and Spitz a peak. You could walk this ridge about an hour to Naters, the highest point at the end of the ridge, just under which Rösi had grown up.

No wonder she’d been claustrophobic in her new home at Buchhütte, and terrified of her first thunderstorm in these recesses where everything that fell down the mountain tumbled into the Emme, one slippery slope under the house.

The floods of the Emme are legendary, squeezed through the cracks of the alps, led by a dwarf-like charioteer, the Eggiwil Fuhrmann, riding the first wave, the Aaschutz. And true to his name, he’d ride the wave all the way to Eggiwil, taking the most difficult routes, thundering through the horrors of the Räbloch.

You barely have a minute to get out of the way, and your time starts when you hear the high-pitched sound that the stones make as they frantically tremble against each other, their death knell ringing down the valley you should not be in.

The dwarf might be legend, but he has a recent, real history, only a few hundred years old. The people of the alps used to get their sugar from milk in those days, because that’s what they had a lot of. And to get the sugar, they used the leftover milk, the whey, or Molke, once they’d made cheese (today, whey is used to feed pigs here). They had to boil the whey for a long time till the milk evaporated and what they had at the end was sugar. It took a lot of wood to keep the fire burning, and that meant they cut down a lot of trees. And that pre-19th century deforestation meant there was a lot of erosion, which meant even worse floods, and that was the birth of the Eggiwil Fuhrmann, who rode this first wave so full of trees and debris at the head of the flood.

But the replanting of forests wouldn’t have made a dent in the most catastrophic of floods. It was the afternoon of August 13, 1837, and all hell was going to break loose.

And hell was an unpleasant little valley that few residents of the Emmental know of, and it was damp, dark and narrow. Above was Honegg, a ridge of a mountain parallel to the Hohgant and just to its west, never rising much more than 1,500m. The water that flowed down its forested north face formed the Rötebach, grovelling in a ravine at its base before becoming a river that finally merged with the Emme at Eggiwil.

The flood of August 13 was so cataclysmic it occurs only once every few centuries, and became the book die Wassernot Im Emmental by the priest Jeremias Gotthelf.

It had been raining for days, and the ground was so soaked it couldn’t hold any more water. And in the three hours of that afternoon, more rain fell over the Honegg than would have the entire summer, tearing through the valley and washing away houses. It was a tidal wave of a flood that Gotthelf described as the Emme snake. The Eggiwil Fuhrmann.

Switzerland, 2015–2016

Following the Emme

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