Between the Light and the Half Light, Whispers and Stories
Sarah sits down with me in the old farmhouse, on the patch of land that barely gets a few months of sunlight each year. We have finished our Hörnli and eggs.
And in the half-light, Sarah talks of her father, who left when she was eight. “He just went out the door. I grew up with my grandparents, and never heard from my father again, except the one time I bumped into him by accident.” And the next time after that was when she heard he was dead. “My father died one and a half years ago. My mother always said she hated him, which wasn’t true. But in the end they died the same year..”
Sarah herself almost died on an alp once, when a cow attacked her for seemingly no reason. She was on her back with the cow on top, trying to fight it off with a stick, and had to be airlifted to hospital. She met a man in the hospital who was smoking while he should’ve been recovering, and she asked him why. He said it was precisely because he had almost lost his life that he chose to smoke. And she’s been smoking ever since…
To Heal, From the Emergency Room to the Stammtisch
Elsbeth was the first person who made me feel at home in Schangnau. Even though I was a stranger in a place where everyone knows everyone. It was her job to be hospitable, but there was always more to her.
Little has changed at her guesthouse since 1815, where generations of farmers have sat around the Stammtisch. The coffee, Jassen and exchange of news have flowed through these wood-paneled walls, through the community. What has changed is Elsbeth, who took over the business a decade ago.
But before she was the owner of a guesthouse, Elsbeth spent 20 years in the hospital cardiology emergency station, dealing in that gray zone between life and death, with not much in-between. Medicine had always been her passion, and she was fascinated by the processes that could make a person better.
But there was another ingredient too, and that was her sense of care and service. She inherited it from her parents, who started a home for old people. For Elsbeth, the home, hospital and guesthouse are all the same. “I think,” she says, sitting down with me at the Stammtisch, “a prerequisite for gastronomy and care is empathy.”
A Farmer’s Recipe: Bake for 2,000 Years. Serve Warm.
It is so dark, and so cold, that even the farmers are asleep. There is not even a whimper from a Bläss, or a Subaru, only the whisper of snow falling on snow. And in this void: Res, a large man, delicately braiding dough into what will turn into Zopf.
This is no ordinary bread. It is made with UrDinkel, which has been cultivated in Europe for the past 4,000 years. It has survived industrialization, the breeding and modification of grain, and the mass market production systems of retail chains.
Res’s bakery has survived too, feeding generations of farmers from the time of his father-in-law. Ruchbrot was always their most-sold bread. In the early days, they used to sell loaves that weighed two kilos, the Vierpfunde. But the days of such large families have long past.
In those days, Res was working at the bakery two days a week. And that’s how he got close to Anita, the daughter of the baker. They had know each other when they went skiing on the same slopes when they were around 14. Did they like each other then? “We didn’t know much,” he says… “but we knew we were male and female!”
A Short History of the Blässes of Gerbe
This winter, after he had dug the grave, wiped away his tears and sung Ollie’s song, Ernst tells me of all of his dogs, beginning in 1973.
There was Humpeli, who was so intelligent you could teach him anything. But he was a bit of a rascal, a ‘Saumode.’ Waldi was a charmer, who had lovers everywhere. When his girlfriend from Gasthof Löwen didn’t come out, he’d protest by blocking the road so the Schangnauer Subarus couldn’t pass. Jibo was the prize that Ernst’s son Thomas won at the Buebeschwinge. His trainer was Khasli, who was the brother of Bruechli. But although he was a great dog, he walked funny. So Ernst called him a 2B, which, he points out, is not a 1A. And then came Ollie, and it was as if he had accumulated the qualities of the three that had come before him. He had intelligence, charm and education. Ollie, who danced on two feet with Ernst for his 65th birthday and retirement party.
And now you, like me, know what happened at Gerbe, between 1973 and this winter. But we would have to return soon, because Ernst is already looking for his fifth Bläss.
Are the Pigs Talking? Are Elbows Creaking? Sämu Knows Why.
There might be a storm over the horizon. And no one knows this better than Järmann Samu, who sniffs at the wind, listens to the creaks in his elbows, records the moods of his cows (including Matthias, who shares a birthday with Matthias Glarner), and checks if the flies are aggressive. For while the Landi weather app might be talking to his phone, he says that sometimes you just have to look out of your window and decide things for yourself. You might call him a weather frog, but he prefers to call himself an observer.
Samu grew up on the land so quiet its farm is called Stillshaus. A calm that is livened up with his humor, which flows through Schangnau as quietly as the Färzbach flows past his house, over colorful stones left behind by glaciers. Even his animals seem to share his humor, from the pigs to his cows, and the generations of dogs that have lived and died: Nettu, who was red and white; Dedu from Kerlishof; Fibsu from the Italian man in Langnau called Polidoro; and York, who lived to be 17, and part of the family. And what a family it had!
A Rock, Between the Bietschhorn and the Hohgant
Gina grew up under the Bietschhorn, her childhood filled with a handful of animals among the stony vineyards of St German. There were the Schwinkini, or pigs; the Hauso, or rabbit; and a cat named Suzie, who had a broken tail.
Gina’s family made their own wine, and it was perhaps a good idea that they drank it themselves. It needed something — anything — to be drinkable. Spoonfuls of sugar, some lemonade.. creative additions went into the little hand-held wood barrel called the Boutili.
Gina played through this magical world, played Versteckis and Pfeilleufe and Lastikspringe and Seiliggumpe over the Gyatt, or weed, and around the boulder the size of a house. This was the Tschuggo that gave the land its name: Tschuggete.
And decades later, at 4am at the bar after the Schwingfest, she’d meet her future husband. And everyone was so drunk (the women Glaffnig and the men Glaffne), but they went to her sister’s place for breakfast, and had Zopf and coffee with schnapps. And it didn’t matter when Hausi spilled the milk all over her sister’s dinning table, because Gina had already fallen for him. And they’ve been together ever since.
Dreams Within Dreams in the Shadow of the Schrattenfluh
Time seems to have rushed past me, down the gorge of the frozen Schwarzbach. I am too late. Too late for the light, too late in the cold, for the lone car that does not see me, as I crunch across the too-narrow road, gray footsteps on grey ice.
And there, shrouded in the snow and half-light: the Schrattenfluh, the mountain that bears the marks of a jealous spirit that clawed it while fighting over a woman. You might laugh, but my friend Wernu has seen things too. He was on his alp at Schönbühl, and saw the devil on the mountain. “There was a special light..” he said, leaving his words to linger in the evening.
It is this mountain that Maja turns to too. She sets off on Shamanic journeys, from the old farmhouse above the Bumbachgrabe. And she closes her eyes and imagines the slopes of the mountain, where her spirit animal will meet her to guide her through life. “Dreams between dreams…” she calls them.
And me? I stand still, waiting in the dying light, looking for something. Anything. But, as a Russian babushka once told me, “there is only you, and me, and we are together.”
Roads and Dreams that Hausi Followed
Roads have led Hausi through the vineyards of Wallis following love, across Europe in trucks, around Canada with his contrabass, and back in time researching how the Romans made cement, which he now must produce. And, this morning, to a spot of forest where he stops, with his arm around Joana, just as he has every year on his way up to his brother’s alp.
Twenty years ago, Hausi had been following his passion at a Schwingfest. And at four in the morning, he had seen an apparition at the bar: a striking woman with hair that fell till her waist, speaking in the faraway Walliser dialect of St German. Which, as everyone knows, sounds irresistible, mixed as it is with a tinge of Fendant, the rocky ground under the Bietschorn and the distant promise of the Rhône. Two days later, he took her out for dinner on her birthday. And they’ve been together ever since.
Roads and dreams of a man who makes concrete but is an artist. A man who sees Romans in cement, desolate places in his single malt, and his own soul stirring with every string that he plucks in his dreams, playing the lead guitar as it follows his Blues.
How Hedi Saved Me One Winter Day
It had been so cold that my soul had seemed to have frozen over. And on that morning, February 28 of 2018, there was only the sound of ice crackling, and my heart breaking. I had wandered so many years with her, over so many countries, deserts and mountains. And then, one winter, she was gone. And there was only me and the memory of a dog.
That day, I set out to do the only thing I could do, which was walk. I had nowhere to go, but I walked to forget, and to lose myself. And that’s how I landed high up at Bödeli, with a tiny figure on the one-lane road coming towards me. We had never met, but she knew me immediately. And for some strange reason, that I might never fully understand, she invited me in for a coffee. And that’s how Hedi saved my day. For in that room of strangers, there was more warmth than I could have ever asked for. Why me? I do not know. But I am grateful, to Hedi, to Danu, and a very hairy Cora who waited outside, tail wagging, just like one had for me for all those years.
The House of No One and Everything
As the first snow of the season falls ever so softly, covering all our sins and forgiving everything, I turn a corner around the farmhouse, a house without a farm, barely even a house.
It was here that I almost made a friend. He had been sitting out on his balcony for years, the sun warming his bald head, with no one for company except wandering cats, who he would talk to softly.
The house, like the ragged cats, like the man himself, was patched up and stitched together. Windows held together with tape and thumbtacks, a lone electric wire snaking its way lazily across a wall. A pan of lunch, barely keeping itself warm on the old stone oven from 1919. Two glasses branded with Appenzeller Alpenbitter, waiting.
He had been waiting too. Waiting for a friend, waiting for me to give him the photos I had printed, waiting for me to write his story.
And then one day, it was too late. His photos still lay with me. And the house, which had seen so many lives, had emptied of its last. There was only dust in the air, suspended. Dust once inbreathed, marking the place where a story ended.
The Many Lives of the Schwarzbach
From which cold, dark depths does the Schwarzbach come from? Somewhere in the forests of Bürkeli, past Scheidzaun and under Windbruch, the alp the wind broke. Past Portweidli and Buchhüttli. And finally, landing with a rage a few turns away from the river Emme. And it is here, in this bowl between slopes, where it roars around in its darkness, that it gives its name to the land, and to the little bridge that dares cross over it. And to a man. A man of infinitely soft eyes, sitting at the kitchen table, with a kitten climbing over him. A man named after the river: Schwarzbach Hausi, or simply Schwabi.
And on his shoulders: “Lisa, the Lumpevieh, the Vogelteufel,” he says, with infinite kindness. The orphan he fed with milk when her mother abandoned her and her brother Giorgio. But it has been years since I sat with Schwabi in his kitchen. And Lisa, who I met everyday on my walks as she grew up, died under a car sliding down that slope that follows the Schwarzbach. All these years, and all these lives, with a little stream raging through them.
Little Müngge’s Journey Through Life
Müngge spent nine years walking up and down the mountain, walking ten kilometers to school. And in the dark, in winter: a wood oven, children brushing their teeth, breakfast, and a mother’s voice telling them it’s getting late. The siblings are out already, and tell the big dog not to follow them. Sometimes the snow is so thick they take toboggans and skis. The smallest of the group is secretly scared of the dark and the cold and the fog, but hides his fear by complaining that no one ever comes to visit them. And, he reassures himself, there are only foxes out there, nothing more…
It was in such ways that Müngge’s character was formed. She got tough and hard on the mountain, but always retained the big heart she inherited from her grandmother. And she dreamed, all her life, of becoming a farmer. On a farm with cows that were earthy red, her favorite color — like Helvetia, who she hugs, and Amora, who she has as wallpaper on her phone. And in this way all Müngge’s dreams came true.
From Gabelspitz: the Highs and Lows of Love
Marie used to miss the view when she left her village on top of the mountain for the house one slippery slope above the Emme, 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 Dänu had rebuilt in 1953. It had been much worse then, so soaked in water and shadow they had to drain the land, and Marie had to cook for the 13 men who worked on the land. 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.
Marie had met Kari 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 kilometers 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.
Forgotten Words and Lost Rocks
The forest turns into grass which turns into loose stones which turn into rock. I have followed the forgotten stories of an old woodcutter from the valley below, and they have lead 1,500m high. Somewhere here, it is whispered, is a rock of sandstone, and carved on it, the names of men who worked on the alp for the past 500 years.
But it is steeper than it seemed from below, and it could be anywhere, if the rock existed at all, so there’s nothing more to do except turn down and return to the alp.
As the first snow starts to cover the mountain, Danu is hunched over the old oven, his ragged face lit up with a ragged cigarette. “I was born into a family of workers. I remember the weekly bath: parents first, then the eldest child and then the rest. Everyone in the same bathtub with the same water, because hot water was expensive. There was not always enough food, though now everyone throws it away.”
I am stuck here on the mountain, between words that are partly true and partly bitter.
“I have worn the tires on the wheelbarrow flat, picking stones and gathering firewood. We’re getting old. And the wheelbarrow is getting heavy.”
Snowflakes under the Scharsax
The weather has turned, and a cold wind skims over the three mountains that surround Esther as she reaches into the ground where the ruins of a hut lie buried.
She is hunting the plant that killed Felina, the goat that won first prize. A white goat just like Snowflake, who she has just milked in the barn behind us.
The Alpenkreuzkraut is an innocent-looking weed of yellow flowers, but it is so poisonous that cows leave a border of grass around it when grazing.
She stands up triumphantly, weed in hand, and throws back her head into her signature laugh, teeth flashing, eyes turned to slits. A laugh that echoes off the eight boulders that came down Tannhorn in 2004 and stopped midway for some reason.
We are right in their path, under the cut in the top called Scharsax (though no one knows what it means). Her goats sometimes went over the ridge to the other side, and she’d get calls from the farmers above Interlaken. “They were stupid goats,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s joking or will throw back her head again.
Glunti, the Alp named after a Puddle
I am in a bowl of land that holds Glunti, the alp named after a puddle: Glungge in Swiss-German. There is something special about it: something about its size, sitting silently in an amphitheater of rock, with the Hohgant twisted around, and Hennenmoos, the moor named after the Auerhuhn, guarding the way down. About the hiking trail that has no hikers. About the forest above, which hides boulders the size of Subarus. About being on the wrong side of the mountain, where the sun doesn’t seep through for half the year.
We sit in the half light, waiting for lunch, looking for patches of level ground on the centuries-old stone floor. A lump of pig fat sizzles. The Hörnli goes in, and then a handful of eggs from the chickens that graze on the grass just beyond the balcony. There’s a vase of flowers on the table, lace curtains on the windows and prints of idyllic Swiss life on the walls. And a saucer of rough cheese grated fine, two jars of cooked fruit by the side, apples and prunes, Äpfelmus and Zwetschgenmus. A bottle of Maggi seasoning.
Outside, the ghost of the Auerhuhn is calling. I stay in.
300 Years in the Hut the Wind Broke
Three hundred years have passed by this hut, passed as the wind did between it and the top of the mountain, the wind that gave it its name: Windbruch. The alp the wind broke.
Thirteen summers have passed by in this hut, as Wüthrich has sat in the monochromatic room: shades of wood, some of it blacked by generations of soot. There was once a cheese cauldron here, and an open ceiling for the smoke to reach out and escape. There’s a new shower cabin, but the room seems as beautifully Spartan as it has been for centuries. The only ornamentation is a bunch of marguerites that Wüthrich’s rough fingers have plucked and arranged on the long table. It will stand there in its vase between Trudy and Bolz Dänu the weather frog, when they come visit him for coffee and schnapps this evening.
I will leave Wüthrich now, in his Safari shirt, his soft grey eyes, his hair the color of sunburnt hay, and the 48 gustis who gather around for company. He will soon cook himself dinner, but insists “it will not be a five-course meal!”
For Love of a Mountain Hut
There is no one on this side of the Hohgant who loves his hut more than Stefan Räntsch. He will drive up the mountain after working the entire day at the construction company, and he will be the only one you will find, still working, through the winter and snow, smoke billowing from his pipe long after the Bütlerschwandgrabe has frozen before it reaches the Emme. When the road becomes impassable he will take his tractor. Nothing comes between Stifu and his 300-year-old hut Mittelbüchhutte.
You could say that Mittelste, as Stifu calls it, is in his blood. Stifu’s father Ernst worked at the same construction company as Stifu most of his life, and went up to Oberbüchhutte, one curve above, which Stifu’s aunt Clara took over. Clara, who got to know a fox so well it started to follow her on walks.
And Ernst’s father, who was also named Ernst, was also at the hut in summer, while working various professions in the winter, as a butcher who would visit the farms, or a schindler. And it was his father Karl the murer who built the house down by the main road in Leu in 1926, where Stifu now lives. But while most people leave the mountain for the comfort of the valleys, generations of Räntsch men left the comfort of home for their mountain hut, where their heart was.
Wernu: One Man at the Source of the River Emme
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 stays at the hut called Chumi, taking care of cows under the Augstmatthorn. The hut sits right on top of a stream that Wernu calls the Emmesprung. The water mixes with soil when it gets stormy, turning our drinks dark.
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.
Münchi Hänsu: One Man and a Stream, Upriver From the Emme
Münchi Hansu, named after Münchigrabli that flows into the Emme, is walking through the half-light of the barn with the milking machine from 1979 (two years after he started growing a beard). “This should be in Ballenberg!” he says. His water buffalos, prized Zebus, cows and 2-toned horses are waiting. Which is his favorite? “When the water buffalo hits me in the face with its tail, it can be quite forceful. And then it is definitely not my favorite!”
When he was a boy, Hansu used to jump into the Münchigrabli and catch fish by hand, looking for them in the shadow of rocks, in one of the last pools before the stream joined the Leugrabli and finally the Emme.
It was downstream that he would meet his future wife Vroni, as he took care of cows in a barn by the road and she walked up with the cream from Buchhütte.
Münchi Hansu is leaving with his hay machine from 1972 to cut grass at Leu, and he dips his hand one last time into the water trough through which his source flows: “It’s quite safe to drink,” he insists. “I’m still alive!”
Words over the Wannepass
The Brienzer Rothorn and Tannhorn might attract the tourists, but it is here, in-between on a tiny alp, that the real story lies hidden. Here with Spycherwed Hausi, living under the trails of his ancestors.
For it is here, above Hausi, where the Wannapass crosses the Brienzergrat, and heads down to the Brienzersee and the Berner Oberland. His family were the nomadic traders known as Säumer, and they crossed the Wannapass for generations: “a long time before streets and cars and industry.” They came over with their mules and went to the markets of the cities, and when the snow cleared they’d go back with the food they’d bought for their animals.
The roads that now connect everyone were the end of these Säumer. And so they settled down in a little crook of the mountain, just where the Wannapass deposited them. This is Spierweid, or Spycherweid, the land named after the Spierstaude, “the plant which tells you where the water is.”
The Wannapass is not for you, or for me. It has mostly been lost to the mountain, and so have its legends. But every once in a while, it might spit out a hint: a rusted mule shoe, like the one Hausi digs out from a drawer.
Home is a Path Between Alp and Valley
There is no one higher than Hansueli, who has led his family’s 74 cows and 11 goats up the mountain, up the track so steep even a Schangnauer Subaru cannot follow, up to the alp of his grandfather, with its 200-year-old copper cauldron and the name of his ancestor inscribed on it in 1807.
Nearing the top, he turns back, calling his lead cow back to the path. Berna, with her Meye of Buchenlaub and Fliederbluten (which grandmother Annamarie insists is the most traditional crown), has strayed off to take a break. She has inherited the lead cow status from Ilona, who is now 13 years old and pregnant, and who gets the luxury of being transported by Jeep.
Walking up and down the mountain comes naturally to the Simmentalers. They are the “originals,” says Hansueli’s mother Erika. “They’re perfect for us: they look right, they feel right, and they’re right for the alp.” The mountain keeps them busy. A typical summer might involve 2 weeks at the pre-alp, 6 weeks on the alp above, 3 weeks down again, and another 6 weeks up.
For a moment, though, a pause is needed. And no one moves: not Hansueli, not Berna, not me.
Martina’s Journey Across Valleys and Lives
It is five in the morning, and Martina is almost ready to take her cows five hours across valleys and to her alp just under the cliffs of the Hohgant.
It is dark and cold outside, but here in the old farmhouse, in the foothills of Entlebuch, every light is blazing, and the kitchen is stuffed with people, food, schnapps, family photos, friends and relatives. And everything seems to whirl around Martina.
Martina is attended to first by her mother, Claudia, who helps her with her dress, and then by her best friend Chrige, who does her hair, combing it back and braiding it, before using hair spray to ensure it stays that way all the way up the mountain.
But it isn’t only people who are drawn to Martina. By lunchtime, and through this summer, Martina will be surrounded again. This time it will be with her animals, all of whose lives she can tell you about.
Sina, her beloved Bläss, (the granddaughter of Senta), who died recently, who she has had since it was two years old, and who she trained herself: “‘very loving and very jealous.”
Alexa her horse, who she gives haircuts to and rides bareback since she was 11 years old: is “sweet, good natured but very persistant.”
Wanya the cow: “tame and dear.. until she bites,” she says, laughing.
And Martina herself? She is, I think, perhaps one of the most free people I have known on these slopes of the mountain, always living her life to the fullest, always connected to the animals and land that envelope her. “I want to make sure that I am happy with what I have, and with what I can do,” she says, as we sip on panache on the balcony of Alp Breitwang, as the setting sun lights up these slopes. “And that I do not feel like I missed something.”
The Lost Cow
It was 4 o’clock and we were somewhere between winter and spring, somewhere between two mountains, between clouds and sun. And perhaps we were alright, or perhaps we were not.
Because the black and white cow had been so interested in me and my dogs that she had jumped over the grate before anyone knew what was happening. Her two back feet disappeared for one scary moment between the bars, but came out immediately, and she seemed fine.
It wasn’t a bad place to be free. Opposite, half-enveloped by clouds, was the Hohgant, behind us the Schrattenfluh, and between them the Brienzer Rothorn and Tannhorn. And here itself, on the slope of many ridges called Trittschwendi, she was among friends.
A few curves below, Luna the Collie was sunning herself with the grandmother of the house. Above, Kira the Bläss was with her owner Kidlä, the sweetest soul on this mountain. And over on the other side Sämi’s grandmother was out in her garden, talking of the blind kitten.
As for cow 9051, she was in no hurry to go anywhere. She knew what most Schangnauers know: that this isn’t too bad a place to stay a while.
Billy’s Last Summer
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.
The Light and Life of Goats
As the sun rises over the Hohgant, filtering down to these slopes above the river Emme, the white goats explode in a blaze of light. And they’ve never been happier, because their favorite person has more time with them now that she is home away from school during the Corona crisis.
Cornelia, 15, has grown up in this light, in a family that has been farming here for three generations.
Her favorite goat is Clivia, who is very kind and affectionate. All the goats are Saan, which give a high milk yield and are easy to handle. At this farm, they graze on the steep slopes above the river, and provide milk for the cheese that is made here.
Goats, says Cornelia, are very picky, and eat only the best grass and hay. What, I ask her, is the secret to success with them? “Goats have a special character. You have to like them, otherwise you only have trouble.”
Cornelia says the Corona crisis “shows many gaps in Switzerland’s supply. In the longer term, the crisis could have a positive impact on agriculture.”
For now, though, her thoughts wander back to the farm, and to the goats, and the cows, cattle, calves, chickens and cats. She loves them all, because, she says, “the animals take me the way I am.”
Longing for the Cow Shows of Schangnau
I have been photographing the cow shows of Schangnau for some years now, and have always been struck by the fact that they are as much about people as they are about animals. Indeed, I have gone to them to shoot the lives they bring together. The farmers: stoic, hard men who will brush their cow’s tails with a gentleness that will surprise you; 80- and even 90-year-old retirees from the village, so respected they are attractions in themselves, who everyone comes to greet; and families with little children who learn of age-old traditions.
But now, with the thought of the virus resting heavily over these idyllic slopes of the Hohgant, the shows have been cancelled, and the valley has fallen silent.
For the farmers here, cows aren’t just animals for business. Years spent together creates strong relationships. Everyone has a favorite. Veronika has Strubeli, the hairy one; Hansu has Arve, named after the tree; and Conner has Marina, who has trouble getting up the alp every year.
Rita, who recently married into a family that has been breeding cows on the slopes of the Hohgant for generations, hopes the situation improves soon, and looks forward to the day the cow shows restart. “Die Viehschau ist für die ganze Familie ein Highlight, alle freuen sich darauf und sind gerne mit dabei. Wir erlebten schon viele spannende und schöne Momente an der Viehschau.
“Erfolgreich Tiere zu züchten ist mit einer grossen Portion Glück verbunden. Dazu gehört Begeisterung, Leidenschaft, mit Herzblut dabei sein und vor allem Freude haben, an dem was man macht.”
Romeo’s Last Loaf of Bread
Romeo’s name, and allotted time, has been written in chalk every year for 19 years, on walls hundreds of years old. Here in Visperterminen, above the highest vineyard in Europe, nestled between the peaks of Wallis, is the wood hut wrapped around the stone oven used by the community to bake bread. But a few valleys away lies Italy, with the coronavirus raging, and Switzerland will be shut down in days. So this is it. Romeo’s time, his last chance marked in chalk.
I discovered Visperterminen by chance, years ago, as I wandered over these mountains, and was struck by how specific its culture was. As specific as the culture of Schangnau in the Emmental is, where I also document life. Both are worlds in themselves, so distinct from places just minutes away. And they are universes away from each other. Oddly, I feel at home in both: each distinct culture, so different from mine, so different from each other, each drawing me in till I forget the other.
But that’s a story for another time. For now, Romeo and I are occupied with bread. Bread full of milk and nuts and fruit and, of course, schnapps. He gifts me two loaves, pretends he doesn’t hear me saying I should pay for them, and the rest is divided among his group: 150 loaves for 10 people, frozen and eaten over an uncertain future spent home, keeping away from the virus.
How a Photographer from Bombay Found his Second Home in Schangnau
This article was an introduction to me and my work, written by Adrian Krebs, the editor-in-chief.