During my stay in Die, France, I met George, my airbnb host. As it happens with wool, it keeps on connecting as you go along its trail, and before I knew it, I had quickly met my first shepherd. Georges agreed to an interview, and thus I note it here:
Cynthia: What did being a shepherd teach you?:
Georges: The cycle of the sheep is about balance. A balance we have lost now. We are part of another cycle now, of money, fast time and stress.
As I shepherd, sheep tell you what to do.
I also was given time to practice what I truly love, guitar playing. On sheep time, I was told what to do: be a musician, and guitar teacher. When I stopped being a shepherd, I knew the system of teaching would have to be different. The relations between me and student, and economics would be in another a flow. The parent or student would be the ones to tell me how much they would pay… I would ask, ‘you tell me how much to pay and for how long of a lesson you would like.’ It was like following the sheep. I wanted to get out of a strict A-B, result oriented scheme, with a strict time table, and promised outcomes. When it is set up in this way, there are too many expectations. In this new way, the responsibility was shared, and I supported rather than being an enforcer.
When I was a shepherd, flocks were smaller.
Maybe 10 for a shepherd. Now there are thousands. Could be because of the big push for meat production. They tend to get sick and weaker in such mass amounts. It’s hard to keep track of them.
photo: sheep going through the main street of Die, France during the Fete de la Transhumance, June 2018. Cynthia Hathaway
Cynthia: So how are sheep counted?
Georges: We used the black sheep. One black sheep represents a number, such as 100. So if there are 10 black sheep, you know there are about 1000 sheep. You count the black ones.
C: Ahhhh, I wondered because there were so few of them when the sheep came through the center of town. I also know that dark wool is not valuable for the wool industry since you cannot dye it.
C: What was your work like?
G: I would get sheep from two farmers to take up to the mountain for the summer. Sometimes, there would be a house. A house per zone.
photo: finally at the top pasture, our walk into the Drôme mountains, June 2018. Cynthia Hathaway
And I had a dog. The dog stays with the sheep at all times. It’s like a family.
C: Maybe the dog thinks he is a sheep.
When I was in the mountains, I maybe saw only 10 people in 3 months. You are very happy to see people! But now, you can see 10 a day. It’s not the same solitude as before.
I would take mobile electric fencing with me, because of the predators. Every night I would have to round up the sheep and hope for the best. The dog would be on watch.
There are too many wolves now. Space is getting smaller for them. There is no more land for them. They are starting also to eat garbage. It’s an ecological imbalance. It’s the same problem with the bears in the South. They are also now reintroducing vultures too. So much imbalance.
C: What’s causing the shortage of land for wild animals?
G: A lot of it has to do with intensive agriculture. Also vineyards. When animals are too concentrated, in one area, it causes problems of course. When so many in one area, illness also spreads. Think of the fish farms. It’s a good example. When so many are stuck in one space, they have to focus on pharmaceuticals to keep this unnatural intensity.
It’s also a landscape geared to tourism. So the push for wine is really big now, and takes more land away. Tourism is a monoculture in my eyes. It wants certain things, and gets it. Wine, and meat.
C: How have sheep farms changed?
G: Before, families had just a few sheep to feed themselves, or go to market for covering some household costs. Now you have to make money off of them. Lamb is a massive industry now like pigs and cows. There are just too many sheep now. You have to go big or not at all. This is a pity. There is no in between.
featured photo: shepherd’s cabin, Drôme mountains, 2018. Cynthia Hathaway