National Geographic : 1968 Aug
As we walked up the lane toward my cousin's farm, I ex claimed, "I can't recall when I've been so nervous as waiting for the outcome of this dance, of all things." "Well, it's more than a dance," said Petye. "It's an omen. What happened today portends good for the year." He grinned self-consciously. "I know that in these times one is not supposed to put much stock in such things. But still, one can not escape feeling better inside when the omens are good." The several days before and after the first of May are days of excitement in the mountain villages. This is the time when shepherds move their sheep from the valley floors to the high mountain meadows, where they will remain until autumn. From dawn to dusk roads and lanes are filled with small flocks of 50 to 100 sheep (preceding pages). In the Cize region, the sheep are of a strain known in Basque as manech-a pure breed perhaps brought here by the Romans. They are deli cate animals with gracefully curving horns, finely shaped heads, and long fleeces of curling wool. Each flock has its own distinctive markings-splashes of dye on shoulders and rumps. Proud of their animals, the shepherds from nearby farms make it a point to take them through the main village street of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. The flocks move to the sound of tinkling bells. Shepherds in berets follow with polished makhilak, or walking staffs, in hand, leading mules and donkeys loaded down with provisions and bedrolls. At their heels are the little shepherd dogs of the Pyrenees. Hollows Shelter Basque Shepherds' Huts Jean Pierre, a Basque shepherd with bronzed skin and black curly hair, allowed us to go with him on his trek to the high mountains. In exchange for this courtesy, my cousin Sauveur had obtained a jeep to carry Jean Pierre's provisions and three young pigs. Still, I sensed a certain reluctance in Jean Pierre's attitude toward me. The berry-choked lane rose sharply from the outskirts of the village. We passed little farmhouses with shutters thrown open to the good day, and answered friendly waves of farm women in black aprons. We moved through deep forests of beech and chestnut and moss-covered oaks, forded cascades of water flowing down the green hillsides, and inched our way past chasms that dropped sharply to the valley below. When we had climbed above the timber line, we seemed in a world apart. There were great sweeps of treeless mountains covered with a soft and yielding mantle of new spring grass. Brilliant patches of wild flowers grew on the slopes facing the sun, and in the sheltered hollows stood the old stone huts called etcholak, in which the shepherds had lived from time out of memory. An immensity of silence was broken only by the music of the bells. As we crossed the grassy sweeps, the shaggy wild ponies of the Pyrenees watched us warily. These were the pottokak, believed to be descended from a prehistoric horse. Farther along we topped a ridge and surprised a flock of vultures tearing at a lamb they had managed to kill. They were immense creatures with brown bodies and black heads. At sight of us they hopped awkwardly along the ground in 274 Surcease from loneliness: Two shepherds meet at the hut of Jean Pierre Bidonde. With expertise, the visitor shoots a stream of wine into his mouth from a chahakoa, or wineskin. The fire, built on an earthen hearth, warms a stew; smoke escapes through vents in the ceiling. Like their sheep, Basque shepherds bed down on mat tresses of bracken.