The other day I stumbled upon this New York Times article featuring a farmer and his 230 ‘happy’ cows. How does the author prove that they’re happy? They each have names. It reminded me of a conversation I had last week with my co-worker Laetitia. We were driving up to the Alpage (higher in altitude where the cows are kept during the summer) and talking about, you know, cow stuff. I was telling her about the huge dairy farms we have in the US and she said “Oh, I’ve heard about that. I heard that on some of the farms, the cows don’t even have names”.
As we drove past an area where about 50 cows were grazing she slowed down and yelled out the window at the ones near the road. “Salut, Shakira!” “Coucou, Tania!”, and so on. They’re all brownish-black and they look exactly the same to me, but she knew every single one. We got out to say hello and we scratched them under their chins and they licked us with their giant tongues. The local butcher was hanging out in the field with them. “Je viens voire mes copines!” (I’ve come to see my girlfriends!) he said. It was like a weird version of the Japanese cat cafe, except the tongues are like as big as Jabba’s and the ‘cats’ are big and smelly with horns and you know they could totally impale you if they weren’t so chilled out and, well, happy.
One of my first ‘real’ Swiss experiences was the party that happens every September when the cows descend from their summer grazing pastures. They get dressed up in flowers and literally parade down through the village center while old men play umpa music and everyone cheers and claps while overdosing on cheese and wine. I hardly ever saw a cow in my life until I moved away from home when I was 18, and suddenly a few years later I’d found myself transported into this alternate, cow-worshipping dimension where headdresses adorned the giant animals as they paraded down the main street like beauty queens, occasionally getting excited and charging at each other, or barging towards innocent bystanders, including children. It was 11 a.m., and I was drunk, full of cheese, and scared.
Four years later, I am still struggling to understand how these people actually are able to digest all of the cheese they can consume in one sitting, but I’m also much closer to understanding their love for cows. It requires a history lesson, which begins when the Alpine regions of Switzerland were first settled, perhaps as early as the 4th millennium BC. Climactic fluctuations at the time led to greater seasonal variations. Many of the high-altitude forests here were unable to regenerate during the much colder winters, so the treelines descended by almost 1000 feet. Forests opened up into grasslands suitable for grazing, and people now had a reason to live in the mountains and a livelihood that enabled them to adapt to the harsh environment. Pastoralism and dairying became the Alpine mode of subsistence. Small villages formed lower in the valleys where people and cows would live during the winter, and during the summer the cows would move up to the high-altitude grasslands.
Traditionally each family would have a few cows of their own, but in the summer they’d all be herded and tended in the Alpine grasslands together. Here on the ‘Alpage’ the Swiss would have, for the first time, huge quantities of milk to process. And the simple way to process, utilize and preserve this milk for the winter months was to begin making cheese. They’d farm when they could, but their adaptive strategy was really to live off of the meat, milk, and cheese produced by their cattle. Over time, each isolated mountain region developed a unique breed of cow. Here they developed the race of “Heren”, a small but muscular, brown-to-black breed that was well-adapted to the alpine pastures. To the people of Valais, these Herens were their livelihood, their indicator of seasonal changes, and the cornerstone of their culture. Even today, cows that aren’t of the Heren race are collectively referred to as “blanche” (“white”) cows, regardless of the fact that they range in color and breed.
The historic legacy of the Heren actually does live on, and not only in a touristy way. The socio-economic organization of the cows remains similar; many families have their own cows but in the summer they migrate all together to an Alpage. My boss organizes the caretaking of about 110 cows. He gets paid about $600 for each cow for a season, and hires a bunch of guys (mostly Portuguese and Eastern European migrant workers) to look after them on two Alpages. Each day they’re milked twice and the milk is driven down to the cheese making facility in the village. Each family is paid $1 per liter of milk that their cows produce. So depending on how much their cows produce, they might earn or lose a little money in the season. But with this system it really seems like everybody benefits- families are relieved of the labor of caring for their cows in the summer so that they can garden and grow hay for the winter season, and the cheese maker, my boss, has enough milk to make tons of excellent cheese that will age until the winter. It’s quite similar to the way it’s worked here for thousands of years.
Still, some things have changed. Today you can get anything from the grocery store, including milk and cheese and beef from all over the world. The local dairying business supports several local families, but the village as a whole does not depend on it. While there were once 60 fromageries in this valley, now there’s only three. And the revered Race D’Heren is used far less frequently in favor of other ‘blanche’ breeds; their milk yield is quite low, and though the quality of their meat is considered good, there are bigger-bred meat cows that give farmers a better bang for their buck.
Yet a stroll along a village street reveals how intensely pervasive the Heren remains in the cultural consciousness. You’ll see hats and t-shirts and bumper stickers. You’ll see rock paintings and framed photos. You’ll see tattoos. You’ll see houses with giant murals of Herens fighting. You’ll even see actual heads of Herens nailed to the outside of people’s houses, complete with names and birthdays. It’s hard to imagine that the love for these cows was ever just based on economics; indeed, it’s presence as a cultural cornerstone is what persists today.
According to Laetitia, it’s the “blanche” cows who are today central to the dairying business but “our Herens are more- they are like members of our family”. Last year at Christmas, her father gave her and her boyfriend an awesome gift: their first Heren. Bred to fight like a queen, pose for oil paintings and parade through main street with a floral headdress, she is probably going to live a life filled with dining on alpine vegetation, taking in beautiful scenery, and licking people. I’m kind of jealous. Eons of mutual dependence and close living between humans and cows have led to a relationship that’s based on respect. And so to fit in, I scratch their cheeks and let them drool on me, and like a jaded city girl I lament that in so many places this appreciation for the ladies who give us cheese and ice cream and hamburgers has been so irreparably and tragically lost.