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Grass and Flowers, Slowly

By July 11, 2013 3 Comments

The July issue of the National Geographic magazine has an incredible article about the haymaking practiced in the small villages of the Transylvanian region of Romania. Entitled “Hay. Beautiful.” (written by Adam Nicolson and photographed by Rena Effendi) it tells of the rich ecological relationship that the inhabitants of this area have nurtured and sustained since the Middle Ages, a relationship that is strenuous, but also as the author states, “makes human life viable here.” Part of what drew me into the pages, apart from the stunning photography, was the people it highlighted—a people who have for centuries depended upon the upland meadows that surround their communities. A word that is used in my congregation for many of them who came from rural villages and small towns in central Europe is landsleute, or “people of the land.” Many of the people of Transylvania are landsleute. Even more resonant to me and in my present setting is that they include Romanian-speaking, Hungarian-speaking, and German-speaking villages. The story that is told in National Geographic is similar to ones I’ve heard told in other settings: over coffee, hospital visits, and holiday celebrations within my church family.

I wish to consider here today though the beautiful interaction and shared relationship between the human and the natural world that is the making of hay, and perhaps the necessary slowness and even inefficient nature of it. Although it is inaccurate really, to say “between human and natural” for it creates a false dichotomy, bifurcating a reality that is not truly separate. The haymaking culture of Transylvania demonstrates this splendidly. For centuries the inhabitants there have depended upon the upland meadows to provide summer grazing and hay as winter forage for their livestock, while simultaneously the meadows have depended upon the people and their animals regular harvesting to keep the surrounding forest at bay. This interdependence has created for the people nutrient dense food through milk, milk products such as cheese, and meat:
“There is a powerful chain of connections at work here. In the summer the grass of the pastures feeds the one or two family cows. But in the six-month stretch from mid-November to mid-May, they must remain inside, where the hay provides their only sustenance. Only hay makes keeping cows a possibility, and only milk from cows makes human life viable here. People in Transylvania live on the nutrient transfer from meadow to plate. That is why, in these valleys, hay is the measure of all things.”
But the interdependence goes the other way as well. Ecologically, the climax community of the Transylvanian plateau would eventually develop or evolve to an entirely forest environment. Meadows left alone would eventually transition to a scrub and shrub community with larger leaf and woody species replacing the multitude of grasses and wildflowers that currently make up the hay meadows. The biological species richness is immense in these meadows and is perhaps some of the most botanically diverse in all of Europe. It is said that in the villages of Transylvania “anyone over 20 years old can on average recognize and name more than 120 species of plants. Even young children know 45 to 50 percent of species.” The diversity of the grasses and wildflowers of the hay meadows in turn fosters a variety of insects, butterflies, and other pollinators as well as songbirds and other wildlife, an interconnected treasure trove of diversity and nature.
Still, and not to limit ourselves to merely utilitarian purposes for nature, there is something very important for the human community it also fosters. The ethnoecologist Zsolt Molnár shares about the hay making people’s knowledge of the meadow species, “It is because they still depend on biomass. They need to know what it is that is feeding them.” The meadows plants are a cornerstone of the people’s culture, economics, and livelihood. As the author Nicolson says, “the goodness of the grass makes its way into every corner of life.”
That life is changing. As modernity emerges even upon the people of the land, the economy of tending to the meadows is hard pressed to compete with much higher wages outside the region. Added pressure of EU regulations are also affecting the farmers and their traditional practices. The author concludes the article with the question, “Can the modern world sustain beauty it hasn’t created itself?” It seems we in the church also often deal with this quandary.
The aspect that I’ve been wondering most about beyond the beauty of celebrating even a human infused natural world, related to this article and also pertinent to faith, is the complexity and diversity of nutrition and as said above, the possible necessity of slowness and inefficiency. I suppose biologically speaking I’m thinking on energy (and nutrient) transfer, and spiritually speaking, on faith formation and tradition.
The NG article tells of the green richness of the dried hay but also of the abundance of colours speckled in it by the wildflowers it contains. The piece did not go into any nutritional analysis of the milk but reminded me of a study conducted in the Italian Alps by Giovanna Contarini about the traditional practice of taking cattle and sheep into the mountains for summer grazing and the resultant cheese that those summer milks created. Her study specifically dealt with the presence of various hydrocarbons, terpenes and fatty acid chains in cheese from mountain grass fed cattle verses more typical containment fed Italian lowland cattle. The long and the short of it is that it did reveal that Italian cattle raised on mountain grass did have higher levels of terpenes as well as higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (the heart healthy ones).
But like in the Romanian situation, times are changing and with modern agriculture and employment, people are less likely to practice the traditional ways of moving the cattle to summer Alpine pastures than they were in the past.
Much of this—the emphasis upon traditional ways of agriculture and food practices—has been denoted as Slow Food, a movement begun in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986 reacting against fastfood and in many ways the “McDonaldization” of the world. 
If there is value in this and there is something to learn here, and I believe there is, I’d like to consider in two weeks here, Slow Church.



  • lois says:

    I am very intrigued! Cannot wait for the sequel! (especially interesting to me since this summer I have been trying to intentionally bring "slowness" into my own life.

  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    Thomas, our own Wendell Berry.

  • Adam Nicolson says:

    That is a wonderful response to the article! Thank you so much. It is precisely that wider, deeper Wendell Berryish subtext I hoped people might take from the live lived in Transylvania. Do go there if you can, and make some hay!

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