Editors' Choice

The Shepherd's Mantra

by Francesca Rheannon

I hesitated to say it before — thinking that perhaps I was being deceived by a late January winter thaw — but, no, Spring has arrived. I have been ensconced in this corner of Provence since September, not the gentle, sybaritic Provence of the Côte d’Azur and Avignon, but Haute Provence, a rude and wild country, where the dark alpine hills stream like a school of humpback whales toward the distant shores of the Mediterranean and sheep and lavender share the land. The wind is fierce, the people few, the soil stony. I was quickly snared by the region's stark enchantment.

For the past week, the weather has been glorious. Warm, sunny - even when the mistral blows it has lost its winter bite. Today the sky is hazed over with a thin film of white so I decide to take advantage of the weather before it changes. I start off in the direction of Lardiers with ambitious plans to hike the three miles to that neighboring commune. But, five minutes into my walk, I get waylaid. I hear the bells of sheep, a seductive sound, archaic and wistful, and immediately a net of tranquility settles over me, stopping me in my tracks. I look across the narrow valley and there, splayed out over the hillside, undulates an intricate pattern of wooly shapes, a school of sheep-fish grazing in the deeps of the meadow. The colors of their barrel-like bodies mimic the duns of their winter forage: tans, yellows and browns, offset by the lighter stick legs flickering underneath as they munch and move.

The shepherd reclines on the earth, propped on one elbow, facing away from me. I steal up behind him to get a closer look and then remain standing some 100 meters away, watching, for perhaps 30 minutes. I have been puzzling over the shepherds around here for some time. They spend all day, every day, out with their sheep and their dogs, wandering the hills and dales of the region. When I pass them on my hikes, they respond to my “bon jour” with a warm glance of greeting flashing from their eyes, but no word passes their lips. Perhaps they have lost the knack of human speech, I wonder, fallen into disuse during the days and years of solitary roaming. (Later, my friend Génia tells me that for many years she walked the hills with an old Andalusian shepherd who joked to her that he only spoke “Sheep”.)

What do they do to keep from getting bored, I have wondered, out there with their ba-a-a-nal charges? They don't have any earphones peeking out from under their caps, no radios that I can see or hear. I never see them carrying any books or magazines. They are always just there with their crook and their dog and the sheep. Now, observing my subject as he goes about his business, I see what shepherds do to keep themselves from getting bored: they watch sheep. Intently. With the same one-pointed absorption as his dog, the shepherd is attuned to every shift and shudder in the massed animals before him. There is a force field out there, palpable, that is composed of man-dog-sheep; it is not only the herd that acts as one organism, but the whole triad.

The shepherd calls out something. At first, I think he is talking to his sheep, and they seem to be answering him with a chorus of bleats. One group strikes up the tune, then another on the other side of the herd, then another, as a wave of ba-a-as sweeps through them. Hervé mimics them playfully. He ba-a-as; they ba-a-a back. Then he laughs.

A stream of sheep begins to pour into the adjacent meadow, and I notice the swift black shape of the dog glancing along the edges of the herd. The troop swirls in a muttonish ballet. Hervé calls out another command as one small group of rebels begins to move in the opposite direction. The dog streaks to the left, neatening up the borders of the herd as he goes. But, caught up in the excitement of the game, he gets a bit overzealous. The sheep, pressed, start to become agitated. It only lasts a second, for the shepherd sings out a warning to the dog, who drops back immediately. Then “à droit!” and the dog streaks to the right where the front flank of the herd is beginning to spread out raggedly toward a lavender field. “Arête!” And the dog drops to the ground like a stone between two wintry rows of lavender bushes. Then man and dog go back to a watchful stillness.

The minutes stretch out as I stand, transfixed, waiting. It occurs to me that while it looks like nothing is happening, something is going on all the time: observation and action are seamless. The shepherd spends his days in meditation; sheep are his mantra.

As I move off finally, I notice a pile of dead lavender wood lying at the edges of the adjacent field. It contains a resin that makes for excellent tinder, so, my hike forgotten, I return home to snatch a bag to carry my find back to the wood stove. As I walk, I ponder the life of a shepherd, my thoughts tinged with envy and admiration. Its timelessness and tranquility lures, although I know that I am irrevocably time-bound in the modern world. “He lived a life of husbandry and liberty, inhabitant and hermit, half-sage, half sorcerer, always poet…” Is it merely coincidence when the next day I pick up a book about Provence in the home of a friend and find this description of a shepherd?

A few weeks later, I take a walk in the high hills above Banon with a friend who is a visiting nurse. She tells me the story of an old shepherd who lived all alone in an ancient stone hut on the top of a mountain until well into his eighties. There, without electricity or running water, heating his little home with an old wood stove, he lived in utter contentment. One day, on one of her appointed nursely rounds to see the old man, she asked him if he ever missed having a television. “If they would show sheep on the TV, I would buy one,” he answered. Then she asked him what was the happiest moment of his life. “It was night, there was the moon, and I was with my sheep,” was his reply.

When I return to the lavender field, I see that the sheep are swarming homeward, a seemingly endless line stretching along the contours of the landscape, bells tinkling in the deepening afternoon light. The black silhouette of the dog stands sentinel alongside in the dip of a narrow valley. I look for the shepherd, but he seems to have vanished. Then, out of the bushes, I see him moving toward me, staff in hand, his sun-and-wind brown face visible now under his broad brimmed hat, his jacket slung around his shoulders like a cape. It is a figure out of the Middle Ages, or older, ancient and beautiful. With a nod of acknowledgement, we move off, each to our own direction.

Francesca Rheannon is a mid-fifties writer and teacher, independent scholar, and avid "randonneur" [hiker].

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Francesca Rheannon

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