Friday, March 11, 2011

Life is a trip: Following the sheep

The latest issue of Spirituality and Health magazine includes a beautiful article on something called “transhumance,” a term I had never heard despite growing up on a farm and earning a degree in agriculture. It’s apparently “the seasonal movement of livestock from lowlands, where they’re fed in the winter, to high mountain areas, where they graze in the summer.” To get a taste of this tradition, travel writer Judith Fein, accompanied by a small band of curious city dwellers, tags along as Portuguese shepherds finish moving their flocks. Along the way she notices the curving horns, dark faces and other unique characteristics of the individual sheep, the ancient stone road beneath them constructed by “Roman hands” and a fig tree sagging under the weight of ripe fruit too luscious to ignore. Once they arrive in town, musicians are playing their accordions and guitars, the homes are brightly decorated and the locals are offering an array of goods and services. She discovers an elderly basket-weaver, one of the last living practitioners of his craft, who reminisces about the colorful local market he still remembers from his childhood.

She finds the people around her deeply moved by the experience of participating in this ancient pastoral tradition. “The main by-product of transhumance is fresh, natural dairy products from cows, goats and sheep, but equally significant is the nature-based, communal way of life that is now teetering on the edge of extinction,” she writes. She quotes another woman nearby as saying: “I loathe the idea of going back to the modern world, with all the noise, chaos and buzz of electronics.”

Here and around the world, the agrarian culture is fading away in the name of progress, taking with it a way of life uniquely suited to feeding the human spirit. At the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture last month, futurist and keynote speaker Lowell Catlett cited fascinating research from the Institute of HeartMath that showed 90 percent of the time when women and horses are around each other, their cardiac rhythms synchronize, evidence of the mysterious depth of the animal-plant-people connection that we are only just beginning to fathom. (Interestingly, heart entrainment only happens 10 percent of the time between horses and men.) Despite a widening disconnect between field and table, this time of year seems to tie everyone inevitably back to a nature-based life, with the early fruit trees blooming, new calves appearing in pastures, the first vegetables sprouting in gardens, the farmers busily preparing to supply another season of abundant summer markets! And it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we humans have the parasympathetic powers to tap into the vitality of all those flowering bulbs bursting up through the earth or the first sweet blossoms popping out of their buds.

Award winning writer Fein reminds us to open ourselves to the subtle magic surrounding us — whether we are traveling around the globe or just around the corner — and to live with the awareness of a pilgrim seeking to be transformed rather than a tourist looking for momentary amusements. She’s collected her 14 most memorable travel experiences into a book, Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel, assuredly a fascinating and uplifting read, inspiration for the journey.