The Shepherd’s Song

It often feels as though I’m the only person anywhere on the plateau. I’m kept company by lizards basking on the sun-struck stones, the wind raking the dry grasses like fingers through hair, and the relic memories of the Greek Civil War still lingering about the bunkers.

On other days, though, I discover that I’m not alone: shepherds range the grasslands with their herds; gatherers of wild mountain tea come suddenly into view swinging thatches of cut stems from their belts; and groups of young and old Albanians pass me on the paths, or are glimpsed in the distance, tiny and striking figures crossing the border in search of work. Then there are the police who from time to time coil up the mountain road, ostensibly to look for immigrants without papers, but just as often to gather wild tea as well.

One police jeep slowed while I descended a ridge, the officers curious to what I was doing there. Discovering that I was studying the birds of the area, they excitedly began describing multi-coloured species to me in the hope that I could reveal to them their names. When the back window was lowered for a policeman to pass me a wreath of wild flowers I realised that he was alone. The dark shadow at his side that I’d assumed to be a colleague was in fact a stout bundle of harvested tea sitting upright in what would have been his place.

What often fascinates me about a place are the people you find there. In this crossroads corner of the Balkans the people you meet are as likely to be from elsewhere as here, or just passing through, on the move and still searching. A month or so ago I heard the sound of a flute floating on the wind while I worked from a promontory on the plateau. Though it was the first time in a decade of living here that I’d heard that immemorial sound, I thought it had to be a shepherd who was playing while he worked. Despite a clear and distant view in all directions I couldn’t find the flute-player or his herd, sunk as they must have been in one of the labyrinthine valleys that encircled me. But last week our paths finally converged.

Stavros described himself as dopios, which is the Greek word for local; though in actuality the term carries far greater weight. In a place that has changed hands many times over the ages, dopios has come to mean Slavic, in both ethnicity and speech, and refers to the descendents of what was the majority population in this region in the centuries of the Ottoman Empire. With the establishment of the Greek state many of the Slavs moved on, or were hellenised as part of a process ubiquitous throughout the Balkans at that time, as emergent and fragile nations tried to forge singular identities where plurality had once been common.

Stavros was born, according to him, on the “wrong” side of the border, however, over in Albania. Sealed to the outside world for nearly half a century by its paranoid Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, it’s difficult to disagree with such sentiments. After the Albanian government fell in 1992 the ruthlessly maintained border went with it, along with the penalty of death that often accompanied its crossing. Stavros packed a bag not long after the fall and hasn’t gone back to live there since then.

For the last eleven years Stavros has worked as a shepherd along the Greek-Albanian border. He leads his herd across the arid plateau each day, coaxing the cows to any sweet grasses he can find in the dips and furrows of the land. His wife lives in a Greek city south of where he works, and he sleeps in a tent which is occasionally burgled by passing immigrants while he’s out on the hills. “It’s only a few of them,” he tells me, “but I just wish they’d ask me. I’d be happy to give them the tea, coffee and sugar that they steal.” Now sixty-one, Stavros is relishing the thought of retiring in two years, along with the time he can then spend with his family. In the meantime he walks the land and speaks of his life with a candour and intimacy that I’ve often experienced in these sudden encounters. The engaging warmth of a shared and unexpected conversation.

A loose memory fell into place while we talked, and I asked Stavros if he played the flute. “I made this one,” he said, handing me a silver instrument that he’d taken from his bag. It was a smooth metal cylinder roughly pocked with circular holes. When I returned to him his flute, he cradled it in both hands before lifting it to his lips. The song the shepherd played found its way into the air, circling and returning, before fading like a dropping wind.

We shook hands and went our separate ways, back to our own endeavours. From the top of a hill I waited for raptors to spiral with the warming air. Stavros returned to his tent to fetch something he needed. I imagined that I’d see the shepherd later that  day, guiding his herd over the land. If not, then maybe the day after. Perhaps in a week or so. The secretive hills conceal for such long periods of time that the arrival of someone is always a surprise. But while I’m waiting I’ll listen for the shepherd’s song.

25 thoughts on “The Shepherd’s Song

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Mr Hoffman. You evoke a fascinating, liminal landscape with figures, existing through the ebb and flow of empires and dictatorships, then returning – in the case of Stavros – to a way of life that has existed for hundreds of years in central and southern Europe and beyond.

    1. Many, many thanks. I always appreciate your close and thoughtful reading, Pete. It is indeed a way of life that continues in this part of the world, despite the trials and tribulations that have impinged upon it – a simple, rooted and sincere tradition visible from day to day. Its vanishing is difficult to imagine…

  2. Your words and pictures inspire within me a desperate longing to see not only what is exotic and far away but also what is exotic and near at hand. You see in such sharp color while most of us see only in black and white!

    1. jelillie – I’m delighted that the writing inspired you so much. And thanks for the kind words. I feel honoured knowing the posts are being read as thoughtfully as this…greatly appreciated.

  3. Julian… Having once taught European history, I could have cried from just reading this post. The impersonality of the history I used to teach was exposed by this very personal story about the very nameless and faceless peoples I used to tell my students about. I am humbled by what you write about. People’s lives become real in my head as your words describe the everyday drama they live in what sometimes History, regrettably, tends to obscure. Bravo!

    Rex Raymond

    1. Many thanks, Rex. The stories surround us, and what I love about them is their persistence. They surface in the most unlikely places to surprise us. When I moved here I was amazed, however, at how the stories seemed to exist on the surface of things. And I’ve been fortunate enough to listen in on some of them. I deeply appreciate your kind words about the work. Thanks again for reading,

  4. I loved the Balkan green lizard, but although the argiope spider is sporting an interesting pattern, I’m not sure I would have been able to stop shaking in my boots long enough to hold the camera still and get such a fantastic picture of it! I’m wondering how big it is?

    Thanks for introducing us to Stavros and sharing his fascinating story – he seems like quite a remarkable shepherd and musician. He could have wound up a bitter man, but he seems content and friendly while living in harmony with the natural world surrounding him. It’s always interesting to see how the flow of history has affected the lives of individuals.

    1. Barbara, I’ll thank Stavros myself when I next see him. Or hear him at least. His is indeed a fascinating story and I feel fortunate to have met him.

      The lizard is quite extraordinary; a swift mover when disturbed and a relatively common reptile here. And don’t worry, the spider isn’t so big; it probably only seems so as it’s hanging beside the sun! I imagine you’d do just fine…thanks for reading.

  5. Yes, the lizard and argiope are beautiful. I love the colours of your landscape and how it feels like I just visited this place. Stavros’ story seems like its from another era.

    1. Many thanks for reading, Cait, and I’m pleased you were able to briefly visit the place. Stavros’ story isn’t uncommon here; in fact all over these borderlands there are many who share something similar. It never fails to amaze me how adaptable and resilient people can be.

  6. I read this the other day before work but my mind was full of pictures, which left no words to express my admiration. The vivid imagery of your writing truly requires no photographs, but you compound the experience with the landscapes and details you choose to display. I very much enjoyed meeting Stavros and the end result is that you touch the heart along with the imagination – an effect that has stayed with me since I first read this soon after you posted it and was compelled to read it again today. I have again enjoyed the vicarious adventure of these “resolute” ridges and “labyrinthine” valleys. Thank you.

    1. Cindy, it’s such a joy and pleasure to hear how much you’re enjoying the writing and images. I’m extremely grateful for your very kind compliments and enthusiasm. Meeting Stavros lent depth to a shared place, brought it a range of other colours and reminded me yet again how many stories we all carry. I feel fortunate to have been there to hear his. Thanks again…

  7. I love this elegiac piece on a sunday morning. In what often feels like an age of extinction that we are living through, its gratifying to feel the timeless, herb infused breeze that blows through these hills and the lilting notes of Stavros’ flute.
    Lovely images once again..Thanks Julian!


    1. Thanks, Sid! It’s a really interesting point that you raise. An age of extinction – cultural traditions, languages, species – but one in which we can still find moments of persistence. They should be celebrated, and listening to Stavros play feels like exactly that: a wonderful, hillside rejoicing. May it long be so! Thanks again…

  8. You write very well Julian. Whilst reading I felt like I was on that stroll with you through the mountains :) The pace of life and thought processes of a transhumant shepherd is a world away from our cluttered and stressful lives and you portray that very well. Nice photos too and I especially like the one of the oak spider. I look forward to reading more.

    Best wishes, Paul.

    1. Thanks very much for that, Paul, and for taking the time to read. I was extremely pleased to find my way to your terrific site via Pete at Writes of Way. Romania, and Transylvania in particular, has long held a deep fascination for me in terms of its wildlife, traditional communities and ways of life. A few years ago I travelled to Brasov to research the beaver reintroduction programme that was being undertaken by ICAS on the tributaries of the Olt River. It was a remarkable part of the world and I had the opportunity to meet with some deeply committed biologists who believed there was a moral imperative to restore the beaver after its near total European extinction. They were also responsible for monitoring the large mammals of the area, and as such the wider Carpathian region remains a place that I would like to study in greater depth. Likewise, I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing and getting to know Transylvania better. Excellent to be in touch!

      And thanks for mentioning the oak spider; I had it mislabelled as an argiope!


      1. Hello Julian and thanks for your kind words re my site.
        The beaver is doing very well in this part of Romania, migrating along connecting rivers and tributaries from that very same reintroduction programme. I have seen several large and impressive dams.

        As you are interested in the flora and fauna of Transylvania you may find my other site useful.

        If you ever venture this way again be sure to visit us. We even have a cosy summer house for guests :)

        Best wishes, Paul

        1. That’s terrific news regarding the beaver, Paul. I need to contact ICAS concerning the recent figures for the programme for a piece that I’m writing about it. When I visited the wildlife unit in Brasov I’d done plenty of research around the beaver’s traditional ecological niche, particularly in light of dams and the resultant benefits of beaver ponds. Well, within minutes in the Brasov office I learned that throughout the sites I would be visiting the beavers didn’t build dams; the water was already slow enough. This naturally upended some of the ideas that I’d thought of focusing the piece of writing on, but what it did highlight was the belief amongst the biologists that there existed a “moral responsibility” to return the beaver, regardless of any subsequent ecological benefits. Now that the beaver is extending its range, it sounds like dams are being built according to river type. I’d love to see the habitat transformations where they are.

          I’ll certainly be having a look at your other site. I’m slowly savouring the articles on the first one so I’m delighted that there’s more. And many thanks for the kind and generous offer! I’ll definitely let you know if we make a trip north again!


          1. I will dig out some photos of one dam Julian. They are not the best pictures as my focus was on a guy fishing with a basket on the shallow side of the dam. There was a nice deep pond on the upper side of the dam surround by dense reeds and bulrushes. The river was also obscured by trees lining the banks and unless I had been led across several fields I would have never known the dam existed.

            I have been informed that there are several beavers on this river not too far from the village of Ghelinta which is approximately one hour (by road not river) from Brasov. It was one of the rangers that informed me that they returned only after reintroduction a decade ago. When you contact ICAS please give them this information. If they are not aware of these beavers please give them my details and I will give them more precise location information.

            Staying at my place is not an empty offer either Julian. I have a nice little but basic summer house in my garden for friends and guests to use. I am literally 5 minutes walk from meadows covered in wild flowers and virgin forests beyond. I have to warn you though we have one of the largest brown bear populations in the area. My girlfriend and I met an adult last year actually in the meadow we were walking through. Luckily it didn’t spot see us and obviously didn’t smell us, so we beat a hasty retreat :)

            1. Much appreciated, Paul! Both for digging out some photos and for the very generous offer of a summer house in what sounds, and looks from your images, to be an astonshing environment. Hope to take you up on the offer one of these days! And I will certainly mention the beaver details when I speak to ICAS. Thanks….

              I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Bear Ridge by the way. Here in Prespa there remains a strong brown bear population, though the entire Greek population is something in the range of a few hundred individuals. Like where you live, they often come into the villages in autumn in search of fruit trees. Some years ago we found a track just outside our garden and last autumn we were fortunate enough to have a very brief glimpse of a bear racing up a hillside through forest after we’d startled it after turning a corner on a barely-used woodland path. The signs are everywhere though, and in the summers we’ve sometimes measured tracks from as many as four different bears using the shore of the lake alone, where their claws sink deeply into the sand. A wonderful opportunity to see something of the landscape that is generally invisible. But I would love an open meadow sighting like you had!

              1. Hi Julian,

                It took me a while but I have found the photos as discussed from one of my trips to neighbouring villages last summer. There is not an awful lot to see, but this chap was fishing with his basket on the shallow side of the dam. The pond itself on the other side was about one metre deep.

                Good to hear that you have a thriving population of brown bears in your area. When you startled that bear in the forest were you on foot or in a vehicle? That’s a good sign when a bear takes off. Healthy for both bear and human.

                The bear ridge is our place to relax. I love sitting in the long grass surrounded by wild flowers and listening to the skylarks. As soon as the son starts to fall the wildlife seem to relax and venture out of the forest. We have had some great sightings of several species from that one location.

                Best wishes, Paul

                1. Very interesting photos, Paul, and thanks for sending them along. I can imagine the beaver pond on the other side! We were on foot when the bear startled off, though like in many places they are being seen more and more commonly and sometimes without quite the same fear factor. We’ll see…

                  The ridge sounds lovely, especially if it’s a place where you’ve seen lynx. Some people say they still exist here, but I’m not convinced, though one was recorded by night camera on the Albanian side of the lakes not long ago. But the sound of skylarks alone is enough to entice me!! Thanks again….

                  Best wishes,

                  1. Hi Julian, yes the ‘Bear Ridge’ was the place where I saw the lynx. This was my one and only sighting, but considering they are much more elusive than bears and wolves I am very happy that I had such luck. One day when I can afford a good camera and long telephoto lens I hope to do more justice to my site when it comes to the wildlife sightings Laura and I have had.

                    The bears fear factor seems to diminish when they view humans with food, i.e rubbish bins or food thrown from the windows of a passing cars. Also in autumn when they are desperate to lay down fat before the winter. Their behaviour changes dramatically and risk taking behaviour increases. I must admit I feel much more wary on foot during spring and autumn months.

                    I am not an advocate of hunting, but unfortunately it is very popular here and includes bear, lynx and wolf. The argument is that this attracts wealthy foreign hunters that bring much needed revenue to Romania. My argument is that a live animal will attract much more money throughout it’s life from wildlife tourism. However, as is usual the fastest and easiest route to making money for personal gain is the preferred option. Unfortunately, what is actually more sustainable for both wildlife and the local community is usually of secondary importance and concern. That said we have to be careful as UK conservationists in the way we ‘bang our drums’. We do not have the best record when it comes to wildlife management and our reluctance as a country to embrace the EU vision of large scale reforestation and reintroduction of once indigenous species (re-wilding) doesn’t help. On a personal level we cannot be held responsible or accountable for the collective degradation of our habitat in the UK, but this poor record is readily used by opponents to dismiss even the most meaningful advice when attempting to promote initiatives to protect existing wilderness habitats in Europe. I take a much more pragmatic approach and try and work with those with opposing views. Just because we disagree does not mean we should not debate or attempt to find the middle ground. I will stop now Julian otherwise my passion for this subject will clog your server :)

                    Best wishes, Paul

                    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Paul, and my apologies for replying so late. It seems to be quite busy around here of late!! I agree whole-heartedly with your thoughts; here in Greece there are huge issues concerning hunting, particularly the illegal kinds. It’s difficult to think of a bird species that hasn’t been found shot, whether orioles, bee-eaters, pelicans, storks, wrens, herons, ospreys and owls. If it flies it’s fair game, seems to be the opinion of some, perhaps many, hunters. A few years ago, in the mountains behind our village, when found a hunter while out walking. Within seconds of seeing us he was on his walkie-talkie and clambering down the hillside as quick as he could. He sped off in his truck and in our binoculars we saw the convoy of other hunting vehicles take off as well. I don’t believe it was a coincidence; whatever was in one of those vehicles – bear, golden eagle, who knows – certainly shouldn’t have been. Bear hunting is strictly prohibited here, though I’ve known of a couple killed around here that were perceived as threats to livestock.

                      A biologist friend of ours who has worked in Romania from time to time has told us of the elaborate stage prepared for foreign bear-hunters in the Ceausescu years, when bears were released along paths that led to out-of-sight food so that the animals would emerge into an ampitheatre where the hunter was stationed in a hide. The Romanian biologist who described this ruse to him didn’t seem to think it was at all a problem, so you have cultural issues that filter into the question as well.

                      I’m a big supporter of re-wilding and would like to see far greater effort at restoring species and habitats rather than the swift and irreversible path of extinction that we seem to be following. Your suggestion of ‘middle’ or common ground is extremely important, crucial in finding a way through the steadfast opposition that often gathers around such issues. Though I fear that preserving what still exists is an uphill battle in itself. Great to read your stories though; it reminds me that good and inspiring things are being done!

                      Best wishes,

                    2. Hi Julian,
                      Unfortunately little has changed regarding hunting in Romania. Animals are fed regularly in forest clearings to ensure their attendance when the wealthy hunters visit from the west. Then from the comfort and safety of a solid wooden hide they shoot bear, deer and boar. Most of these hides are off limits to those that are attempting to introduce fee paying wildlife watchers, working completely separately from the hunting fraternity. I am not sure this is the best tactic, because both camps are in opposition. If the long term benefits of sustainable photographic style safari tourism is to make ground, these providers of hunting services are the very people that need bringing on board. You only need a handful to switch allegiance and the word will spread quickly. They also obtain all the necessary field skills such as tracking to make photographic safaris successful. In my area of activity the hunting fraternity know that I am totally opposed to hunting, but they also know that my opposition is peaceful. We debate the issue regularly and they have always been willing to co-operate with me on conservation issues. Some criticise my approach as contradictory to the norms in conservation work, but I look at it as pragmatic. Conservationists that come from relatively affluent western societies should be less prescriptive and understand that people in a poorer society need to make a living. They also do what they know best, have been trained in and have traditionally practised for generations. Hunting is big business and has played a major role in local economies. So if we are serious about long term sustainable conservation, we have to demonstrate that there is a viable alternative way to make wildlife pay, which ensures long term employment. Banging on in indignation simply does not work, so we need to find a better way forward, demonstrating mutual respect. In my opinion by taking small but supportive steps is the only practical way to generate long term change.

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