The Lost World of Transhumance
Dec 10, 2019
In a remote mountain fastness, a grizzled man traverses a steep ridge with his herd of 120 goats. Above him, dramatic silver peaks rise into the sky. It is spring; the man is headed to higher ground, to let his animals graze and to rest among the edelweiss of the Alpine meadows. In the winter, he will move his herd back down to the lush green valley below, where the mountains give way to glacial rivers and thick forests, home to bears, lynx, wolves, and wild boar. But for now, nothing is heard but the clop-clop-clop of hooves—and, once in a while, the distant tinkling of cowbells.
This is the Albanian Alps, one of the last wild mountain ranges in Europe. The region, also known as the Accursed Mountains, has a lyrical beauty that unfurls across the borders of Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo. It is a land out of time—the air is thick with the magic of old Albanian myths, ancient pastoral traditions, and the occasional blood feud. Travel between the area’s remote villages often requires six-hour journeys on foot.
The goatherd, Prek Gjoni, was born here in northern Albania, in the Valbonë Valley, known for its pristine ecosystem. The filmmaker Grégoire Verbeke captures Gjoni’s transhumant way of life in his stunning short documentary Mountain. “In the summertime, the grass in the lowlands becomes dry, so the herd travels to higher pastures,” Verbeke told me. “I was intrigued by Prek’s determination to walk four days with his goats to find better grass in the highlands.” Fresh grass produces better milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Before he began filming, Verbeke hoped to get to know Prek as a person. “It was important to spend time with him without the camera,” he said. The pair’s first day together was spent in silence, because Verbeke doesn’t speak Albanian. “At noon, we shared some food and an orange,” Verbeke recalled. “He brought me to a natural spring to drink. I was observing Prek and trying to figure out how he managed his herd. After a while, I started helping him keep the herd together.” In the evening, Verbeke was invited to share dinner with Gjoni’s family.
Verbeke returned with his camera that spring, just after the snow melted on the Thet mountain pass to Valbona. “Prek left his house with an umbrella and a pair of socks,” Verbeke said. They hiked four days across a distance of 62 miles. “Prek knew the road, but it was still hard to find the good paths to walk with the goats,” he said. “Herding goats in a mountainous region is physically very demanding. Every day became harder—the profile was steeper, the paths smaller, the vegetation more dense.” Now and then, the pair crossed a village, where friends of Gjoni’s fed them bread and cheese and gave them a warm place to sleep. (The tradition of providing shelter to travelers is a legacy of the Kanun, a complex code that governed the lives of Albania’s Malësori mountain people for centuries, and in some cases still does.)
During the journey, Verbeke said he was moved by Gjoni’s dedication to his herd. “Prek knows his goats by heart: when they were born, the family ties, and which baby hasn’t had a drink yet after a long day,” he said.
With Mountain, the filmmaker conveys the temporal experience of the four-day trek. “I wanted to focus on the activity of walking—how do you experience time and space when you walk? As I walked these long days, my mind entered in a different state. It felt meditative. It teaches you to be humble and makes realize that you’re part of something much larger.”
“This cosmic relationship with nature is essential,” Verbeke continued. “It’s what life’s about.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.