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The Seasons. A cycle in a Gottschee/Kočevje village.

Verfasst: Mo Feb 13, 2023 6:36 pm
von John Tschinkel
Beitrag von John Tschinkel » Do 17. Dez 2015, 01:00

The Seasons. A cycle in a Gottschee/Kočevje village in the 1930's and before.
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Life in Masern was tied to the seasons and the never-ending struggle for the needs of existence. Like other isolated villages in the enclave, it was totally dependent on an adequate harvest for survival. This harvest was wrestled from an infertile and unfriendly soil which had to be kept productive season after season, for over six centuries prior to my arrival. But the always willing forest supplied the firewood and the lumber to be traded at the village sawmill for cash with which to buy the other necessities.
After some four months of hibernation, the inertia of the winter gave way when clusters of snowdrops started to poke through the last layer of the now graying snow and the cuckoo was once again heard in the hills. The new cycle began when, in the warming air, the plow blade was filed to a new edge, the spikes of the harrow re-fastened or replaced, the axles of the wagon wheels greased and their hubs and spokes thoroughly whetted to eliminate any wobble due to dried out wood. If the resultant swelling no longer tightened the wheel, it was taken to the village smith to heat and shorten the metal rim and let the cooling steel force the spokes back into place. The smith also re-shoed the horses if the remaining metal was inadequate for the coming season. Harnesses were examined, the leather rubbed with oil and repaired if necessary by the village saddler Karl Schaffer, the younger son of the fire chief who also was my best friend.
And before the solidly frozen earth softened and let the wheels sink deep into the mud, the dung from the heap next to the stable was loaded on the reconditioned wagons and hauled to the fields to be spread evenly on the thinning layer of the remaining snow.
The cycle continued with plowing, sowing and planting. Cows were taken to the bull after they stopped giving milk and young pigs were bought at the market to be fattened during the summer for slaughter after the first frost of the fall. In between there was the weeding, the mowing, the hay making and reaping. And after the harvests came and went, there was the cutting, splitting and stacking of firewood to outlast the coming cold.
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The cycle was, of course weather dependent and even more so at the elevated village of Masern, being shaded a good part of the day by the surrounding hills. If the snows lingered past the planting season, the shortened growing time prevented the produce from ripening. So did an early frost. Sometimes, the floods from melting snow washed away planted seeds. Hordes of wild boar would uproot an entire field of freshly planted potatoes.
And during high summer, when the wind was rippling the yellowing grain, when the cornstalks began to turn color and the small apples on their trees still had weeks of growing to do, the villagers apprehensively watched the sky for dark clouds, the first sign of an oncoming storm. Especially when the air was hot and heavy and the clouds began to gather into a dense, dark overcast, so low one could almost touch them. This was soon followed by a thundering sound of heavy downfall approaching quickly across the southern hills. Such sudden storms came across the mountains with unbelievably destructive power. Hail the size of small potatoes would lay flat and destroy an entire crop in a few minutes. In 1614, hail caused so much damage in the area that for three years the residents did not live normal lives.
It was claimed that after the three big bells were installed, the frequency of lethal hail storms was reduced. When clouds began to gather, the villagers rang all three bells at random as fast as they could. Apparently, the sound waves tended to break up the density of the low flying clouds and cause them to disperse.
Natural disasters decimated not only crops but also the essential livestock of cows, goats, pigs and chickens. Records show that there were two huge cattle plagues throughout the region that claimed a large portion of this livestock. The first was in 1761 and the second fifteen years later in 1776. 45 One of these also reached into Masern, but how destructive it was there is not known. In addition to the overlong winters, short summers, poor crops, hail, floods, diseases and fires there were the
human inflicted disasters. Overtaxing landlords, Turkish marauders, French invaders, world wars, lethal nationalism, and Italian occupiers were all part of God’s wrath. All the result of sins, as the villagers were reminded constantly by the priest in the sermons of Sunday Mass.
Within all of this, winter and summer, rain or shine and in no established order, the crowing of the rooster and the cows lowing to be milked started a new day. Season after season, decade after decade for six centuries the cycle continued, during which God always delivered a few surprises.
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After their arrival in Masern in the early 14th Century, the settlers were forced to adjust rapidly to the short growing season and a soil not particularly fertile and cooperative in making things grow at this altitude of 519 meters. The snows melted too late in the spring, the frost came too soon at the end of summer. But they soon learned which crops were suitable, that winter wheat was too long under snow and the summer mostly too short to allow it to mature. But rye grew and its flour produced a dark and healthy, if not particularly tasty bread. So did oats, barley, millet and buckwheat. Maize and potato also thrived after they came from the New World in the 16th and 18th century, respectively. These staples were supplemented by milk from the cow, meat from the chicken and ham and fat from the pig, providing, all together, the basic necessities for the inhabitants through the centuries until 1941.
Other crops were cabbage, turnips, carrots, kohlrabi, onion and garlic, which, together with apples and pears lasted, in cool cellars, long into next year. Most of the cabbage was shredded and matured in large barrels into sauerkraut to last until the next crop.
The short growing season notwithstanding, there was nearly always an ample harvest of plums, cherries, raspberries, blueberries and wild strawberries, most of which were turned into preserves and kept in earthen jars sealed with a layer of wax. Plums produced the necessary and powerful Slivovitz, but this was made clandestinely since the distillation of alcohol was a state monopoly.
Embedded into my memory of the annual cycle are images that were part of these seasonal events, the clarity of which remains untarnished by the decades since. Short segments observed by childhood eyes, each and all part of the mosaic of a village that ceased to be.
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Planting the Earth. Spring
Some days after the melted snow and occasional rains thawed the now softening soil, the newly sharpened plow turned it into neat rows of brown earth, burying under it the evenly spread dung. Mother led Yiorgo and his companion pulling the plow, while in the rear the owner of the borrowed horse struggled with the handles. Mitzi and I were tasked to follow the team back and forth and pick up the rocks and stones which the frost and the plowing brought to the surface and take them to the wall at the edge of the field. I needed much encouragement in this since I was more interested in the long wiggling worms, the white crescent shaped larvae of the may bug on its seven year cycle upward and other creatures turned up by the plow. Often, the plow also turned up a much larger boulder, pushed up into its path by the perpetual freeze and thaw. It was left there for stronger arms to be taken to the wall, which, over the centuries, had grown into a defining divide to the adjacent property.
The plowing and most other heavy tasks were a cooperative effort, sharing both draft animals and strong hands. Each season, the team of Yiorgo, Mother, the second horse and its owner plowed each other’s fields and the fields of others in return for labor needed by their respective farms. Such labor in kind came also from those to whom Father gave permission to use some of his excess acreage. Such exchange was practiced harmoniously among the villagers throughout the year. After the plowing, the earth was loosened and smoothed by the refurbished harrow being dragged back and forth by a sweating Yiorgo, led by a sweating Mother. This done, she spread the seed grain, carried in her tied up apron, with steady and even swings of her arm as she walked the length of the field and back. After that, she again walked the earth, raking in and covering the exposed grain with a light layer of soil to help the seed take root. In part also to hide the seed from those birds who had not yet noticed the scarecrows, with strips of multicolored cloth tied to their outstretched arms flapping in the breeze, which Mother had stuck in the soil after the seeding was done.
Maize and potato were planted in span deep grooves scratched into the loosened soil by a light but different plow specially made for this purpose. This plow was also dragged back and forth by Yiorgo, carefully led again by Mother to turn the field into an array of equally spaced grooves in the rapidly drying soil. Into the soft bottom of these trenches were pressed, two hand spans apart, either a few kernels of maize or a piece of seed potato that had been cut from a whole potato into segments, with each segment containing two or at most three 'eyes' so as to make one whole potato go further. Again Yiorgo, with Mother leading, dragged the plow back and forth, now between the grooves, covering the 'seeds' and turning the entire field into a washboard of equally spaced ripples in the brown earth.
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While the scarecrow kept at least the still gullible birds at bay, nothing would stop the stealthy boar with their unerring nose for freshly planted potato. The villagers tried to put them off the scent with articles of clothing reeking with human sweat and kept watch the first few nights after the planting, most of this with limited success. Hiding in the deep underbrush and waiting for dusk, a family or herd of boar would descend on the field and burrow with their snout along each row finding most of the seedlings on the way.
Fortunately, this happened not too often, but when it did it was devastating. The entire planting process had to be repeated, cutting into the still available supply of potatoes needed until the next harvest. When such events occurred, the boars, still nearby and resting from their feast, would be chased by a posse of angry villagers deep into the forest. The males were dangerous and could turn on single individuals but usually ran with the others when approached by a yelling crowd swinging sticks. The pursuers were however, always ready to run behind the nearest tree. In 1941 when the villagers, armed with rifles left behind by the capitulating Yugoslav army on April 19 pursued such a horde, the revenge was sweet and many a boar wound up as a gamey tasting roast on the tables of the aggrieved.
Spring, summer and autumn of 1941 were, with respect to wildlife, particularly bountiful. The wild boar was hunted by the villagers more out of revenge than for its tasty meat. The villagers, no longer concerned about being caught as poachers by Anton Tscherne, the game warden of prince Auersperg, freely hunted the ample wildlife of deer, rabbit and bear. Tscherne no longer patrolled the woods, partly because he was afraid of being shot and partly because he no longer knew to whom he could surrender a caught poacher, now that there was no longer a civil authority. He also was no longer getting paid by the prince. As a result, the villagers, throughout their long history, had never lived so well as during the spring, summer and fall of 1941.
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All these activities were initiated by that most important event of spring, Easter. This was the time when the bells became silent. During the entire year they had announced time, joy and tragedy. They were rung at births, christenings, weddings, during Mass and processions on high holidays and other happy occasions in various combinations of tonal mix and durations. They accompanied deceased villagers on their final journey to the cemetery and rang when their replacements were baptized a few days after their birth.
On Thursday before Easter, the hammers of the clock were disengaged from the mechanism and the ropes pulled up high. All the crucifixes in the church were covered in black and on Saturday evening the villagers lined up on the way to the confessional to wait their turn for the mandatory annual forgiveness and absolution. This was also required on other high holidays, but neglecting the purging of one’s sins on Easter was a mortal sin.
And on Sunday morning, at nine thirty, the bells resumed with the usual reminder to get ready for the Mass, this time high Mass at ten followed by the festive procession.
During the entire week preceding the high Sunday, other Easter related activities kept the village busy.
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The Weeding. Summer.
Planting was followed by a suspenseful and nervous period of hope and wait. Hoping for rains mild enough to moisten the seeds but not so heavy as to cause waters to emerge from the cistern to flood the fields and wash away the grain the birds did not find and the potato the boar did not dig up. Hoping for sufficient warmth from the sun to prevent a damaging late frost. Waiting for emerging sprouts to cover the dark brown earth with green and decorate the tops of the orderly rows with white-green shoots pushed up by either the kernels of maize or the eyes of the potato. Waiting also for the aggressive weeds that would have to be pulled out before they crowded out the wanted growth.
In between the waiting, there was time to pay attention to the neglected and expanding forest that was forever trying to reclaim the parts it lost over the decades and even centuries to the effort of clearing. This was particularly the case at the boundaries where the rich black soil of the forest unfairly competed with the cultivated, if marginally fertilized, earth. And, before the new and ever denser foliage of the underbrush impeded efficient clearing, our entire family made for the “Unterbinkl”, our most vulnerable land. There, with razor sharp machete and small axes, we cut down the expanding underbrush and pushed the forest back into its place.
While it would be an exaggeration to say the forest resented the interference and took revenge, it is a fact that it did take part in one great tragedy and nearly succeeded in being part of another.
The first caused Father, at age 25, to lose his right leg in late 1918. A similar loss to me in 1938, caused by an identical set of circumstances, was averted by doctor Oražem only because of the quick response of Mother and Father who brought me to the doctor in Ribnica as fast as Yiorgo could trot. But that is also part of another story.
And when the weeds finally began to crowd the maize and potatoes, scores of bent over, kerchief covered women labored back and forth in the rows and with small hoes loosened the soil to pull up the unwanted intruder. All the while checking the wanted growth and trimming away the excess that could limit proper development toward an abundant harvest. The grain, however, took care of itself by quickly rising and crowding out the weeds.
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My job was to deliver water to the sweating and thirsty women. I waited for their call in the shade of nearby hazelnut bushes that kept both me and the water cool. It was kept in a small wooden barrel holding about four liters, filled in the morning at the spout of the drinking well. The water was drunk by raising the opening of the barrel to the lips and tilting the head way back. In doing this, some of the cool liquid was spilled but was welcome as it ran over heated cheeks. The barrel emptied all too frequently and I was sent away to get more. And when, finally, Mother yelled “lunch”, all gathered in the shade to untie the knots of linen bundles full of sausage, bacon and bread that had been hanging on the branches of nearby trees.
This was also the time of year when one of our two cows stopped giving milk and began mounting others during the daily watering at the cistern trough. This was the sign that it was time to take her to the bull in Dolenja Vas for “bluing”. Mother led the cow by a rope tied to a bridle while in the back I, with a twig, encouraged the animal to go on when it slowed for a luscious clump of grass.
The bull was in the stable of a neighbor of Grandma Ilc. It was a huge creature made even more frightening by the strong walls of the pen and the rope, one end attached to the ring in his nostrils and the other to a hole in the feeding trough. The bull sensed the cow’s arrival and became agitated adding to my fright, which was seized on by the adults as an excuse to keep me out of the stable as they closed the door. The small window was too high up to reach and so I had no idea what was the noisy rumpus going on inside. And when the door finally opened, the bull was lying down and our cow happily munching hay in a separate stall, a red cheeked Mother showed me the area under the tail of the cow that was now painted blue. After she gave the man some coins, we went to chat with Grandma who gave us lunch.
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Harvest. Fall
It was a happy season during which the nearly empty storage bins were refilled, the stripped corncobs hung to dry and the hayloft refilled. All to last, with God’s blessing, until next year. But for me, this part of the year brought afternoons full of chores seemingly designed to ruin an up to then pleasant day. I had to help with the harvest.
After Dežman let us out, I was quickly tasked to help Mitzi tramp down the dust laden straw that was forked to the loft after threshing, or to compress the hay from the wagon that brought it in from the meadows. It had been left to dry there after being cut by scythe swinging men, stopping only to sharpen the edge and wipe a brow.
Later in the fall, the potato harvest had me helping fill the wicker baskets with the dug-up clumps to be taken by stronger arms to larger wickers on the wagon. The same was the case when the solid cabbage heads were cut from their stems, the loose leaves stripped away and the hard, melon sized ball left in row after row to be picked up and loaded on the wagon. The kohlrabi could be pulled up by its ears but not the carrots which had to be dug up with forked spades. All the unwanted growth, the leaves, the ears and carrot green were left in place to be turned over by the plow as fertilizer for next year’s crop. At home the produce was taken to separate bins in the frost free cellar next to the kitchen and covered with straw and old blankets. On especially cold winters, the kitchen door was left partly open to prevent freezing. But a large portion of the cabbage was destined to be sliced and placed into vats in the cellar where it turned into the sauerkraut that we could not do without.
Later still, I helped in pulling the corn cobs from their stalks and put them in baskets to be carried to the wagon, its sides now equipped with retaining boards. At home, they were emptied in the center of the large entry hall where they became part of a near ceiling-high pyramid. There to be stripped that evening with the help of neighbors encircling the heap while sitting on little stools they had brought with them. My favorite place was on top of the diminishing pile, listening to the hum of words, snatches of gossip and whispered stories until I fell asleep only to be awakened by Mother who led me off to bed.
On the naked end of the cob were left a few leaves which were pulled back and tied together to produce a loop. In the following days, these naked cobs were strung on to a strong rope, with a stick of wood at one end to keep the cobs on the rope. The other end was fed through a hook attached to the eves of the house and assembly about one meter long was pulled up and left there to dry. For weeks thereafter, our house and all others in the village was decorated with brightly yellow stalactites swaying slightly in the autumn breeze. Later, the dry and now hardened kernels were stripped from the cob with a hand cranked stripping machine, sacked and stored in the cellar and attic where they waited to be taken to the mill. The cobs on the other hand, were shredded and fed to the cows.
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Hibernation. Winter
The harvest secured, the firewood cut, split and stacked, there was nothing else to do except feed the animals, milk the cows and wait for the snow. And when it came, in mid November or sooner, it stayed, sometimes at adult height, until the beginning of March or even later. There were times when it snowed for days with flakes the size of overcoat buttons, a density that made the church steeple disappear and the sound from the bells telling time barely audible. Apart from the snow driven by the wind and the swaying bare branches of our linden, nothing moved.
Nevertheless, a path from the front door to the stable and across the courtyard to the building housing the chicken coop, the woodshed and Father’s shop, had to be maintained. To do this, Mitzi had to give up her perch on the flat of the oven and together with Mother they disappeared through the front door, opened only a crack to allow the bundled up women with their shovels to squeeze through. I too wanted to join them but no: I would only be a hindrance. But after clearing a small circle of stubborn crystals on the window pane facing the courtyard, I watched them, bent over and struggling with the wind and the snow, without much regret.
But when eventually the snowing stopped and visible life at least temporarily returned, the villagers were out clearing narrow trenches, in some places tunnels, across the square to the church, to Ivanka’s store, to the Jaklitsch tavern and to the sawmill, its steam engine shut down for the duration of this or any other storm. They also cleared a path to Father’s shop where idle men arrived to warm their frozen hands over the stove, part of it cherry red, and resume the conversations that had been interrupted by the snow.
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The most highly anticipated part of winter, at least for us small children, was not Christmas but the sixth of December, Saint Nicholas day. On this day, at the onset of dusk, the Saint would knock on the door and bring little gifts, providing we had been good. Of the need for this we were reminded throughout the year. If we had misbehaved he would leave nothing but have us punished or taken away by Krampus the sinister creature that accompanied the Saint as the enforcer.
Saint Nicholas came in bishop’s regalia including miter and staff, the very figure I saw sink with his ship in a violent sea in the film with Father in Ljubljana. Behind him was the devil-like creature called Krampus; horns above his black face, from his mouth hanging a long red tongue. In one hand, a sack with presents, in the other a long and heavy steel chain, the rattling of which the Saint tried to restrain.
Only after I stammered that I had been good and promised to be good the next year, with the Krampus rattling the chain, did the Saint reached into his bag for the hoped-for items, usually no more than some sugar coated ginger bread figures, candy and oranges from Ivanka’s store.
Childhood illusion and suspension of disbelief did not survive the first school year when sniggers that St. Nicholas was really a dressed up Johann Krisch and the frightful Krampus one of the sexton’s sons, his face blackened with charcoal, became confirmed. After that, annual presents, meager as they were, were handed out by the parents themselves on the day of the Saint. And after the resettlement, this ancient custom, like most of the others, also ceased to exist.
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Apart from the decorated tree in the cold corner of the large room and the crystals of last night’s fallen flakes glistening on the piled up snow outside, Christmas was different from the other religious holidays.
The fir tree, selected late in the fall, was cut and dragged home on the freshly fallen snow weeks before it was set up in the remote corner of the large room near the walls on which patches of ice crystals had been winning ground ever since the real cold arrived. The tree was decorated during the day of Christmas Eve with apples from the cellar and oranges from Ivanka’s store, each suspended by twine from the branches to which were also attached multi colored, spiral turned wax candles, tinsel and multicolored glass balls. And at the very top the star of Bethlehem, placed there by an uncertain Mother reaching up and out while standing on an uncertain kitchen stool. On the small cloth-covered table next to it stood the cardboard crèche, unfolded and lit from the rear by a candle to reveal its colorful occupants in a three-dimensional scene.
Eventually the candles on the branches were lit by Mitzi; the lighting presided over by a concerned Father aware of the highly flammable pine needles, with Paul and me watching from the top of the oven cube. But by the time our bundled-up parents left the warm house for the short midnight service in the unheated church, the candles were extinguished and all three of us were sound asleep.
The candles were lit again the following morning when the smell of the festive meal Mother was preparing in the kitchen penetrated the festive room only to compete with the strong fragrance of the fir and that of the apples and oranges dangling from its branches. This is when we fingered the gifts left under it by the Christ child during the night, usually various articles of clothing, mostly shirts, sweaters and knitted gloves and socks, all over-sized for us to grow into, long un-sharpened pencils with soft erasers to wipe out the mistakes in the accompanying notebooks to do our homework in. After the big meal, the sweaters and gloves were tested outside in the bitter cold, on crunching snow too cold to roll into a snowball for a playful fight. And when the all too short winter afternoon drove us, stiff and white, back inside we quickly made it up the ladder to the warm flat of the oven cube.
At least thirteen generations of my ancestors had, more or less, done the same.
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The above is a chapter from "The Bells Ring No More" by John Tschinkel
John Tschinkel