TRANSHUMANCE: ”the action or practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer.“
On an autumn afternoon many years ago, I was drawn to my front window by an unusual commotion: the clip-clop of many hooves, jingling, mooing, neighing, bleating, barking, shouting. Looking out, I was amazed and enchanted to see the entire road taken up by cows with clanging bells, sheep with tiny lambs, horses and mules, the keen, clever dogs that were keeping them all under control, and finally, the scruffy shepherds. Few spectators are not delighted by the transumanza: like the scarecrows and the grape harvest, it’s a link to our agricultural roots and a reminder of our dependence on nature.
Twice a year I experience my own transumanza: not between high mountain pastures and lowlands, but continents, between the old world and the new, leaving behind places and people that I love, and heading off to other places and other people that I love. I’m fortunate, of course, to lead such an interesting and stimulating lifestyle; nevertheless, departure is always painful and sad, even when one is looking forward to what lies ahead. It’s a fact of life that you can’t gain something without giving up something in return.
Each year my emotions follow the same pattern: in spring I feel guilty and nostalgic about leaving my family and my homeland, where I have deep roots: some of my ancestors settled in New Amsterdam in the mid 1600’s, and in New Jersey, where I was born, in the early 1700’s. I entered this world just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, not in the Dolomites. I grew up playing baseball and eating corn on the cob, hot dogs, and Good Humor bars, not polenta, pastin, and gelato.
The first hint of fall brings a mood of melancholy, restlessness, and change. I start counting down the weeks on my calendar and am stricken by irrational twinges of anxiety and dread: I can’t accept the idea of having to leave.
But the days continue to pass…
I recall an evening when I stood atop Monte Faverghera, overlooking Belluno, with the entire Dolomite range spread out before me, glowing and changing colors in the setting sun. I recognized the Pale di San Martino, Agner, Pizzocco, Sass de Mura, Civetta, Pelmo, Schiara: dear, familiar “faces.” The realization that in a few days we would be separated by an ocean, and I would no longer be able to see them whenever I wished, filled me with anguish. I was not mentally prepared to go, but had no choice–the die had been cast months before, on a cold winter night when I’d booked my ticket and chosen a departure date. Surely there must be some way out of it! But no, it was, as always, an unalterable fate, and I would be torn from this place, ready or not, willing or not. The peaks would remain, my favorite roads, towns, and vistas would remain, my friends would remain, and life here would go on without me.
There is always a peculiar phase, in the final hectic days before departure, when I’m so concentrated on preparations and putting everything in order, that I can no longer contemplate either what I’m leaving behind or what lies ahead. With feelings of frustration and anguish I renounce doing the things I’d like to be doing, and dedicate myself to the things that must be done. My heart rebels, but there is no choice. There is no tomorrow in which to do them. It must be now. I am balanced between two realities, but little by little, feel myself slipping away from one and being borne towards another. I am resigned.
Then finally, I step onto the plane, accept my fate, embrace the transition, and head eagerly (yes!) toward another reality.
This all sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it? Does it not sound like a description of…dying? And indeed, there is an Italian proverb that says just that: Partire è morire…Departing is dying.
Living in two places heightens the realization that everything is temporary, and intensifies the consciousness of time’s inexorable passage. In the end, this is not such a bad thing: it causes me to value each day and savor it to its fullest, to recognize and cherish golden moments as I am living them, instead of realizing only years later, with nostalgia and regret, what good times I had.
One day my soul will return to those high mountain pastures from which it came. But perhaps, like the shepherd and his sheep, it will make its way down to the lowlands once again, repeating the cycle and the never ending journey.