Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Lonely Life of an Italian Buffalo Herder

Buffaloes at Vannulo, a large, modern dairy farm and mozzarellaria in the Paestum Plain

The little town of Eboli near where Cosimo lived, with the Plain and the sea in the background

The ladies staying cool

Buffaloes look intimidating, but they have wonderful, gentle dispositions

Goof place for a buffalo, a tonzo, 'wallow'

Making the genuine article at Caseificio Polito

Mozzarrella di bufala and scamorzza affumicata

Today, most buffalo herds in Italy are along the coastal regions in large, scientifically managed dairy farms. Occasionally one still sees a few buffaloes on a family farm out in the hinterlands, but that is far from the norm. But in earlier days, back when the herds were restricted to marshy environments and required constant attention, the life of a buffalo herder was a lonely, demanding existence. We are lucky to have the testimony of one such herdsman, Cosimo Montefusco, who was born in 1904 in the hinterlands of the Paestum Plain and came of age when the region was still blighted by poverty, malaria, and the old feudal system of mezzadria, sharecropping. The following comes from an interview published in 1953 in the journal Rabatana, published in the town of Tricarico in the Matera region of Basilicata.

“I was born at Eboli commune, but more precisely at Aversana, where there is a farm complex where I worked and which is called Battaglio. One estate belonged to Don Vincenzo Cuozzo, another to Don Gennaro Pierro, But the buffaloes that I tended belonged to Don Alberto Mattassini, and I lived on his estate, over there where there was a well fed by a windmill, and close to another estate owned by a certain Salvatore Giardelli, who is not from these parts.

“My father died in 1940 and left, besides me, my mother, who was about 48 or 49 I think,[1] a brother, a bit older than 31, another brother, 33, another about 40, and me, aged 36. We all worked for Don Alberto. But my oldest brother had to go on pension. When they [the Allies] were disembarking,[2] the Germans were passing near our house, and a ship from way down in the marina commenced firing, and instead of catching the Germans by surprise, they hit our cottage and we wanted to run away outside and as my brother Vincenzo was going down the stairs a piece of shrapnel fell struck his arm and mutilated his hand. He lost his left hand and arm above the elbow.

“None of us brothers had gone to school, and I can’t even sign my name. If we had wanted to go to ‘little boys’ school, how would Mama have been able to work alone and pay the boss? From the age of 5 or 6 I worked around buffaloes. First I worked in the plot where we grew tomatoes. That was part of the women’s crop, about a tomolo, maybe one and a half tomolos.[3] I go to Eboli once a year when my name-saint, Santo Cosimo, has his feast day, and otherwise occasionally on Sunday to visit my uncle, my mother’s brother, who also farmed under the mezzadria. But I’ve never been to Salerno or Naples. As I’ve never been to Salerno, how could I have gone to Naples?[4] I’ve only been to Battipaglia and to Eboli several times for the cinema, and I’ve seen war movies and love movies, but if someone should ask me, ‘What movies have you seen? What was the title?’ I’d have to say I don’t know because I don’t know how to read. But a couple of times I’ve started to go. I like to go because I see when people die and I like it. And when they fight, I should add. I can’t really tell you about it because my brain is like a sieve.

The first theater at Eboli was built not long after the bombardment and was called Supercinema and was built by Pezzullo, the owner of the big mill and bakery. Then Cosimo Negro, who held the office of tax assessor and had a big palazzo, built another one that was called Cinema Italia. Sometimes this Negro offered two films for a single ticket. The Supercinema, which had a changing room, sometimes brought in live shows and then Negro, whose place didn’t have a changing room, reduced the price of a ticket to draw people away from the Supercinema, and the prices would go from 100 lire to 60 to 50 to 30, and would sometimes wind up at 5 lire per ticket, and that included a coffee and a gelato! The mamas would bring all their kids down to the piazza, and if they reduced the ticket price enough the mamas would buy tickets for the whole lot, more for the food than the movie, and the crowds became so big that they needed the carabineri to regulate the crowds going in. I went to the cinema for the first time three years ago.

“Next the two cinemas made an arrangement and exchanged films, and every film was repeated for two days at one, then for two days at the other, and I suppose they pooled the gate and divided the profits.”

Cosimo was shown by the interviewer a copy of Tempo news magazine of September 10 that had on the cover a photo of the artist, Carlo Levi and of the young actress Balducci.[5] He was asked what might be the palette that Levi held in his hand, covered with paints. “It could be the flesh of fruits,” he responded. Leafing through the magazine, he placed his finger on a photo of Coppi[6] that he recognized. But he didn’t know why, nor did he know the function of the razorblade Gillette Blue that he saw in an advertisement. “Look,” said the interviewer, “here is Marconi. Do you know what he did? He invented the radio.” Cosimo knew what a radio was, but he had never had one. “My uncle at Eboli has one,” he said, “and it plays songs.”

He was asked what day it was. “Today is September 3, 1953.”

“How do you know that?”

Cosimo didn’t answer for a while, and then said calmly, “It’s other people’s job to know that sort of thing.”

He knows the days of the week and months of the year, and he knows how to add one by one by counting on his fingers, but he can’t do multiplication or division. But clearly, he is not stupid; when the concept of multiplication is explained and he is asked how much is 7 X 3, he counts on his fingers 7 plus 7 and derives 14 and then counts 14 and 7 and derives 21.

“If there is a holiday when there is not so much labor, sometimes I go [to town] and sometimes no. One Sunday yes, and another, no. But after the harvest is complete, and then the harvest of the tomatoes, if there is only the tending of the animals to see to, in September and October, then I go.”

“I get up usually around 4 am, sometimes 4:30 or even 5. First I go to take the calves to the mothers so that I can milk them. I find the calves at the gate, I put them under the udders and let them have some milk, and then remove them. When we call them to the milking, the moms and calves come from their pens, and it takes about an hour and a half or sometimes two to milk them all. You can’t even get near to the amount of milk that a buffalo gives [with a cow]. Each one can give a bucket (10 liters), sometimes half that, depending on how they’ve been feeding and whether they’ve recently calved. Afterwards we put the calves back in a closed pen and I go with the mothers to another field. I pasture them till about noon and then I bring them to the water where there are the tonzi [wallows].”

"The buffaloes are first ‘calves’, up until three or four months while they are suckling, then up to one year we call them ‘weaners’, which is to say that they no longer suckle, then from one year to two they are ‘yearlings’, those who have completed their first year. It’s at this age that the females are first ‘covered’ and at 2 1/2 or 3 years they calve for the first time and become ‘bufale’. They are pregnant for 10 months before birthing. Sometimes the fetus doesn’t ‘’take’ and they won’t stay pregnant and they abort. ‘Hunter’ buffaloes are the old ones that no longer give much milk and we call them that because the owner hunts them to take to sell to the butcher.”

While Cosimo was speaking, one buffalo wandered out of the field and into the road. Cosimo ran and called to her in a sing-song voice, “Chi commanda!” [She who commands]. It is the name of the buffalo, or rather the first part, which is followed by a so-called ‘’a vatuta’ which Cosimo explains is a nickname or cognomen. “Chi Commanda no suda’, ‘she who commands doesn’t sweat’.

Cosimo explains, “’Chi commanda’ is an example of the name and ‘non suda’ is a description because she doesn’t have to toil like me.”

“The buffaloes drink and they run down into the water and refresh themselves, and that takes an hour. Meanwhile, I eat my bread and tomato and drink my ‘tenants’ water’ that I carry with me, and if I run out, I just don’t drink anymore until evening. There is water, but it’s far away and it takes a quarter hour to get there on a bicycle, but I can’t leave the buffaloes, who could get out into the tomato patch and do all kinds of damage and even wander into other people’s fields and then the owner would come up to me and want to know why. When the buffaloes have empty stomachs, we say they ‘allucano’ ‘(bellow’). Hey, when we humans have empty stomachs, don’t we go to find somewhere where they sell food? It’s the same with them; they seek out the good pasturage and then they stop.

“I’m the buffalo herder who helps the boss. But we never have made a proper contract with stipulations. I started tending pigs at 13 and one day my boss said, ‘Come on over for a few days,’ and after that I just stayed. I take the buffaloes out one gate at 4:30 am to the fields and head toward the sun and toward the mountains of this area: Montecorvino, Altavilla, Albanella. I know them by name, but I’ve never been there, the same as with Mt. Giffoni.

“Next I take them to the enclosed field where there is by this time very little pasturage because they have eaten it before, and I go over to the farmhouse where I wash out the milk cans, and I milk any cows that need milking, and I prepare the buggy for Don Alberto so he can travel to Battipaglia. After I’ve done all my chores, I go on home to our cottage, which is a kilometer away from the farmhouse.

“The house also belongs to Don Alberto, and we rent it. It has two rooms and a kitchen and we are five, including mama. There is a well for water. We eat maccheroni, pasta fagioli (pasta with green beans), pasta with potatoes, vegetable soups, wine on Sundays, never meat, or only on a feast day or when a buffalo dies. My mother even has to buy mozzarella di bufala from a cheese shop! We don’t use butter, but we have ricotta when there’s a feast day. We just don’t have much in the way of milk products. I drink milk every now and then.

“In the evening sometimes we play a game called pazzilla, which is a kind of hide and seek. All the young people from the surrounding estates get together and tell stories about the deeds of the ancient folks, but I don’t know any, or we tell what happened at a movie we’ve seen.

“When I’m out guarding the buffaloes, I think to myself about all the things happening which are passing me by. A car passes, and I think, ‘That guy is out driving a car, and here I am slaving away and guarding buffaloes.’ Other people think nothing of going to a bar, drinking orange soda, coffee, such things, and of going to the movies every evening. They can do that, but I can’t. I can have a gelato, when the Vespa that sells gelato passes by. Several years ago he started selling gelato from his scooter out in the countryside.”

Cosimo is asked if he is a Catholic. “No,” he answers.

“What, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ?”

“Oh, yes! I don’t know anything, I was thinking of another word when you said the word ‘Catholic’. But do I go to Mass? No, I can’t go. I believe in Jesus Christ, more when somebody dies, and when somebody has a disease, they all speak about Jesus Christ and say, ‘Jesus Christ, please allow me to recover!’ The things of God [the catechism] I learned at my house, but I’ve forgotten them.

“How can I think about religious things? But I believe. Who created the airplane? He created it. When they made the disembarkation, and at first and even later there were the airplanes that dropped the bombs, there was the war, and the war was not created by Jesus Christ. The war was made by people who were not saved, who couldn’t agree, but the war could have been sent by Jesus Christ.

“The plow for plowing --who made that? The craftsmen, like those at Eboli and Battipaglia. Sure there are craftsmen who don't know how, definitely those who made the bombs that smashed everything, the land and the farmhouses, and Christians died.

“I commend my soul to Jesus Christ to take care of me—me and my whole family. And then I would like to have lots of things. For example, I would like to hoe more, to end all this toil and to stop tending the buffaloes, to start work at 7 am, or even at 5 am, to raise my hand and be free. But here at this job, I’m always seeing to the buffaloes. Here, in order to have food, I go to call the buffaloes, I run, I scurry around. And in the evening I would like to go to town, even if I didn’t have a single dollar and just wanted to see the town. But it’s not practical, not possible. To Battipaglia it’s a long way, 12 kilometers, and even if I went in the evening, even on a bicycle, I’d have to work the next day, I’d have to have time to eat, and I’d have to cycle both ways, and then I’d be tired already.

“A field worker, which is what I want to be, when it’s Saturday evening, he quits his work and gets his weekly wages and takes them back to the house. But I tend the buffaloes every day for an entire month, night and day, out in the countryside, for 6,000 lire, 50 kilograms of wheat, and 3 quintals of hard cheese per year. That comes to 15,000 lire total, plus 10 kilograms of olive oil per year. And I put up with this mess, they pay me like some kid. But how can I change this disaster?

“The important bufalari talk all the time about political parties. In order to vote, I have to go to the boss and do as he tells me. But I am past the age where I want to vote as he says. But the boss is like a king. There are quite a few guys who vote here. But for now I am not interested. But when I get to the age when it does interest me, yes. And now I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t mean to. I can talk well about a lot of things of the countryside and of buffaloes. And then nobody would need to give you an explanation. I can talk about the moon, if it doesn’t rise when the sun sets. And if there’s a new moon, I know why. And how, even if I don’t see it for several days, it’s waxing or waning. And I can say the names and nicknames of all the buffaloes:[7]

The Lady Content with all

The Jewess Who pounds the nails

The Earner Who sees this estate

The Christian Who shows up for work

The General [no nickname)

The Hazelnut Who’s left in the cane break

The Do-nothing Who stays at the house

The Medalist Who adorns my house

The Drunkard Who gets home in the morning

The Invalid Who always has a disease

The Redhead Who never does what you want

The Doggie Who makes even the dogs sad

Poggioreale From the town near Campolungo

Plentiful Who gives milk till the end

The Poor Girl Who always gives good milk

The Crybaby Who cries for her own reasons

The Lady Who does as she pleases

The Cheater (explained below)

Chilly Who can even smell the cold

The traitor Who always sells you out

Jealousy Who makes you talk trash

The Bridgroom

The Fair

“The bull doesn’t have a name, he alone. The male calves also have none, but a young heifer takes her name at her first calving and milking. How do I know how to recognize one from another? Well, how do you recognize other people? It’s the same with buffaloes. The names of the buffaloes of the other herders are similar, but I don’t know them all. But whoever comes to know the buffaloes deeply will know them perfectly well. Here are some others:

The Harlequin Who is dressed like a harlequin

The Durable Who lasts the whole way

Salernitana Who goes to Salerno to be cured

Miss Sharp-tongue Who never stops talking trash

Bossy Who does as she pleases, like a boss

The Convincing Who makes you believe you’re good

Intolerable Because this place is intolerable to her

Indivisible Who divides the profits unfairly

Miss Contrary When all is bad, God is our hope

Miss Salty Who always makes you talk

August In August we settle accounts

Useless Her best days are long gone

Strawbed On the straw she will surely die

“The names certainly have a significance and there is no need to explain them. They are the actions and reasons that the buffaloes show us every day. The dogs have names, too. We gave one buffalo the name Poggioreale. They say that Poggioreale is a prison near Naples, and there’s another Poggioreale near Campolungo.

“Here you aren’t able to talk with anyone, you can only call to the buffaloes and so they are like your family. My mother now farms tomatoes and has a tomolo and a half that she sharecrops with Matassini. One brother drove a tractor for 20 years on another estate, and there’s another who’s pensioned because he’s crippled and he went in search of some sort of trade but couldn’t find one. The one who is 30 years old made it to middle school because he went to school for 9 years. And I stay here. When evening comes around, all four of us brothers sleep in one double bed and my mother sleeps in a single bed. The house has 2 rooms and the kitchen is outside and you can see our cottage when you are passing the manor house.

“Miss Do-nothing got her name because we are always working. The nickname, ‘Who never breaks a sweat’ I’ve already talked about. The Medalist—aren’t there people who cheat others? I’ve only given a name to one buffalo, Christian, because there was a buffalo who was called that and after she died I gave her name to a new one. We always do that; when one dies, someone else takes the name.

“When a male calf is slaughtered, we keep the skin and put it onto another calf, because only when the mama smells the skin of her own calf and senses her own child will she let down the milk.

“Miss Cheater was a name that was invented because there was some girl here who cheated on someone. Something is always happening like that, and the gossip starts. ‘So-an-so touched so-and-so’s breast!’ There are girls that come here to work in the tomatoes or the tobacco. They come in a truck and they leave in one. Before leaving they wash their hands and faces and change their clothes near the manor house. Do I need to say more? This hasn’t happened to me, but such things do happen.

“The bull, when the females are in heat, comes up and jumps up on the female, but if she isn't ready she can lower her tail and then nothing is going to happen. Just like a woman: when she has other ideas, she just shuts up and says nothing and doesn’t even come around.

“I don’t know anything. Some guy goes down to the coast, to Battipaglia or Campolungo, learns a little and becomes a soldier. He goes away, he sees stuff, there’s always new stuff for a soldier. And then war comes along, and he has to go off to war. If someone calls you, you go. But we only have to die once. But how much more war can happen now? What more do they want to do?

  “Only we herders understand the frogs. When the evening comes, their work is not finished. If I had the money, I would build me a house, because sooner or later we’ll quarrel with the boss, and I’ll have to go find another house, and I’ll be ruined! And I would also like a little property to make myself a garden. Or maybe to stay with the boss but become a field hand, or even dig ditches. But not to take care of animals any more!”

[1] Cosimo has underestimated his mother’s age, it would seem, unless we are to believe that she gave birth to her first child at age 10.
[2] This will have been in September of 1943, during Operation Avalanche.  The shelling was probably from British warships aiming at German gunnery and panzer positions up in the mountains inland. Some idea of the intensity of the shelling can discerned from the fact that Eboli is some 15 kilometers from the Bay of Salerno where the invasion commenced.
[3] A tomolo was an ancient land measure roughly four meters square in Campania.
[4] Salerno is about 25 km from Eboli, Naples about 70 km.  Battipaglia is about 9 km away.
[5] Tempo was a photojournal that was widely circulated in Italy in the mid-twentieth century.  Carlo Levi was a famous artist and author who was a dissident during the Mussolini dictatorship and was exiled as punishment to the Matera province, about 50 km away, and there wrote a famous book called Christ Stopped at Eboli which detailed the backwardness of this region and the suffering of the local peasants.  Armenia Balducci was a famous Italian actress.  The point is that Cosimo is so isolated that he knows nothing about contemporary Italian culture.
[6] I assume this will have been one of the Coppi brothers who were famous cyclists during the era.
[7] Cosimo’s dialect is so pronounced that the journal has had to translate his comments into Italian.  That is particularly difficult with some of the names and epithets.  But there is a lyrical, rhythmic quality to them in the dialect that I can’t begin to render in English.