Hay Hauling in the Winter Snow


HAY HAULING ON THE ALPINE SNOW
At the end of summer, when all the hay of the lower valleys has been gathered and housed, the peasants proceed to the higher pastures, and there they mow and carefully scrape together in the wildest and steepest places, and also in the pleasantest oases, those short and stronglyscented grasses which grow so slowly and blossom so late upon the higher mountains. This hay has a peculiar and very refined quality. It is chiefly composed of strong herbs, such as arnica and gentian, and is greatly prized by the peasants. The making of it is a process much enjoyed, and families will sleep out upon the heights above their homes for days together, till they have mown, dried, and stacked the Berg-heu in those tiny huts which are built low and firm on mountain-ridges. These huts are then shut up and abandoned till winter snows have fallen and the valley-hay has been consumed. Then comes a novel form of tobogganing, where the peasants' hard labour is salted with a pinch of exquisite excitement and a dangerous joy. The men climb up through the deep snow, dig out their huts, tie the hay into bundles, and ride down upon it into the valley. This process is a difficult and often a very perilous one ; for to steer such heavy and unwieldy burdens over the sheer and perpendicular descents is no light matter. A smooth track is soon formed, and each day increases the speed of progression down it.
Two nights ago a young peasant came to my father and said he was bringing his hay from the Alps on the Dorfliberg, and that we three girls might go with him, which invitation we gladly accepted. We had elamoured for it more loudly than ordinary young ladies clamour for ball-cards. The thing was novel and very exciting, owing to the element of risk which certainly attends it. Accordingly, at ten yesterday morning we started and drove to the foot of the mountain. There we left our sledge, and began the ascent of such a track as I have described above. There was not a cloud in the whole sky, and although in the shade it was freezing hard, the sun-heat was tremendous. We had never been on the path before, and had some difficulty in disentangling it from other wood-tracks. But we followed the scent, so to speak, by noting the remnants of hay which lay here and there upon the snow, and we steered a straight course up the indescribably steep ascent. At first we passed over meadows, then struck into scattered forest. The trees stood out almost black against a sky so solid in its sapphire that it rivalled the pines in depth of tone. The road was very rough at first where wood-hauling and horsetraffic had broken into the lighter crust formed by the descent of hay-bundles. But as we mounted higher the path became a smooth, unbroken surface, so shiny, steep, and even, that it was no longer possible to gain a footing on its icy banks, and we had to turn off as the men who had gone before us did, and climb the mountain-side by a series of short deep steps which they had cut into the snow. This was a most laborious task ; but up and over the slopes we clambered, and whenever we got to the top of a ridge we beheld another ridge beyond it, with the thin greened hay-track going up it straight as a dart, the foot-steps by its side, and above the great white mountains, blazing, unbroken by any rock or shadow, under the mid-day sun.
We were very hot and very anxious to push forward, and we pulled ourselves up with scant intervals for breathing, till at length we came in sight of some men, with haypacks ready for the downward leap, upon the hill-crest over us. To them we waved with frantic joy, and proceeded with renewed energy. But they were not our men or our hay, and, seeing us, they came rushing over the hills on their bundles with such a vast amount of "side " on that they lost control and fell. So we came up with them, inquired our way, and told them of our projects. Whereat they pointed out our distant destination, and informed us that they considered ours a rash and dangerous proceeding, and then we parted. We were well above the forest now, and on the broad slopes of the mountain. Great winds of winter had swept the snow from ledges and silted it into gullies ; and there was something intensely clean and smooth and large, away from men and their ways, in that white landscape.
We stood 2,000 feet or more above the valley, in regions wellnigh untrodden; and here a light wind blew across the snow-fields full of the scent of summer hay, for the chalet doors were open wide, and some men were working amongst the hay like moles where the great white tracts of virgin snow were humped up on the edge of the hill, and three chalets nestled all buried to their roofs in drift. The men had dug a narrow track to the doors, which are formed of boards placed lengthways and easily removed. These were pulled away and a wealth of withered flowers and grasses lay within in heaps upon the floors. The pent-up scent of all these summer flowers rushed out upon the winter air, and burdened it with aromatic fragrance.
At last we reached our chalet—the highest one of all. Johannes and his cousin were taking out the hay in little bundles, and building them up into layers of straw and rope, to bind them into those firm packs on which we were to travel down into the valley in the afternoon. It is worth observing that the straw which serves to keep the packs together has to be brought up on the backs of men to these high regions. They seemed a trifle surprised to see that we had really kept our promise to come so far. But they had long ago been warned of our approach, as we carried with us a newly-acquired syren, into which we blew incessantly when breath was attainable. There was a small square place cut out around the door of the hut. On all sides of this the snow rode in dense walls above our shoulders. The houses and the big hotels looked very small and mean down there, and the train, which crawled along, seemed but a trivial thing, all huddled, too, as these objects were, in wreaths of smoke, whilst we—oh! we were up 2,000 feet above it all, in the heart of a mountain winter-world, with a dream of summer at our backs.
However, I do honestly think that we realised at first the entire pleasures of the situation. We had clambered up the snow slopes, "escalading, escalading those interminable stairs " for an hour and more, with the unclouded glare of the mid-day sun upon our winter clothing. So when we reached our destination it was to sink down with an untold satisfaction under the shadow of the eaves and partake of some refreshment in the shape of fig-jam sandwiches. Then after that we looked around us. Johannes and his cousin were slowly and surely making up their bundles by binding them around with strong rope. Their grey homespun coats fitted in with their surroundings, and their strong, graceful movements were pleasing to watch in idleness. The boy found that teeth, as well as hands and feet, were helpful in his endeavours to secure a nice fat bundle. We crept through the door of the tiny barn, and lay down in the shaft of sunlight on the hay, picking among the grasses for familiar flowers. So dry is the air at these heights that the blossoms retain their colours in death, and we made up charming posies of purple onions, daisies shining white, geums, forget-menots, and primulas. Routing about in that grass, too, the pollen dust arose as it would from a field in August, and half-choked us, yet all around lay the snows of an Alpine winter, making the contrast strange. The bundles were now made up, and we prepared to leave this pleasant point upon the surface of the globe. One of the party was heard to murmur that she "funked it like jingo." This was but a passing sentiment, of which I assumed entire ignorance. The remainder of the hay was raked tidily back into the barns, the doors closed—and we started.
There were six large packs of hay, each about 6 feet long, 3 broad, and 4 high. These were divided in half, and each three tied tightly together. My cousin and I mounted upon the three first, my sister followed in solitary glory upon the last, with the boy to guide her. Johannes went in front with his shoulders supporting the foremost bundle, and guiding with his legs. We were advised to combine a firm with a light hold upon the cord which surrounded the hay. I inclined, I believe, to the former hint, for, whatever happened to my steed during that memorable ride, I always found myself firmly attached to its back, whether for better or worse I know not. We started with a slow writhing movement which was wholly pleasant. We slid and glided over the first snowfield with enormous ease. Looking behind me I saw my companions sitting as it were on the backs of nice green snakes which wriggled noiselessly through sunlight and through shade. But then we came to the end of gentle meadow lands, and slowed off on the brink of a sheer descent of some 300 feet, at the end of which the track disappeared in the pine forest. For awhile we rested in the sunlight on the plateau, and during that breathing space an awful fear possessed me. But before I could indulge my cowardice by flight we were off. The sluggish snake now suddenly bounded forward, then bounced and leapt along for a terrific minute, during which I realised that the young man who guided it had lost all control, and that we were sliding over his prostrate form. Then the writhing subsided into the quiet of a snow-drift. Johannes emerged from under the hay unharmed. We breathed once more, and turned to watch my sister descending triumphant on a load which she gloried in guiding.
The descent recommenced. A yell from the front warned us to duck under, as we shot through the first skirts of forest, the branches breaking against our heads, and out again down another shoot, steeper than the first, but smooth, and ending in a flat meadow. There was another pause, and then we plunged sheer into the pinewood. The track was very narrow, and evidently carried over the roughest ground, for it rose and fell in mighty curves like the waves of the sea. (I might better compare it to a switchback, only such pinchbeck contrivances seem very far from the simplicity of mountainways.) On either hand the solid trunks of fir-trees stood to bruise the dangling and unwary toe. In the middle of the wood another halt was called, and some of the hay left behind to be fetched at a future period. We were now requested to sit tight and look about us, and it was grimly borne in upon our minds that a nasty thing lay in front, as Johannes muttered that we were likely to find the way "komisch." But we had passed through so much in such safety that I could not now feel alarmed, and sat up very superior on my soft saddle. Moreover, ignorance is bliss, and we could see nothing ahead: the road seemed suddenly to disappear. The cause of this disappearance was only too manifest the next minute, for, after a lull, a lurch much more tremendous than any before experienced warned us of a real danger. We were shot forward down a narrow gully between high trees, and precipitated at an angle which seemed absolutely perpendicular. To increase the terror of that minute the hay-snake seemed to have assumed a diabolical personality. It hit Johannes about the head, jumped over him, still bearing us powerless upon its back, and then it literally ramped forward into an abyss, darkened by the depth of forest. We obeyed orders, my cousin and I—we sat tight, with our hearts anywhere but in the right position. Then we were thrown to the ground.
The next thing I was aware of was a dead halt, with the hay on the top of me, and my fingers still tightly holding the rope, my cousin in the same position, and the figure of our driver emerging from a drift far above in the wood. No one was hurt, and the trees surveyed the havoc with profound serenity. The descent had been in all ways up to our expectations. Its dangers added to its excitement, and its excitement to its charm. We shook ourselves together, and plunged for some minutes along a deep track of level woodland, then out of the trees at last, and down more meadows into the open valley. M. S.