Carole Noblanc, 28, from Brittany, France, grew up in Quimper where she worked as a dietician... until the day she met Pascal, six years ago, during a hike in the Swiss Alps.
She is the only woman in Switzerland and maybe in Europe to experience the winter transhumance. She knows it and feels justly proud. This young woman of character, comfortable with herself, who grabs life with both hands, decided to learn a trade that was a far cry from the urban culture she grew up in: commanding dogs, packing donkeys, setting up camp, caring for the sheep. A difficult life choice, far from sedentary comforts, which she shouldered with panache.
What circumstances brought you, a dietician from Brittany, to the Swiss countryside to learn how to look after eight hundred sheep?
I always wanted to leave my native Brittany, where I was living in Quimper town centre, surrounded by cars and cinemas, but I didn't want to leave without having some goal. I have long been a lover of spending time in the mountains, and it was when I was on holiday in Switzerland that I met Pascal, who was a shepherd in an Alpine pasture. He offered me a job and I passed my two-week trial period, so that I decided to drop everything in Brittany. One month later, I moved to Switzerland. In the Alps, I started off making pancakes, – Breton pancakes, naturally – and I discovered transhumance the following winter.
How many transhumances have you followed?
The first year, I couldn't see myself spending the whole winter outside! So I got a job in a bistro, again making pancakes, but I often went to visit Pascal. I soon realised that I definitely preferred transhumance to making pancakes! The following year, I followed it more regularly. In all, I have been on six journeys, including two from start to finish.
What are the hardest aspects of the shepherd's work to master?
You need to be alert to what's going on the whole time. It is also very difficult to give orders to the dogs. I think my voice is not strong enough to assert myself and the high-pitched sounds are less audible for dogs. With Titus, whom I've known since he was a puppy, it was OK, but not with the others. You really need to have your own dogs. Finding the right grass for the sheep is also very complex. You have to go and scout out the land while the sheep are ruminating, around noon, and avoid the grasslands which have been soiled with slurry and are unfit for animal consumption. The worst thing is the railway. One day I found myself with the flock split in two by a passing train. Luckily no sheep were killed
In the film, we often see you in front of the flock giving the sheep dry bread. Why is that?
They are the bellwethers, that is, the five or six sheep that we keep from year to year to lead the flock. We give them names – Irmate, Tabasco, Marilyn –, we give them a bell and we spoil them with dry bread and chocolate. They are part of the family like the donkeys and the dogs. When the other sheep hear the tinkling, they do what they have always done: they follow!
We often hear it said that life on the transhumance is very hard for a woman. More so than for a man?
The problem is physical strength, but some women are as tough as men. I'm not up to pulling the tent ropes, or tightening the straps which hold the donkey packs. You also have to put up with taking just one shower a week, but hygiene conditions can be just as irksome for a man as for a woman!
How do you explain the fascination that transhumance has for the population?
People are surprised that transhumance is still practised and that you can go without modern comfort. Above all I think it is the choice of living outside society, at nature's pace, and escaping from the vicious circle of "working in order to pay" which is their dream.
Do you appreciate the amount of visitors drawn by the transhumance?
Not always! After spending all day in the cold, I sometimes just wanted a bit of peace; so I found it difficult to socialise around the fireplace with people who came to share our meal and then went off to sleep in a warm bed.
Have you had to deal with hostility from farmers?
Some of them are very happy to see us come and it all goes smoothly, but others have the idea that it is their place and they can't stand the idea of sheep eating their grass. I sometimes had the impression that they were envious watching us going on our way with our animals.
During transhumance, what is your perception of sedentary life?
During transhumance, I appreciate the spirit of freedom and sedentary life seems limited to me.
What are your thoughts when you see the land being covered in concrete and the reduction of farming and forage areas?
Luckily there are still the mountains, because there is less and less room for nature in the plains.
Do you like wearing the traditional wool clothing of the Bergamo shepherds?
You have to wear wool around the fireside, because the cinders make holes in synthetic clothes. In the forest, clothes get rough treatment and only wool can really stand up to it. We also wear capes which protect us from the cold very well.
At Christmas, we see you enjoying oysters and a roll cake. Do you miss the sea?
No, but I miss the taste of it! That's why I get brought some oysters at Christmas for a treat.
In Hiver Nomade, you are always seen with a book within reach. What did you read?
Marie Laberge's trilogy Le goût du bonheur (Gabrielle, Adélaïde, Florent), The Best Village in the World by Arto Paasilinna and Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer.
What did you like most about nomadic life?
I loved being surrounded by nature with the sheep, the donkeys and the dogs and waking up every morning in the middle of the forest in a different landscape each time. It is a great privilege to have been able to live in these surroundings for all those years.
Apart from the influx of visitors, what did you least like?
I was very scared of storms in the forest, with the ever-present risk of a branch or a tree falling on top of me.
Did you agree without hesitation to be filmed by the Hiver Nomade film crew?
When Manuel von Stürler talked about his project, we never thought it would take off the way it did! The shoot went well, in a climate of trust and mutual understanding and I really enjoyed the good meals they cooked up for us. It was a real pleasure!
This year, you have decided not to follow the transhumance. Do you have other projects in mind?
I need to find a bit of solitude after years of having too much social life in the transhumance and the mountains. Obviously I often think back to this wonderful adventure, but I have other projects right now: travelling and making soap to sell in markets.
Interviews made by Françoise Deriaz
PRESENCE OF PASCAL EGUISIER, THE SHEPHERD, at the Winter Nomads' projection during the week of the swiss docuemtnaries in Moscow March 13th
WINTER NOMADS at the WOW Wales One World Film Festival from March 20th to April 3rd
WINTER NOMADS at the francophonies in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia March 26th in Djeddah and March 31st in Riyad
WINTER NOMADS IN DVD
The film is now available on DVD in Switzerland !