Inheritors of the trail
by Chris Neglia
In the wild and remote Molise region of Italy, transhumance is an ancient tradition where drovers bring their herds on a seasonal journey from the lowlands to mountain pastures, following a network of millennia-old trails.
It is a ritual that is still performed by the Colantuono family. On May 22, they set out with their 300 cows on the fatiguing trek from San Marco in Lamis at the foot of the Gargano Massif, to the medieval borgo (village) of Frosolone, an extraordinary 180 kilometres away.
The Colantuonos have practiced transhumance for centuries. In the spring, their Podolica and Marchigiana cows have to move in order to reach a cooler climate and to feed on the fresh grass that will lead to the highest quality production of mozzarella, caciocavallo and manteca cheese.
Carmelina Colantuono is the proprietress and cowgirl of the farm ensuring everything goes off smoothly—from coordinating with police to block off highways, to greeting the mayors of the small villages they pass. Her brothers—Franco, Antonio, Felice and Nunzio—drove the cattle. They are helped by about 15 extended family members, all of whom share a passion for preserving the pastoral way of life in the Italian South.
Transhumance occurs at the end of May every year to coincide with the waxing moon (when the amount of illumination on the moon is increasing each night) so that the herd, travelling at night, can safely follow the trail. This pastoral rite also has a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. Colantuono explains that, during their slow migration, the cows eat innumerable quantities of grass, ingesting seeds that are carried in their stomachs and deposited in new pastures. “The cows help in spreading biodiversity along the route.”
On the tratturo del re (king’s trail), the herd crosses a plain before reaching the Fortore river, which is recounted in Pliny’s Natural History. It is the site of an old Custom House from the Bourbon period, where travellers were taxed on the goods they were transporting. The Colantuonos spend the night in the church of Madonna del Ponte.
In the morning, they begin their ascent into the Molisan mountains, where the land is all cultivated wheat. This year is very important for the rural communities practicing transhumance. Last March, Italy formally proposed transhumance be added to
UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. The application was presented in Paris by the Italian minister of agricultural policies, and coordinated with
Austria and Greece, where herdsmen also follow the tradition. The evaluation process is now underway, and UNESCO’s governing council will give its decision by the end of this year. “We’re going ahead with the work we started for UNESCO recognition to maintain the trails and the society of transhumance,” Colantuono said.
For the Colantuono family, international recognition of transhumance would be truly important. It would help them receive support from Italy and Europe to keep transhumance alive, preserving the links between man, tradition and the land.