Friday, August 15, 2008

"Food is good, but the herd is better"

Barbara Sjoholm, author of The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, is currently translating Danish artist Emilie Dehatt's account of her own travels in Lapland in the early twentieth century - excerpts at Orion Magazine:
It’s no easy thing to keep several thousand semi-wild animals together in a relatively small area. The girls directed the dogs with the musical command words that the Lapps use in reindeer herding. The dogs streaked out in every direction, but if one did something wrong or sowed confusion in the herd, it was called back with a yell that could wake the dead. When you’ve heard the Lapps work with the herd, you can well understand why they often have such weak hoarse voices in ordinary speech. It’s because they use them to their full capacity in reindeer herding, when the dogs are commanded and called back. The voice has to cut through a long distance and an unbelievable roaring. (Perhaps they also save their voices half unconsciously for the times when they truly need them). In addition, those who work with reindeer must be lightning quick in thought and action. Even if the herd is in flight, they must seize the moment and let the lasso fly if they’ve glimpsed an animal to be captured. The rope is cast and then coiled up, ready for the next throw. They also need to keep a sharp eye on the dogs, and scout out particular reindeer in the swarming confusion. A bad or untrained dog can cause a great disturbance in his mistaken zeal, charging into the middle of the herd, which then spreads out like chaff in the wind. Angry words rain down upon the dog; he slinks off in shame, followed by the fiercest curses and furious looks. When there’s time, he also gets a beating if he’s done something truly wrong. However the Lapps have a rule that you shouldn’t strike and scold at the same time, only one thing at a time. That’s because you need to be careful not to insult the dog. If an otherwise competent dog feels affronted by someone who, in his opinion, has treated him too roughly, it can happen that the dog suddenly sits down and looks at things without budging, however much his owner commands. Only kind words and friendliness can soften him up then, so he’ll take up his work again, though a sit-down strike can last as long as a whole day. Some dogs are lazy and can only be bothered to jump in a pinch; others are all excitement, with shining eyes, and each muscle tensely following the movements of the reindeer. Sometimes one animal breaks away from the herd. That reindeer has a panting dog at its heels, a dog that keeps up until he sees his chance, and cuts in front of the reindeer and forces it back.

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