A Vertical Life(way)

The rutted road that climbs up from Çevirme demands a shift from wheels to legs. Leaving the comforts of settled life behind, we pick our way into Ağrı Dağı’s foothills. I look right and contemplate a flat-roofed structure of stone and mud. Two women eyeball our group as we follow Celîl around the corner. I make note of the moment; this is the edge of the permanent. We enter the world of the mobile. Bones and ankles take the place of brakes and axles. Before me is the summer grazing ground of Kurdish pastoralists.

One last glance in Çevirme

In the centuries prior to our own, it was believed that the “nomadic” peoples of the “Wild Wild East” moved randomly around, hither and yon, chasing grass for their animals and being chased by the weather (and other herders!). This was a view driven not by truth, but by uninformed ideas concerning nomadism, pastoralism, and perceptions of “living light” on a more “pristine” landscape. Such an unencumbered lifeway (as it was perceived to be) had romantic appeal to readers in the sooted and crowded West.

For readers of the English Bible, the lifeway of the pastoralist was carried by the term “sojourn.” This word, of course, is used regularly in the descriptions of the patriarchs (the “Fathers”), men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As an example, consider Genesis 20:1: “And Abraham journeyed from there . . . and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar.” The Hebrew root that gives birth to the English “sojourn” (gur) carries together ideas of mobility and foreignness, shepherds and sheep, in short: the stuff of Abraham.

A child on the trail. Note the campsite and animals on the horizon.

As I enter the grazing ground of contemporary pastoralists, I see their campsites erected for the warm summer months. They are combination of old and new technologies. Traditional tents of goat hair panels (amazingly–just like the Bedouin of Palestine and Jordan) are knotted, stretched, and staked. On their flanks are stacks of dung-fuel “pancakes” and plastic water containers.

The summer campsites of pastoralists.

Augmenting these traditional living quarters are the modern tents of canvas and tarps. Together, these are sided by stack-stone corrals. It makes me think again about what it means to be a sojourner in a biblical sense. It also makes me wonder what the campsite(s) of Abraham may have looked like. Of one thing I am certain, Sarah did not brew tea on a cast iron stove! (I stop and marvel: how did that get up here anyway? I sweat under my pack just thinking about it.)

Checking the tea on the stove.

Contemporary study of nomadic peoples is correcting old and uninformed perspectives. I think about several, but one towers above the others, even as the mountain looms above me.

The view downslope.

Movement patterns for mobile pastoralists are typically organized into two groups. In the first group are those who move “horizontally.” These folk take advantage of the variety of zones folded into the land. They do not wander randomly, but follow established lines of travel in pursuit of water and fodder for their herds. They move toward more arid landscapes in the cool and wet seasons (when the land is less arid). Then, they retreat along similar lines when it becomes too hot and dry. Their movement pattern is thus termed “horizontal.” Expansion and contraction. Back and forth they go.

The second group moves “vertically.” These folk take advantage of temperature and moisture patterns that are the result of elevation. They move their herds upslope in the hot and dry seasons, taking advantage of cool air and fresh mountain grass. Then, in the cold and snowy seasons, they move downslope, to more hospitable climes. Their movement pattern is therefore termed “vertical.” Up and down they go.

I check our elevation on my GPS. We are now well above Çevirme and more than a mile high. It is comfortable. Several in our group are wearing short pants and short sleeves.

I ask Uraz where these herders go in the winter?

“Down there.” He points to the plain we crossed earlier this morning in the van. “They go up and down this mountain.”

I could have guessed the answer. This is just the right place for a vertical life(way).