By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
The gentle ringing of bells is heard by those who listen. Pastoralists around the globe have used bells on their livestock for thousands of years, and in many regions the tradition continues substantially unchanged.
I’ve heard the bells wherever I’ve traveled to rural areas of the world, from Portugal to Turkey, in Africa, Mongolia, and the American West. The bells are attached to sheep, cattle, goats, and horses, and to the livestock guardian dogs that accompany these flocks or herds. Some bells are attached with elaborately decorated collars while others dangle from simple rawhide straps. The bells may be small, made from copper or brass, or huge bells draped from the neck of an oxen or horse. The bells vary in musical tone and relay constant messages to those tending the livestock, and to others who listen.
The seasonal movement of livestock with their human tenders is called transhumance, which is practiced throughout the world. In Italian, it’s called transhumanza. Although the English language lacks a word for the multi-species social group of a pastoralist with a flock or herd and its equine and canine partners, Italians have a word for it: the morra. The bells sing the song of the morra. The sound of the bells is the music of transhumanza, and of the landscape.
Italian communities have been devastated by the coronavirus disease, and Italian citizens remain under lockdown. They’ve found wonderful ways to connect with each other even as they remain in isolation, singing from balconies and windows. In the Tuscan village of Siena, beautiful harmony was heard coming from the windows above an empty, dimly lit street.
At mid-day on Saturday, shepherds in Italy joined together in their isolation to provide the sound of hope, of thankfulness, and of mourning, as pastoralists rang their livestock bells. As word of the Italian bell-ringing spread, pastoralists, churches and communities in France, Switzerland, and Austria joined in, each in their own exile.
The bells signal locations and serve to unify those who are dispersed. They ring within a universe regardless of distinctions in religion, language, race, or ethnicity.
The timing of the pastoral bell song was somewhat symbolic. It came at the start of spring, agriculture’s season of renewal and birth. Pastoralists rang their bells from their places on farms growing food for people throughout the globe. The ringing of the bells reminds the world that they still exist and continue in this necessary mission, even as their individual messages varied.
Some rang bells in solidarity, and to thank those who work to help the sick. Some rang bells of mourning. Some rang bells to drive away the danger and sense of foreboding caused by the pandemic.
The bells rang out from the mountainsides, their sound cascading across quiet valleys and plains. Other bells rang out from balconies, bell towers, and front porches. I hear their bells here on the ranch in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe.
I hear them, and our bells ring out in return.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.