Bending through the center of the country like a backbone, Romania’s Carpathian Mountains are home to a plethora of gentle beasts. Misty, dense forests of conifers, beech and oak trees. Limestone and granite rocks that soar above the clouds. Dozens of glacial lakes that dot the open spaces. Biodiverse meadows that host hundreds of species of insects. Some of Europe’s largest populations of apex predators (wolves, brown bears, lynx). And an ancient human culture that’s lived alongside for centuries. These are the wild lands of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.
In Romania’s folk culture, the shepherd is as much of a mythical figure as the wolf or the bear – he or she is a part of the brotherhood of wild “beasts.” For centuries the shepherds have traveled the same paths taken by the wolves, bears and lynx, coexisting and respecting the unwritten laws of a shared space. While basking in the quiet glory of a Carpathian sunset, the sound of the shepherd’s flute is a reminder of a time when nature was home, not wilderness
Mircea Eliade, one of Romania’s most famous historians, called the shepherd way “cosmic christianity”: a vision of the world in which humans are not the guardians or the masters of all other beings, but equal and part of the whole. Bears and wolves are kindred spirits, to be revered, celebrated and feared. The strongest kinship to the shepherd is with the dog – the keeper of the balance, a companion, a gift, and the protector of God’s sacred animal, the sheep. And if a wolf took a sheep, the shepherd is forbidden from retaliation, as the sheep was predestined to be taken by God. For centuries the shepherds and peasants of the Carpathian mountains have been guided by the sacred balance between the natural world and human activity. The paramount tenet: Do no harm.
But the balance is hard to hold. The old village culture has changed, shepherding has submitted to federal laws, agriculture is big business, and Romania has been racing to catch up to economic development by exploiting its resources. That land itself has changed. Thousands of acres of old forests have disappeared, many from illegal logging and foreign developers. When business is good, it’s hard to go back to a simpler way of life.
But many Romanian, especially the younger generations, are calling for the protection of these wild lands and animals. Living peacefully with predators (animal or economic) has not been erased by modernization, and shepherds and villagers continue to embrace the ancient wisdom of tolerance and good practices. It’s what makes Romania unique amongst its European neighbors.
Conservation Atlas is a 501(c)(3), US-based nonprofit started in 2017 by Andreea & Justin Lotak. Conservation Atlas aims to raise awareness of global conservation causes by appealing to intrepid travelers. Through leading online resources and annual international festivals, CA inspires people to visit unique places and support the mission of grassroots organizations. Through 2018, The Lotaks are touring 14 countries to document successful conservation projects, meet the people who are making these positive changes, and photograph beautiful landscapes and biodiversity.