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By Their Own Hands

This article was published in the "Land" issue of New Rag Rising. It is based on our year in Maramures Romania. 

By Their Own Hands, by H. Woods McLaughlin

In the northernmost county of Romania lies a peaceful region known as Maramureş (mara-moor-esh). Protected valleys branch off the Mara and Iza (ee-zah) rivers, each sheltering a series of villages tied together by tributaries that flow north from the Carpathians. Generations of peasants have molded these hillsides into a patchwork of bite sized farming strips. While the land has been shaped by its people, it has returned the favor by anchoring its peasants in their ancestral ways. The land demands their care but returns its bounty, generation after generation, stretching back before history. 

I came with my wife to experience how our European ancestors once lived. We stayed for a year with a peasant family hoping to better understand ourselves by seeing from whence we’d come. Our lessons began and ended with the cold airs of winter. 

During the frozen season these sensible people stay indoors, venturing to the fields only when their ever-hungry barnyard demands they retrieve another haystack. I joined Petru and his son-in-law Petru, who we call Senior and Junior, on one of their forays up the valley. Maria, Senior’s wife, frets that I have not eaten enough. “Powerfully little have you eaten,” she says “you must grow fatter or the village will think my cooking is bad.” I try reassuring her that I have eaten all I can. Petru Senior suggests some remedy to my behavior with a friendly smile and a movement of his hands. It is only months later that my language comprehension improves enough to realize his fanciful suggestion was to beat me until my appetite improved.  

After I shovel down another bite of mamaliga – boiled cornmeal with cottage cheese – Maria relents and Senior is relieved he can begin his trek. Cold air freezes the inside of my nose as our horses grip the ice with their cleated shoes. We ride on a hay sled made of hand-hewn halves of a tree trunk which was selected for its perfect shape. The runners scrape on the stone road where sun and occasional truck traffic have crushed and melted the snow. Soon we are off the main avenue and all the remaining tracks are covered in snow and ice. Our passage is quiet, smooth and surreal as we slide up the valley slopes.  

Coming out onto the ridgetop, I see Petru Senior’s alert eyes flick over the landscape drowned in white. He is checking the shape of his fields to be certain nothing is out of place. A walnut has lost a limb and he stows it in the crook of an apple tree to use for supporting a haystack in summer. Sometimes poachers will steal a cherry tree to make furniture. Petru doesn’t expect to find trouble, but all the same, he scans the familiar contours of his valley.  

As we glide along, Senior explains his holdings to me, counting his fields on his fingers as if reciting the books of the bible. His property is typical of peasants; it is made up of small plots, two to five acres, spread about the valleys within a day’s horsecart ride of his home. When Petru finishes tallying his acreage, his total comes to 10 hectares, or about 25 acres. I ask him if he would want more land if he could afford it. Petru shakes his head. “I am full with land,” he says. “What would I do with more?”  

Customs for land inheritance change from region to region, though in the end rules for passing it down are flexible. In the Cosău valley (ko-sew), where we lived, the ideal arrangement is for all children to receive equal portions. However, in reality the patriarch will ponder other factors. He will consider the worthiness of his offspring, what land they may have acquired through marriage, or how much to leave for a son or daughter who has moved away from the village, as happens more and more in these modern times. Petru’s son lives over the mountain in the city Baia Mare – by car it is an hour and a half and a world away.  

This part of the Cosău valley shares a rare distinction inside Romania: the communists never collectivized it. It helps to explain why they’ve kept so many of their old customs, from their pre-Roman pointed shoes to their solstice bonfires. Isolation and poor soil made them not worth the bother of too much interference. Their lines of inheritance continued undisturbed. The paths of shepherd migrations went unmolested. The peasants of these valleys let communism roll off their backs, oily from sweat, like the reins of Turks and Hungarians had rolled off for centuries before. They paid their taxes, followed the rules, and then turned their attention to the needs of their land and the slow saunter of a Sunday afternoon. 

A peasant’s idea of personal wealth is tied to the land. While peasants consider trading and bartering as normal, they see buying and selling for profit as less than honest. Greater wealth gained in this way is less respected than the modest accumulations of a man who trades the labor of his hands for land. Because a family’s affluence is measured by land that is separated from their house, it is difficult for outsiders to tell who is rich and who is poor.  

The value of land depends not only on its location, but also on its intended use. Our western notions that housing is more valuable if it has a better view is turned on its head in Maramureş. The worst housing lots are up the valley with a good view, for there water must be carried far from the river, or hoisted up deep wells.  

Yet they appreciate the view, and for their most revered building, one which needs no water, they reserve the highest spot in their village. The wooden church was built, log cabin style from beams three feet thick, in the middle of the 16th century. It has a commanding view from its belfry. Its Orthodox style roof looks like and upside-down boat sailing in the blue sky. Most important, the church steeple is visible from almost anywhere in the village. Peasants look to it for God’s protection when they find themselves fearing evil.  

Beyond the church lie their fields. Land for farming changes hands, but not lightly. A peasant gives his farmland his life – he feeds it manure in winter, cuts its grassy hair in summer, and tidies its leaf-littered nest in autumn. He would rather sell his horse than sell his land, for a horse grows old, but the land is forever. Yet when men grow old and have no family, or when through marriage they attain more than they can manage, it comes time to sell their land. There are always peasants who can use more of it, for humans make new children but cannot level mountains for new fields.  

We arrive at the orchard where the two Petrus will bring down a haystack. Junior climbs to the top of the pointed, two-story stack using a pitchfork stuck in the hay as a foothold. He begins passing the stack down to Senior, fork-full by fork-full. They work without words. Within an hour they have re-woven the layers of dried grass into a giant cube on top of their sled. We clamber on top, and begin the sliding descent back to the village. I see at once that I must be cautious in future when I hear horse hooves in winter, for a laden haysled has no brakes. We reach a gently descending stretch of road and I have time to admire once again the tidy lines of peasant fields draped over the valley’s sculpted slopes.  

Their terraced hillsides dotted with piles of manure and pointed haystacks speak of a friendly symbiosis between human and land. Even in the sloppy spring and hectic autumn, the whole village will keep its fields immaculate. Their plots are a combination of show-lawn and fish-bowl workplace. Petru points out his “gradina” which I discover translates exactly to ‘garden,’ except that for peasants, ‘garden’ means a two-acre maze of vegetables and a four acre truck farm of potatoes.  

Soon we reach the road outside our home. Ileana, Junior’s wife, runs to open the tall wooden gate that protects the family’s compound from ‘vagabonds,’ bad dogs and evil spirits. The twelve foot high doors creak with a series of loud cracks that send my imagination back in time to a moment when a medieval lord returns to his keep from hunting wolves. Maria and Ileana insist I go inside to warm by the fire while Petru and Petru finish the job of stowing their hay up into the eaves of their barn. I linger in the cold on pride, then accept that their insistence relieves me of my responsibility to freeze while watching the Petrus work.  

Later that night, after I’ve tried to eat more than I should of dinner, I ask Petru about his land again. He is less boastful than before, and answers in hushed tones. When Maria realizes what we are discussing, a grin breaks across her face. She shakes her finger. “That land,” she says “is mine.” Petru objects, but his laughter shows his embarrassment. Maria is undaunted by his protests and lists the fields one by one. Almost all came from her father, and especially the best ones including the land where their house is built. I had found out the truth: Petru married into landed wealth.  

“I built this house with my own hands,” Petru waves his hands around the green painted walls. Maria lets her husband change the subject. But she smiles, and Petru grins. They know where they come from. The land is who they are.

© Copyright 2000 by H. Woods McLaughlin. All rights reserved. Re-use by any means prohibited without permission.

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