Part IV: Rickmer-Rickmers observations on agriculture and animal husbandry
Agriculture, forest, hunting, fishing.
Harvesting is done with a sickle, so the stubble is quite long. Only after a careful harvest of the corn, the Svans drive the cattle to the fields. They pile the grain around stakes that are about as high as a man’s height. At the top, stalks are tied up with the ears of corn facing down, forming a roof against the rain. The rye harvest in Barshi was on 25 August (1900).
The river terraces are almost entirely cultivated. Above the arable land are pastures or heather-like areas with juniper and blueberry. The alpine region follows on from this. Bush forest many meadow clearings covers the lower slopes of the mountains. All of that leads to park-like landscapes of great beauty.
Higher up there is a lot of fir forest. In remote valleys, there are still magnificent primaeval forests preserved. Azaleas, rhododendrons and rowan trees form the undergrowth of the woods. There are hazelnuts in abundance, but hardly anyone takes notice of them.
You find hardly any fruit trees. Wild berries, however, occur in exuberant abundance. The most common is a small variety of pear, which is dried on strings and stored in this way.
At the end of September, there is the least water, but then it is no longer necessary for agriculture. There is never a lack of water in Svaneti, at most, it happens that the water vein of a village freezes over in winter. Some fields always carry only rye. „We’ll fertilise them,“ said the Svans. In others, they consider crop rotation. „In Zageri,“ said my grandfather, „we don’t have enough land for that. Otherwise, we would, since it’s good for the soil. As long as the crops are young and low, the plants are weeded. Plant diseases occur. In specific fields, the seeds are exposed to the danger of freezing. Bad harvests are usually limited to only one plant, but they happen often enough; in 1894 Tatarchan Dadeschkeliani had to bring rye and corn from Zageri. This year the harvest will be of medium yield (1903). We don’t desire rain, as it is harmful. The peas thrive at the highest point of the mountain. They are sown, harvested and threshed like the; we finish their harvest at the beginning of September. According to a rough estimate, Ezeri has 5 square kilometres of cultivated land, of which about 30% is meadows, 30% grain, 40% other field crops. Pumpkins and melons thrive well in the garden.“
The Svans fence their fields and meadows with solid fences woven from twigs. The Svans, like other peoples, have been rather wasteful with the forest near their dwellings. But nature is still rich enough so far: the inhabited valleys are full of wood. Svans are passionate hunters (see literature). Fishing brings low yields because the fishing grounds are usually already robbed by the use of the throwing net. In Becho, Prince Dadeschkeliani has meanwhile forbidden fishing.
Pigs and poultry find their food in summer. In winter they get big beans (broad beans) and millet. Not every house has its mill; the meal allowance for a family is about two rubles per year. People usually do not hold any Harvest festivals. For big festivities, a certain amount of all products is set aside per head of the family.
Livestock, pets, dairy farming.
In Svaneti, there is no alpine farming in our sense of the word, i.e. no real alpine huts with regular summer operation. Only at some places, you can find a makeshift shepherd’s hut made of stones or tree branches, rarely a permanent log cabin.
The alpine meadows show an incredible variety of vegetation with knee-deep grasses (see Levier’s botanical journey in the Caucasus). Haymaking takes place in August, at the beginning or end of the month, depending on the altitude. If the slopes are easily accessible, hay mowing takes place up to a height of 3000 m. There is no butter in Svaneti [as a dairy product].
Prince Dadeschkeliani had turkeys brought to Svaneti, but none of the villagers does have one. Of all animals, pigs are the most left to their own devices. In the evening, however, they are driven home. They act both as lavatory cleaners and street cleaners. Nevertheless, the pigs are supposed to be utterly free of trichinae.
The dogs are very aggressive as soon as a stranger appears. Therefore everyone arms himself with a stick before entering a village or house. I was not able to recognise a special breed, nor could the locals say anything about the dog breeding.
The dairy cows necessary for the calves stay near the village in summer. The remaining cattle and the horses are sent to pasture in the mountains during the day. All animals are then driven back to the farm at night. The cows are milked in the morning and evening. An outstanding cow gives 7 litres of milk, as an average I observed 3 to 4 litres. Some cows continue to give milk after the calf was slaughtered, some then go on strike. During milking the maid superficially brushes the dirt off the udder. If there is already milk in the wooden bucket, she wets the teats with it. She grabs two adjacent teats between thumb and forefinger of each hand. She pulls on them vigorously and regularly, which gives about two squirts per second.
All working and fattening animals are neutered, only a few remain for breeding. Cattle epidemics occur in Svaneti. On the upper pastures, the attack of bears and wolves on the herds is very much feared.
Horses and donkeys are used as riding and carrying animals; oxen are used to pull sledges. To transport a pud of weight (16 kilograms) from Kutaisi costs two rubles. Short pegs are driven into the edge of the frequently used paths to prevent the ox sleighs from slipping. Most of the tracks are precariously inclined outwards and very narrow. In winter, Svaneti is almost inaccessible. The Prince usually has spirit, matches and the like brought from Leilasch, the nearest „Duchan“ beyond Svaneti. People say that the government is planning a railway through Svaneti. The greatest prospects for the future are tourism, the establishment of mineral baths and the exploitation of ore deposits.
Translation: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photography: © Stefan Applis (2019)
Text: German geographical sheets. Bremen 1903, XXVI volume. 12