“This is the life!” – knees still shaking from the steep hike down from the peak, we relax with a cold apple cider before the alpine hut. Cow bells ring from the meadows. The sun warms our back. Geraniums bloom profusely on the weathered window sill.
The alp Senn comes out, it could be Heidi’s grandfather – thick grey beard, weathered face that tells you he won’t give you more words than he needs to. His dog beside him, he heads up the steep trail. It’s time to get the cows home for the milking – 27 of them. I would like to ask him about his alp, about his life – but I know that to get anything out of him I would have to hike back up that hill beside him, silent for some time, waiting for those first words. Up would be okay, but my flatlander knees won’t make it down again.
This is Alpwirtschaft Stuckli, above Sattel, Kanton Schwyz. It is one of Switzerland’s 7000 community alps (the word used for alpine community pastures), where the area’s milk cows spend their summer grazing on the herbs and grasses of the alpine meadows. Alpine milk and its products are highly prized in Swiss and tourist eyes. Three milking machines hang on a rafter in the shade. The milk is poured into the chrome tank on a trailer, which will be hauled to a larger alp where the milk is made into cheese.
For the Senn (alp farmer) and his/her team it is a hard life – up early, before five, bring the cows in from the often steep pastures, milk, make cheese, muck out the barn, herd the cows, cook, clean up, and do it all over again. It’s often a lonely life. Not all alp huts are as close to the tourist path as Alp Stucki. There are no holidays between the time the cows come up in the spring and leave again in the fall; rarely a weekend off. You have to get along with the rest of the team – maybe one, maybe two people. It looks idyllic on such a beautiful day, but reality can be different.
The alpine community pastures carry out an important function in the preservation of the Swiss Alps, one that the Swiss government and people are willing to pay a price for in the way of high subsidies. If not regularly grazed or cut, shrubs and forest soon take over the pastures. Not only would a way of life disappear, but the Swiss tourist industry would suffer.
The appearance of little cafes and restaurants with the alp huts is relatively new. Part of their function is to provide another outlet for the sale of the cheeses and butters the alp produces; extra income for cash strapped alps. It also gives an opportunity for an exchange of worlds and thoughts (if the Senn will talk… his help might be a better bet).
For the hiker, it’s a welcome stop on the way; a cold bottle of cider, beer or water with a plate of alp cheese and fresh bread… and if you’re lucky, a few words with the Senn.