October 27, 2006

Maramureş 1. Introduction.

Introduction: making a dream landscape real.
[Note: captions to the illustrations can be viewed by holding the cursor arrow over the image. Except where noted, the photographs were taken by Alan Ritch in September 2006.]
Dan Dinescu. Maramureş landscape. 2005.Dan Tataru. Lines and houses. 2005.

How could I resist the persuasive testimony of so many friends and hay-lovers who claimed that the Maramureş region of northwestern Romania was hay heaven? Conscious that cultural change was inevitable and possibly imminent, especially in view of Romania’s apparent intention to join the EU, my wife Margaret and I traveled to Maramureş in September, 2006. We wanted to confirm the reality of the dream-like haystack-covered hillsides, we’d seen in magazines, guide-books and innumerable online websites.

I’d already added about 200 Maramureş images to my own hayinart database, thanks to the vision and talent of such photographers as Kathleen McLaughlin , Davin Ellicson , Dan Dinescu (his autumnal hay is shown at left above), Dan Tataru (one of his magical winter scenes is at right above), Kosei Miya , Anamaria Iuga , and many others. I’d gained useful insights into the region’s historical, artistic, and anthropological context from art historian, Blue Guide author and intrepid tour leader Caroline Juler, the French architectural scholar Jean Soum (whose pictorial essay on Maramureş rightly considers its haystacks a form of vernacular architecture), a favorite Romanian ex-patriate Andrei Codrescu , and several illustrated emails from ethnographer Anamaria Iuga. And I’d been infected with enthusiasm for the place, its people and their hay-making practices by my first Romanian hay-mate, Anamaria Iuga.

One name appears in all three of the preceding acknowledgments. Anamaria had been virtually introduced to me by Caroline Juler, in a friendly comment to hayinart in April 2006: “It's fantastic to come across this website after returning from north-west Romania where a friend of mine is studying the ethnography of hay in one particular Maramureş village. She has already written some great articles about it and is keen to make contacts with other people who know about traditions connected with haymaking around the world. My friend's name is Anamaria Iuga and both she and her parents are ethnographers with a particular interest in that region.”

IUGA: Identitate, Unitate, Generozitate, Acţiune.
 Anamaria Iuga. The way of hay, Şurdeşti. 2005. Ana, Dumitru and Georgeta Iuga, Baia Mare. 2006.

To my delight, an email from “Ana” arrived the same week, and we began an instantly affectionate conversation about our mutual enthusiasm. She sent me her articles and several fine photographs, with the modest and inaccurate disclaimer that they were documentary not artistic (hayinart repeatedly undermines this dichotomy!) and fascinating accounts of local mythology. She wants to write a book with a clever title which I wish I’d invented but which apparently comes from Caroline: “The Way of Hay” (the small image above does not do justice to Ana's fine cover illustration). Her focus is hay folklore from the single village of Şurdeşti, famous for having the highest wooden steeple in Europe, and she is amused by my antic, dilettantic ambitions, aspiring to cover the whole world of hay from as many perspectives as possible. Her parents, Dumitru, a poet and philosopher and Georgeta, an artist and anthropologist, both eminent activists in the cause of cultural preservation, live in a small Baia Mare apartment, their shelf-lined walls overflowing with books and journals (see above right). Parallel virtual conversations with Ana, Caroline, and Kathleen McLaughlin, with whom I’d been corresponding for over two years increased my determination to visit their favorite place. The eloquence of Caroline’s brilliant prose and Kathleen’s equally brilliant photography were irresistible. That Caroline and Kathleen were already close friends with each other reinforced by social serendipity a sense of travel destiny.

Geographic variations on a common theme.
Moldovan haystacks.Ziffer. Landscape at Nagybanya with haystacks, 1915.

Our database of over five thousand images and the world gazetteer of a hundred and fifty hay places illustrate the astonishing geographic variety of forms created by those who have to dry damp grass just enough to make nutritious fodder and to stack it in durable shapes which must resist the wind and wet weather. The dualism of hay making and hay stacking, the first maximizing exposure to the sun and air to reduce its moisture, the second minimizing exposure to the weather to protect it, is imperfect, blurred by uncertainty during the drying process into a structural continuum. Traditionally the grass is successively laid flat by scythers, tossed by tedders, and then lifted from the ground into heaps or onto stakes or racks or tripods and finally onto domed stacks as high as a long fork can reach. So, after it is cut, the hay must first welcome the sun and then shed potential rain. But industrialization of the process, as we have shown in the Wales to Wisdom essay , has virtually eliminated geographic variety, simplified form and minimized uncertainty. Hay is baled in massive bundles too heavy to handle. Where the crop is moist or the sky cloudy, the bales are wrapped in plastic which ferments their contents into sticky fodder. By the end of the twentieth century, vernacular variations from industrial conformity, at least in Europe, had been pushed upwards into mountain meadows inaccessible to modern machines and eastward into regions unable to afford them. This essay, in nine parts, celebrates one of the last of these traditional hay-making regions, attempting virtual preservation, since its actual survival is unlikely beyond the near future.

Posted by Alan Ritch at October 27, 2006 04:15 PM

Fantastic stuff, Alan. My wife has always wanted to visit Romania, although I think she wants to see Dracula and misty, dead forests more than anything, but we're both thoroughly enjoying these images. Perhaps we will make it there after all. Thanks a lot for sharing it all.

Posted by: Paul Dorsey at October 30, 2006 10:57 AM