Hungarian Drovers
South of Aguila we rode out horseback in the evening sweetness of early fall. The mountains north of the ranch jutted up like busted incisors. The ground was pocked with gopher holes and we let the horses pick and choose our route. A covey of Gambel’s quail erupted and sputtered into a mesquite thicket and overhead a Harris hawk hunted in the late evening light. The horses snorted and the creak of saddle leather hung with the ambient desert dust that helped make the sky a rosy tint. Along a rocky arroyo, palo verde and ironwood crowded against the edge of the wash. We rode the north bank and looked for a cow, absent without leave.
And that was the last time I tried to emulate a cowboy on horseback. Since those days, forty years ago, I’ve herded cattle on foot, been kicked in the groin by a frightened calf while sorting, herded cattle in a pickup, weighed truck loads of fat cattle, sat on the hard, splintery seat at the Roswell auction and bought calves, been choused up a sprinkler stanchion by wild-eyed Angus-Brahma cross; I’ve seen cow droving accomplished on four-wheelers that zipped around like bugs on a dung pile, but I’ve not been a real horseback hand since that time at Aguila.

In my youth, I wanted to be a cowboy, but over the years I drifted towards management first and then on to other industries that have nothing to do with cowboying.

Yet the interest still resides and that’s why Betty and I are here in Elko, Nevada, for the sixth straight year celebrating the 27th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the Western Folklife Center. There is always a lot of genre music and verse and art at The Gathering, and the camaraderie with cowboys, wish-they-were cowboys and curious non-cowboy folk. It is infectious and exhilarating.

The last few years, The Gathering has highlighted some global aspect of the drover milieu. They have honored the cowboy or herder or drover traditions from the Camargue region of southeastern France, the vaqueros of Mexico, the cracker cowpokes of the southeastern United States and this year, the herders of Hungary’s puszta—or plain—fifty-two thousand square miles of livestock land where pigs, sheep and cattle are all herded on foot, and horses are herded horseback.

Drover status in Hungary is apparently governed by a hierarchy related to the species one droves. Swineherds—or kondás—are at the bottom of the status ladder, followed by sheepherders—or pásztor—followed by cow herders—or gulyás. At the apex of this drover hierarchy sits the horseman, the horse herder—or csikós. The hierarchy reminds me of the sheep and cattle wars of the 19th century and the scorn I’ve often heard muttered between cowboys, sheep men, hog producers and the like here in our own country.

It’s easy for me to sit here and see these drovers from Hungary as quaint and interesting and not really relevant, but a fact that got my attention was that as early as the 12th century, Hungarian gulyás and csikós drove cow herds across Europe to Germany and Amsterdam and Spain in journeys that rival the droving exploits of the likes of Texans Charles Goodnight and Jesse Chisholm.

Along with Hungarian horsemen and cowmen, this year’s Gathering also features music from the puszta. It reminds me of Liszt and Bartok in the wild nomadic lyric that drives the tunes. I hear a bit of Classical, too, and for just a moment some Blue Grass strains, and then some fiddle work I recognize in cowboy music—not Country and Western, but American drover folk music. And of course there is the voice of the Magyar peasant. Fifteen-hundred years of elation and agony erupting in the wild violin tunes. The violin is important and it seems to me the craft of the puszta musician sits somewhere between Folk and Classical. Wild and frightening and sometimes sardonically funny.

Betty and I visited for a while with the string ensemble’s leader, Mr. Janos Csik. Janos lives on the puszta and travels to Canada and the US fairly often to share his music. He performs at schools to introduce children to Hungarian music. He speaks some English and he and I shared our likes and dislikes about music. We both like Bach and Beethoven, and B. B. King. One of Janos’ albums has gone double platinum.

Besides the music of the Hungarian puszta, The Gathering has allowed us to meet some of the folk who work in the livestock world there including a csikós and a gulyás robed in traditional garb. The photo that leads off this blog entry will give you an idea of how they dress. The hats and robes remind me of uniforms I might have seen in troop formations at Poltava, Russia when King Karl XII of Sweden faced off against Peter the Great.

Janos’ three-piece ensemble—his violin, and a viola and a bass that bump against each other in contrapuntal eruptions to form the bottom of the beat—played some Hungarian folk tunes as the herders danced traditionally with their female companions. They circled around and around and around, never missing a beat, never slowing or wavering and when they stopped, they seemed not to be a bit dizzy which I knew I would be if I were to dance like that.

As they danced and the music wailed, I closed my eyes and imagined back to 896 AD and wild Magyar warriors swooping out of central Asia, driving their high-horned cattle herds over the Carpathian Mountains and down into the broad, fertile puszta. I heard twelve centuries of agony, love and elation. I heard a little Bach and Beethoven, some Bartok, a little bit of Hank, and a little B. B. King.