Human Flower Project

When the Cows Come Home

A human-bovine-floral custom of the Alps decorates the herds for their descent from high pastures and celebrates the herders who work with them.

From our vantage point in the land of parched, flat and “virtual,” heaven looks like this:


Viehscheid in Oberstaufen, Germany, Sept. 12, 2011

Photo: Ralf Lienert

It’s the event of the season in the Alps, as the herds come down from their high summer pastures to spend fall and winter in the valley stables. And it has to be one of the most marvelous human-floral customs of Europe.

We’ve written before about its Swiss-French-speaking version, the Desalpe, but these days we’re trending Germanic, longing to be in Bavaria’s Obermaiselstein this weekend, or the Zillertal valley of Austria.

September 24th will be the last big day for these ceremonial “sortings of the cattle,” known in Germany as Viehscheid, in Austria as Almabtrieb. Will you be there?


Viehscheid parade in Schoellang, Bavaria—Sept. 12

Photo: trebeg

Check these two listings, one a calendar of events in German towns, the other a list of Austrian Almabtriebs.

This Alpine custom is both an intensely beautiful Human Flower Project and a splendid work tradition, an expression of the cattle herders’ pride in their livelihood, their stock, and their region.

The floral dimension of the custom is still a bit unclear to us and may vary in meaning from place to place. Foremost, decorating the cattle with flowers and embroidered tack is celebratory. It’s real work getting those animals down off the mountain, so TGIV (thank God it’s Veihschied). Listen to those bells! And check out the festivity afterward – plenty of accordion music, food, drinking, and dancing.

In Bavaria, it seems only the lead cow (or Kranzkuh) wears a floral ornament, but in Austria’s Almabtriebs, just about every animal gets to shine.


Cattle having come down off the mountain near Innsbruck, Austria

Photo: Innsbruck

Here’s a good you tube (in German) showing some women in a milking barn of Zillertal making the beautiful headpieces from evergreens, wildflowers, and other sacred and secular knicknacks. Note that these cattle-crowns often frame a photograph of the Virgin Mary or an embroidered phrase from scripture (at least we’re assuming that’s what these passages are, rather than “Buching or Bust” or “one billion sold”). Others have mirrors, reportedly “to ward off evil spirits.”


Reining in one of the cows in Oberstaufen

Photo: Ralf Lienert

We think that the Bavarian custom conveys a workplace message too. According to a travel site out of Allgau, “the beautiful floral wreath which is worn by the leader of the herd as a symbol for an accident-free Alpine summer is made by willing hands from mountain flowers and fir branches.” It’s somewhat like the topping out ceremony that ironworkers observe, setting an evergreen tree out on the top floor of a tall building if it’s been erected without one injury.

Unless some accident here prevents it, we’re determined to spend next September in the Alps. Shopping for suspenders stitched with edelweiss, admiring flowered cows, listening to bells, and if we really get lucky, standing in the rain.

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