06 April, 2010

Yolağzı, part I

The morning began (for me) badly: thanks to midterm exam stress, and a head cold, i woke with a sinus headache. But the mattresses disappeared, and in their place on the floor Oğuzhan's sister Nihan set a broad copper tray spread with eggs, bread, olives, homemade cheeses of several kinds, cucumbers, tomatoes, and hot fresh milk. Their father Burak joined us; after the meal Nihan brought çay and we drank glass after glass. Then it was downstairs to meet the grandparents and drink Turkish kahve; out to the barn to meet the cows. One of the aunts was making cheese in a side room off the courtyard: the curds of that morning's milk were fresh, and salty. The Aydıns said dairy producers were withholding milk to protest the low prices paid by processors - so they're making cheese instead.

Yolağzi village sits on a small rise at the edge of a floodplain. Actually, until the 1950s, the village lay on the floodplain itself - but too many inundations spurred its relocation. As a result of this government-assisted redevelopment, Yolağzi has a more intentional layout than naturally settled places like the neighboring village, Gonu. Streets radiate from the circular center of the village, crowned by a mosque; in the floodplain, a worn millstone beside the dirt road is one of the only signs of former habitation. 


The floodplain stretches for several kilometers of perfect level land either side of the river. On it unfolds a patchwork of fields, small plantations of kavak (poplar) trees for lumber, and the occasional orchard. Everywhere i look in Yolağzi, there are fruit trees. Surrounding the Aydıns' home, i saw fig, cherry, and nut trees. As the tractor jolted towards the river, my friend pointed out a peach orchard; a lone pear at the edge of a cornfield. Isolated fruit trees offer shade during the summer heat, and as my friend pointed out, sweet morsels late in summer. 

From the village, it was a long, rough ride until we came to a "set": a narrow levee with a road atop it the stretched parallel to the river, it seemed to infinity. To the right, towards the river, a broad swath of grazing land, thick with Tamarix gallica, a shrub locals call "ılgın". While considered a bit of a nuisance, it breaks into breathless pink bloom in April, and the tangles force sheep and cows to graze more efficiently, limiting their movement and intensifying the grazing. To the left, despite the set, the fields were still wet from three floods since December. One of the access paths to the Aydıns' far field had churned into a muddy mess, and what began as a wild ride suddenly turned into an impasse: weighed down by a gang plow, the tractor sank to its chassis. We tried fruitlessly to wedge pieces of wood beneath the wheels, which continued to spin. Bright green frogs leapt away from the muck and mayhem, into a pool choked with tiny white aquatic "daisies." 

very stuck: the village herdsman contemplates our situation

As we tried in vain to free the tractor, cows appeared and began to graze around us. Two men approached: one was the village cowboy. Many of the local families have a cow, or two or three - which is too few to tend themselves - so they pay per animal into a pool, and hire this fellow to tend the collective herd. He carries a handmade crook, and a long rubber-sheathed wire antennae emerges from his pocket radio, bends over a shirt button and dangles inside his vest. Turkish pop goes wherever he does. We gave up on the tractor, waiting for Burak to call, and wandered down the the river. Every year the bridge here washes out, and the rubble becomes a perfect place to fish. With cupped hands, Oğuzhan caught several from their hiding places among the rocks. Ayhan, a crazy, amiable shepherd, gave us one hell of a ride home.

Back at the village, Nihan and the aunts had prepared a delicious lunch. Along with the homemade cheese, there is a salad of shredded carrots, yogurt, and garlic; fried bread called bışı and the traditional yogurt drink ayran rounded out the meal. We ate from small tables set on a carpet in the yard, as the kangal dogs lounged and chickens scratched nearby. 

lunch with gracious hosts, from L to R: 
grandfather, Ayhan, Burak, Nihan, and grandmother

Planted in the midst of a genuine agricultural village - something more or less extinct in Maine - i felt as though in four years of sustainable agriculture studies, i'd learned nothing. (Part of the problem might have been the terrible professor who squandered what little interest i might have had in Animal Science.) Artificial insemination was something i had learned about in mind-numbing lectures and promptly forgotten. Now i followed a friend into the dimly lit barn where his father and sister milked; we watched as the technician plunged his arm into a cow's vulva, stimulating the hormonal mating response and increasing her receptivity to the precious contents of the AI syringe.   

In Yolağzi, no one takes tractor safety courses. As we returned with neighbor Yilmaz and his battered blue machine to try and free the Aydın's tractor, i found myself for the second time perched atop a wheel guard, one of four riders. It was an unsuccessful attempt, and with dusk falling, we returned home. Oğuzhan balanced precariously on the three point hitch, his clothes mud-stained, as a village dog chased nipping at his heels.