Cows might fly

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Cows might fly

When the land is all filled up, it’s time to get creative with it, as small countries like Switzerland already know

by Veronique Greenwood

Header cow flying
An injured cow, hanging in the transport net of a helicopter, is airlifted from a mountainous meadow in Riemenstalden, Switzerland. Photo Urs Flueeler/AP/PA

Veronique Greenwood

is a science journalist. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, and Scientific American, among others. She is based in Switzerland.

3,500 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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From time to time, a hiker through the Swiss Alps might witness a startling sight. First, the sound of a helicopter reverberates off the valley walls. Then the chopper appears, a long cable hanging from its belly. When the burden at the end of the cable heaves into view, it is not a rescued mountaineer, en route to the hospital. Nor is it a pot of cement or a pallet of planks, on the way to a high-mountain building project.

It is a single cow, hanging gently from a harness, her dark eyes alert, her hooves high above the ground.

When the scene is breathlessly described to a Swiss person, the response seems to be incredulity — at your amazement. The cow was hurt. It probably twisted its ankle in the high meadows, and needed to get to a vet. Of course they used a helicopter! It’s the right thing to do.

Look carefully.

This could be a postcard from the future.

This is the Valais — a canton, or Swiss state, known for its milk, cheeses, wine, apricots, and beef. It is one of the largest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, about the size of Delaware, in a country no larger than Connecticut and Massachusetts put together. In practice, much of that land area is consumed by some of the tallest mountains on the continent. The Valais consists of a tremendous glacial valley sliced through the Alps, running from Lake Geneva past the Matterhorn, and just a few kilometres across at its widest. As you ride the train along the valley bottom towards the capital of Sion, the primary impression is of a miniature quality, with the towns and fields washing up the walls of this thin crack in the earth, like a stream at the bottom of a gorge. On south-facing slopes, it’s sunny enough to grow grapes. On the north-facing side, the shade means the land is used in part for cows.

And what cherished cows! The cow is, for all intents and purposes, the national animal, ubiquitous on T-shirts and postcards and various other Swiss paraphernalia. Bovines feature prominently in the nation’s exports: a rainbow of cheeses are manufactured in Switzerland, often by hand in small alpine huts. The holey ‘Swiss’ cheese most non-Swiss are familiar with is a North American confection inspired by Emmental cheese.

In Swiss cow country, it’s easy to feel that you’re in a land left behind by time. Farmers still take their cows up to the high mountain pastures, called alpages, every spring and bring them down in the fall, in rites like something out of a storybook. The cows are outfitted with their best leather collars and enormous clonking bells, the farming families put on traditional outfits, including dresses and shirts flocked with edelweiss, and they all walk together up to the alpages, where no roads go. When they walk back down in the autumn, the cows wear festive hats, often floral affairs or even small pine trees sporting paper pom-poms. The ascent, in French-speaking Switzerland, is called La Poya. The descent, in the wet, green days of late September or early October, is called the Désalpe. Being in town when the cows are coming or going is a gustatory and auditory cacophony, with stalls selling local delicacies and bands of historically attired men marching in platoons with cowbells while the stars of the day trickle through in troops of 10 or 15. People turn out from miles around to toast the cows and hear the alpenhorn band play.

Cows are in the news with amusing regularity; they do the darndest things. Papers feature photos of cows that have fallen into swimming pools or wandered on to freeways and must be picked up by their owners. Once, a helicopter pilot told me, a cow in the high mountains accidentally tipped herself into a watering trough. She got firmly wedged, her four feet up in the air, and her owner had to call in the helicopter company. They wrapped straps around her legs, lifted her 50 centimeters (about a foot and a half) off the ground, and set her down to the side. The moment she touched down, she got up and was soon moving off happily, her travails apparently forgotten.

Perhaps one of the most charming encapsulations of the Swiss attitude towards cows is that the farmers name the members of their herds. In one alpage, the list of grazing ladies in the class of 2006 included Laura, Pepsi, Safira, Marushka, Débora, Billi-jean, Alpenrose, Denise, Euro, Pizza, Paprika, Bomba, Vénus, Lolita, and Diane.

What’s the most popular cow name in Switzerland? A farmer thinks for a moment. ‘Fanny, I believe … But there are fashions.’ Last year, the cow that won the Val d’Hérens fighting cow competition was named Schakira.

Just as it’s easy to assume that this is a land left behind by the industrialised world, it’s easy to assume that Swiss farmers take such good care of their cows, helicoptering them out when they twist an ankle, merely because they are soft-hearted animal lovers, or caught in a quaint circle of cow-worship. You would be wrong.

At the Sion headquarters of Air-Glaciers, the Valaisan helicopter company, army jets are landing on the Tarmac outside. They make a tremendous sound, mixed with the more or less constant ringing of the cell phone of Patrick Fauchère, the flight ops manager. He is a sandy-haired native of the region, with a long, thin nose. He is in the office only one day a week, and the calls come fast and hard. Every year, when the cows are in the high mountains, Air-Glaciers flies out around 250 of them. He is the pilot who told me the story of the cow in the trough.

When the weather is bad, he explained — when it’s raining or snowing — the cows slip and injure themselves, or even die. And when they fall where the farmer can’t reach them, the helicopters are called in. The cow is put in a sling or a net and flown to the nearest accessible road, where a truck can pick her up to take her to a place where she can recuperate. You can buy a ‘family insurance’ card with Air-Glaciers that covers helicopter evacuations for you and your family. If you have animals, it covers them, too.

But the point is, often the cows are dead, or they will die if they are not flown out. And in Switzerland one cannot leave a dead animal in the fields to rot. In every case it must be transported to the correct facility and incinerated. The reason is that a dead cow will pollute the local water table, which could cause illness in a village nearby. Wild animals can die in the wild, and may be allowed to decompose in the mountains. But farm animals must be removed. The system is closed, the water table can only take so much; waste must be handled correctly.

Another reason to fly out a cow is economic, and not just because a dead cow means lost milk production. The amount of government support the farmer gets is partly calculated per cow. So if he loses a cow, he loses money. As Fauchère explained: ‘For a farmer, if he has 10 cows, to lose one is already 10 per cent gone. And the value of the cow may be 2,000 francs, 2,500 francs [$2,200-$2,800].’

What you must understand is that this style of farming is part of a much larger picture. ‘What we call the mountain agriculture would not be able to survive on its own if it didn’t have any help from the government,’ Fauchère told me. ‘It’s too expensive and too difficult to survive in the mountains.’

If you look closely at the Désalpe, the cows might be wearing flowery hats, but the women, under their full dresses, are wearing high-tech mountaineering boots.

The reason the government sends payments to farmers who continue to practise mountain agriculture is that they are, technically, performing a service to the nation. And the proximal reason for that can be traced back to a sea change in Swiss agricultural policy two decades ago. Until about the early 1990s, farmers received higher prices for their crops than those on the world market, recounts Peter Moser, a historian who heads the Archives of Rural History in Bern. They were helped by market supports that made Swiss agriculture — a very expensive endeavour here compared with other places in the world — at least tenable.

But around that time, in order to meet obligations to the World Trade Organization, such supports had to be abolished. The Swiss government did not want to expose their farmers to the open market, to put them in direct competition, in the case of cow farmers, with ranchers around the world with far more land and the ability to grow animals cheaply. A workaround was devised.

After the topsoil of much American farmland dried up and blew away in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, the US began paying farmers to avoid overfarming

The market supports to local agriculture would end, yes. But the farmers would be paid directly by the government for something else. They would be paid for, among other things, keeping the mountain pastures clear of trees, keeping the forests clear of the cows, and keeping the water clean. They would be paid for keeping land in agriculture, for treating their animals well, and for maintaining the social structure in rural areas. It is a way of thinking about the use of the land that environmental scholars and policymakers call ‘payments for ecosystem services’. In essence, the Swiss government rewards farmers for the maintenance of the landscape — both environmental and cultural.

They weren’t the first to do so. After the topsoil of much American farmland dried up and blew away in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, the US began paying farmers to avoid overfarming. In 2000, China likewise started a programme of paying farmers not to deforest steep land that would quickly erode once cleared. On a smaller scale, there are various schemes around the world that aim to compensate farmers for doing or not doing something that benefits the environment – sometimes including a market, on which credits for such services can be traded, unlike in Switzerland. But to orient farm policy so that it focuses on payments for services beyond food production is still a relatively unusual step.

To an American, the effects can be both puzzling and intriguing. In Switzerland, one can see billboards equating farming with the maintenance of biodiversity. A farm in the US is often precisely the opposite of biodiverse. It involves the cultivation of not merely a single species of corn or apples, but of thousands of genetically identical clones of some long-ago representative of a single species. In animal farming, though the individuals might be more different than stalks of corn, they are not treated as such. Melding biodiversity and farming is a goal of the sustainable agriculture movement, to be sure, and there is an entire discipline devoted to agro-ecology. In his landmark 1995 essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ environmental historian William Cronon pointed out many fallacies and dangers inherent in dividing the land between that which we use and that which we preserve. But in general, the conversation about biodiversity in the US circulates around wilderness and preserves where signs of human passage are minimised. Above the nationally designated Wilderness Areas, even helicopters and planes must not fly too close.

But the mindset that combines biodiversity and agriculture makes a great deal of sense for Switzerland.  As it might for the rest of the world in times to come. From some perspectives it comes down to what you do when there is no more room left.

The issue of space can be encapsulated in a story that Fauchère, the helicopter rescue pilot, tells. At a conference in 2007, after the US multibillionaire Steve Fossett disappeared while flying his airplane over a national park, Fauchère ribbed an American colleague: ‘You are able with your satellite system in the US to find a small golf ball in the middle of nowhere, and … you are able to lose him!’ The colleague said next year he would make a report on the search.

At the promised presentation, ‘the first slide that he put on PowerPoint was the US map,’ Fauchère told me. ‘And then, he put Switzerland’s map.’ He paused. ‘The area where that fellow was in is, I think, two-thirds of Switzerland. So now you have to imagine that two-thirds of Switzerland is just a national park, where nobody is living.’

The cognitive dissonance produced by that comparison — by the enormous relative size of the US and by the fact that such large pieces of it are preserves — is jarring, sitting in the exquisitely exploited bottom of the Valais. But it’s a fact that explains much about how the two countries operate with regard to the environment.

For much of the thousands of years of human existence, our species has treated the world more or less as an open system

For one, the historian Moser said, it links back to why Swiss cows are so well-cared for. The sheer difference in national size means that US farms, though enormous — the average Swiss farm is between 40 and 50 acres, the average US farm around 10 times as large — are not much encountered by the average grocery store customer. Swiss cities are smaller and more permeable. It is not hard to see farms and cows. In fact, it is unavoidable, once you are a negligible number of minutes from a city’s center. And the herds themselves are far smaller, thanks in part to the paucity of land.

This closeness between city and farm means that the culture is less comfortable with treating animals inhumanely, suggests Moser. ‘The bigger the farms are, the less individually animals can be treated,’ he said. ‘This creates a distance between yourself and the other.’ In the 19th century, Swiss agronomists travelling to the US were floored by what the inhabitants were doing with the enormous amount of land available to them, and at the same time shocked by the way animals were treated, Moser said.

In modern Switzerland, those old feelings have translated into strong animal protection laws and direct payments to farmers for treating animals well, along with those for maintaining the landscape — for instance, for taking their cows out into the fresh air.

And to the attentive observer, the issue of limited space is visible in every exquisitely manicured patch of land.

‘People who paint pictures that look like Switzerland are put down as simpleminded romantic idealists, whereas they actually belong to the literal-statement and compressed-rusticity school,’ writes John McPhee in his wonderful book La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1983) about Switzerland and the Swiss Army. ‘It is possible that people who prefer landscapes without evidence of mankind have come to prefer them because evidence of mankind is ordinarily so disappointing.’

He goes on: ‘If Switzerland is arguably the most beautifully developed landscape in the world, this is so, to some extent, through necessity, because Switzerland is so small.’

So Switzerland appears charming and quaint while actually being highly advanced. That cow flying through the air is the result of a complex calculation involving limited resources, economic forces, and compassion.

Can we develop this kind of ethos in countries that aren’t Switzerland? One day in October, I tossed around the idea with my father, an ecologist from Massachusetts, and the Valaisan farmer Charles-André Mudry, his wife, Doris, and their son Xavier. When they are not at the alpage, they live in the town of Lens, reachable by a bus that crawls in a determined zig-zag up the steep valley wall. Mudry had just come in from selling a calf; Doris, who told me about fashions in cow naming, served tea and cookies.

Xavier suggested that in terms of political structure, the US and Switzerland are not so different: each has states and a central power. But we kept coming back to the enormity of the difference in size. My father pointed out that you can see the high mountains from Sion, the capitol of Valais. You cannot see Wisconsin from Washington. And the tradition in the US (such as it is) is to change the use of the land without regard to the past or the long-term effects, if that’s what market forces demand.

‘Where I grew up, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, it was an agricultural landscape. Now it’s forest,’ my father said. ‘It was all changed by the production in the West … There are walls that cross the forest. You can see that clearly, there were fields here, 100 years ago. We have a past, but it disappears before we can take the measure of it.’ It’s not hard to see how different this is from the Swiss experience — a formidable inertia to overcome, even if some alternative forms of US agriculture, particularly those with short supply chains, are already in the dialogue. Identifying aspects of agriculture which are not currently monetised and giving them worth is difficult, not least in the face of requirements such as those of the World Trade Organisation.

Switzerland has plenty of financial resources at its fingertips, for a nation of its size. Its relative social homogeneity and high standard of living, in spite of significant linguistic and religious variations, make it easier perhaps to come to an agreement over what land uses ought to be valued by the state than in more diverse nations. Sverker Sörlin, a professor of environmental history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, has studied the development of payments for ecosystem services in Cape Town in South Africa, where they have heightened tensions between the haves and the have-nots, as land that might be used for people is preserved as parks for tourism. It’s unfair to expect that all the world could, and should, get to the point where helicoptering out injured cows makes as much as sense as it does to the Swiss.

But for many nations, there’s something in the Swiss way, something worth examining, in their response to limited space and natural resources. For much of the thousands of years of human existence, our species has treated the world more or less as an open system. There has been local scarcity and there have been times of plenty, of course, as populations have grown, developed new desires and social systems, and found new ways to extract resources from the land. But the general faith was that there were, say, more whales somewhere — further and further away, perhaps, as numbers dwindled during the 19th-century rage for whale oil, but still there somewhere. There were more trees somewhere — not in many parts of Europe, as extensive deforestation over the course of hundreds of years took its toll, but in the New World, certainly.

Even today, in the face of imminent climate change, we continue to function as though there’s more atmosphere somewhere, ready to whisk off our waste to someplace else. It is time, though, to think of the world as a closed system. When you look at the resources involved in maintaining even a single member of a developed society, it’s hard to avoid the knowledge that this cannot continue. Last year, Tim De Chant, an American journalist who runs the blog Per Square Mile, made striking depictions of the space required if everyone in the world live liked the inhabitants of a number of countries. If we all lived like Americans, even four planet Earths would not be enough.

And it bears repeating that we are living in a strange time for that planet. It took all of human history up till 1800 for our numbers to break a billion. Each successive billion has arrived faster and faster, with the seventh and latest billion accruing in little over a decade. We will be 8 billion in another 11 years, according to UN statistics. But population growth is slowing overall at the moment, rising in some countries and declining in others. It’s possible that we’ll come to an equilibrium eventually, of a stable, yet dense, human population spread around the world. The flying cow might be a presentiment of that time, when the realisation that we are all encased together in a single, small snow-globe of a planet has sunk in, and we have, in a best-case scenario, learned to deal with it gracefully. To this American’s eyes, the Swiss have gotten there before the rest of us.

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