Herding calls part of my milk-maid heritage

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I came across a YouTube video last week about “kulning,” the ancient Swedish herding calls used by women centuries ago to call the cattle back home to the farm in the evenings.

The melodic calls had a soothing, yet haunting quality that mesmerized me. This art of kulning spoke to my soul, as if part of my DNA. I kept thinking about this unique singing technique, the sounds playing over and over in my mind, until it occurred to me I may have a genetic tie to kulning.

My maternal grandmother was a descendant of one of four Nilsson sisters from Sweden who all came to America in the late 1800s in search of a better life. I continue to marvel at the tenacity of these women who, one by one, immigrated and established their own lives here.

This connection prompted me to dig out a family history book of the Nilsson family I compiled in the late 1980s, and here’s what I learned: Gustaf and Charlotta Nilsson, parents of the four daughters, lived in Vastergotland, which literally means the Western Land of the Goths. It was one of the first provinces of Sweden to be settled, and graves have been uncovered in the region dating back to around 2500 B.C.

Gustaf was a dairy farmer in the Land of the Goths.

“It was the custom in Sweden for the girls in the family to do the milking of the cows,” the family history book notes. “If there were no girls in the family, milk maids were hired for this work.”

It seems highly likely, then, that there was some kulning going on in the Nilsson family.

As it turns out, I have herding-call heritage on my father’s Norwegian side of the family, too. Dad was a lifelong dairy farmer who had his own style of calling home the cows for the evening milking. During the summer months the cattle were herded into a nearby pasture that included low-lying, swampy ground said to be the ancient shoreline of Lake Agassiz.

I can still hear the exact pitch of his beautiful tenor voice as he called out to the herd: “Come boss…come bossies, come bossies...” One by one, the cows would amble up the hill, cross over the road and come into the barn to take their stalls.

My brothers and I often were charged with calling home the cows if Dad was busy. They responded, but not with the same vigor as they did for my father, who was a cow whisperer and could handle even the most spirited of his Holstein herd. He loved his cows and had names for each of them.

When Dad died 10 years ago, one of the most poignant parts of his funeral was the procession to the farm. We followed the hearse, and brought Dad home for one final herd calling. My brother Rodney did the honors. As we solemnly stood at the edge of the pasture, Rodney called out to the cows, just as we’d heard Dad do thousands of times.

The gentle herding calls are part of my psyche, and certainly a part of my heritage. If I close my eyes I can still hear Dad’s voice on the breeze, calling those gentle bovines home.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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