Maria Dogaru - Mountain lady

by Paul White

This is a story from just outside of Transylvania, but was so fascinating it needed to be told. My friend Albert asked me if I wanted to meet his girlfriend's grandmother, an 87 year old lady (b.1928) who lives completely off grid and alone in the forested mountains of Vrancea county.

Maria Dogaru

We set off in my friend's car driving along country roads which gradually narrowed to a single lane. We then climbed higher and higher into the Black valley until we reached a stone and very muddy track. After a long bumpy ride, we parked the car before walking the rest of the way. Apparently several families lived up here at one time, but now most of the houses have been abandoned leaving just three dwellings. Maria has no means of external communication, so we were unable to announce our visit in advance. When we arrived Maria's daughter in law called across a meadow where Maria was tending her sheep.

Since Maria's husband died 35 years ago she has lived alone in a small house with no electricity or running water. She uses oil lamps for light and collects water from a spring 200 metres away for drinking and cooking. When she needs to wash her clothes, she carries them down to a nearby river. She lives in a single room with an earthen floor, small bed, stool, stove and a low lying table. It was a cold day but her room was warm and comfortable.

Maria preferred to sit next to her stove whilst talking which she would feed occasionally with small pieces of wood cut by herself. After catching up with her family members who visit two or three times a year, she gave us some food, painted eggs from the recent Romanian Easter, bread and salt. Everything Maria eats is produced from her land and the small number of sheep, hens and one cow.

Earthen stove

After eating we then started talking about her fascinating life in the mountains. I knew that the 8th German army retreated from the Russian front via Romania over the Vrancea mountains, so I started my questions by asking her what she remembered from this time. She pointed out that the war had little effect on her because of her remote location, but she does remember meeting some lost German soldiers that came to her house asking for directions to Brasov. She said that most of the people that fled to the mountains were local villagers escaping the ravages of the Russian army in pursuit of the Germans. Apparently, they looted villages on route to feed themselves as their own supply lines were inconsistent and unreliable.

I asked Maria if she was frighted by the wildlife in the area, especially bears that take fruit from her trees in autumn. She said that they also try and take her sheep, which she has to place in a barn every night for protection. She said that last year a bear broke into the barn and took her calf.

When bears come to her house she bangs pots and pans or hits an iron girder with a hammer (demonstrated in the video below) to scare them away. She also carries a whistle if they approach her when she is on foot. She said she was only really scared once when a large brown bear kept coming close to her house day and night and did not scare away so easily. I asked if she thought it would come into the house, but she didn't think it would because of the perimeter fence that surrounded her dwelling.

Livestock guardian dogs are commonly seen in the Mountains of Romania and play an important role in protecting livestock from predators. Maria doesn't have one of her own, but a distant neighbour's dog visits her daily. I still hold onto the belief that this dog was looking out for Maria. He or she watched my every move and only relaxed when Maria started talking to me.

Livestock Guardian Dog

Maria Dogaru

Next was my 'big' question. "Maria, why do you choose to live here in the mountains, when you could live a more comfortable life in the village lower in the valley?" She replied, "because here I feel free and because I never liked gossip" She also found it easier to graze her animals on meadows that surround her house. In the village she would have to shepherd her livestock along roads to reach the meadows at the edge of the village.

I then asked her about her health. She said she has always been fine until recently. Her family took her to hospital where she was diagnosed with hypertension, she was then prescribed medication but she said she never takes it. I asked her what medicines if any she uses for other ailments. She said she only uses herbal remedies from herbs she forages for in the forest. She also eats wild fruits, mushrooms and makes soup and sauces from nettles.

What intrigued me was Maria's fitness. The route down to the spring involved steep inclines which I personally struggled with just carrying my camera. Maria does this everyday carrying two full buckets of water in all kinds of weather, in all seasons! She also walks nine kilometres down to the village church every Sunday and back again uphill.

Meadow in the Black Valley

One of the abandoned houses had a broken wall allowing the construction method to be seen. Albert told me that the same method of wattle and daub are used to this day. He then showed me the lime pit that Maria uses when she needs to make a repair to the walls of her house. She mixes the lime with straw, soil and animal dung and then applies it between the branches that are woven between the timber frame. This method of construction and repair has been used for hundreds of years.

Wattle and daub construction

The penultimate event of the visit was when one of her ewes gave birth right next to the house. Maria leapt from her stool to assist the mother and rub down the lamb to prevent it from getting cold.

New life

Maria for me was like a mother to the earth. She takes little and her footprint on this planet is even smaller. She once received a clock for Christmas, which she then offered to her granddaughter saying, "I have no need for a clock here." I am sure I will visit Maria again soon.