You can’t help but smile as you walk in early summer through the grass-growing valleys of Transylvania. They ooze a kind of sweet-smelling well-being, largely because these valleys in the Carpathian Mountains in the center of Romania contain one of the great treasures of the cultivated world: some of the richest and most botanically diverse hay meadows in Europe. You can find up to 50 different species of grass and flowers growing there in a single square yard of meadow, and even more within reach as you sit down among them. This flowery miracle is maintained not by nature but by nature worked with the human hand. The richness is there only because a meadow stays a meadow if it is mown every summer. Abandoned, it will be filled with scrub in three to five years. As it is, for the moment anyway, Transylvania is a world made beautiful by symbiosis. All day long the smell of the meadows gradually thickens, and as the sun drops, the honey-sharp smell of the butterfly orchids, night scented, pollinated by moths, comes seeping out of the hillsides.
Go for a walk, and you’ll find the flowers crowding around your feet. Practically no chemical sprays and no artificial fertilizers—too expensive and distrusted by these poor, small-scale farmers—mean the hillsides are purple with meadow salvia and pink with sainfoin. Globeflowers, a sort of enlarged buttercup, stand in the damper patches like Japanese lanterns. The little burnt-orange hawkweeds called fox and cubs are interspersed with the sorrel and the orchids, the campanulas and the yellow rattle. Hares appear on the track in front of you. In places, the grasses have been roughly crushed and pushed aside—bears have been through here, looking for anthills to raid or fungi to plunder.
But if you go with Attila Sarig—a powerful and articulate 30-year-old farmer from Gyimes in Transylvania—the experience deepens. Sarig, sometimes with a murmured “Aha,” pauses now and then to pick the medicinal herbs that grow among the grasses: sorrel, snapdragon, gentian, marjoram, thyme, meadow salvia, all of which will hang and dry in his house or barn for winter infusions. “I know that I make this landscape by what I do,” he says.