The Peasants of Maramureº
Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin and H. Woods McLaughlin
ISBN 978-0-615-25337-4

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The Color of Hay: The Peasants of Maramureº

The quality of a haystack can be told by its color. The quality of a man by the time it takes him to bring one home.
Calitatea unei capite se vede dupa culoarea ei. Calitate unui barbat dupa timpul cat ii ia sa o aduca acasa.

Transylvania at the turn of the Millennium is an island of waterwheels and horse-carts facing erosion by the incoming tide of a modernizing European Union. During this pivotal time, in a remote valley of northern Romania called Maramureº, peasants have kept their traditions alive and defied assimilation since the Romans. Now, a final generation is going about their daily farming chores and raising children who have the opportunity to leave their ancestral villages and make a modern life in a world of change.

For over two years, Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin and her husband H. Woods lived as peasants do—relying on a wood burning stove, bathing without running water, and sharing one roof with three generations. Kathleen's medium format photographs cover all four seasons of life in Maramureº. Essays from H. Woods help add depth and explanation.

KATHLEEN LARAIA MCLAUGHLIN is a mother, photographer, and educator with an appetite for exploring the world. Wherever she goes, she brings a compassionate and curious lens backed by traditional film. For her efforts at capturing a disappearing world, she has received a Fulbright Senior Scholarship, an IREX IARO Grant (National Endowment for the Humanities), and a Houston Center for Photography Fellowship for her work in Romania. Her images have appeared in LensWork, Rangefinder, B&W Magazine, Black+White Photography (UK), and The Times Saturday Magazine (UK). Her photographs have been exhibited both nationally and internationally and are in the permanent collections at the Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego and the Western Virginia Museum of Art. Kathleen received her M FA in Photography from Virginia Commonwealth University. You can find more about her photography at

H. WOODS MCLAUGHLIN'S varied career includes an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Swarthmore College and a Masters of Screenwriting from the University of Southern California. Between those periods of study, he spent time as an Organic Farmer, computer programmer, hang gliding pilot, and Kathleen's photography assistant. He is owner and operator of Vector Studios, LLC, which is dedicated to producing computer animated films using Machinima. Kathleen and H. Woods are raising their two young sons in South Pasadena, California.


The Four Corners of Life - By Their Own Hands

The Trappings of Life - Keeping up Appearances

The Ceremonies of Life - God and Community

The Meaning of Life - When Life Has No Meaning
    Old Age

Memories of our ancestors live in our hearts more than our minds. We see their time as one of peace and simplicity, where people were connected to the earth. And we sometimes believe they had a special communion with magic and miracles which elude us today. Such is the stuff of fairy tales.

For two years between 1999 and 2003, my wife Kathleen and I sought to touch this storied past. We lived in northernmost Transylvania, in a series of valleys known as Maramureº, where one can still taste an ancient way of life that clings to existence in these remote villages.

Our dream was to witness and record this fading example of Occidental peasantry still alive in the era of the European Union. Many factors had preserved their traditions, from the poverty of communism, to a national reverence for their customs, to the simple fact of their geographic isolation. However, modernity was coming. We knew things were already changing, and would already have turned a page by the time we left.

We arrived knowing no-one. A peasant family took us in and we became their honored tenants. Our days were a give-and-take of old wisdom and modern opportunities. Motor vehicles were rare, and so we drove our hosts in our van on strange errands to examine cow udders. They taught us how to speak Romanian and wrap our feet in wool leggings that were warmer than our hiking boots. They killed a pig to welcome our parents. The rent we paid bought high-heel pumps for their eligible daughter.

By the time we left, we were de facto members of an extended family. In the time between, Kathleen captured the images that we share with you in these pages. Others were added in later years as we revisited our second home.

In Romanian, there are words for 'old fashioned,' but not a good substitute for 'quaint.' Grandma knitting by the fire does not yet evoke a sense of good times. People know she is not resting, but is hard at work tending the fire, managing its heat for cooking and other chores. They see her as poor and ordinary and a fate to be avoided.

Yet when they cry "woe is me, we have nothing," we remind them of the riches of their valley. "Oh yes," they switch like the wind. "Our land is blessed. Our air is pure." Suddenly they smile and admit that they too value the paths their grandparents trod in the long ago days of miracles. In those moments, they will claim the humble beauty of their lives, which comes from frequent use, like an old wooden spoon.

H. Woods McLaughlin, 2010

They sing a song when one heads over the mountain that laments in advance "we shall never see you again."

And so it is true for us. We shall never see them again.

Romania was one of the last countries to have a critical mass of peasant farmers still engaged in a peasant economy. They were also one of the last countries to wrangle admission to the European Union. With that, they have sealed the coffin of history on their peasants.

EU regulations forbid too many of a peasant's core practices. Barehanded animal husbandry from milking to slaughtering to butchering will be outlawed. The coming rules have in mind modern industrial farming practices and extensive central bureaucracies. There is simply no hope of survival for small subsistence farmers who make their living on a collection of acre-sized strips of land.

The neatly manicured landscape will change as fields become fallow. Tidy plots will become overgrown or consolidated. The very landscape will begin to shift and appear more like rural areas elsewhere.

This is the way of change we have built into our modern world, which will finally accomplish what the Romans, Turks, and Hungarians never could: complete transformation of the Maramureº valleys. Only exerted political will could change this outcome, but that direction is counter to what the peasants themselves desire.

Peasants are ready for this change. While they fear the uncertainty they do not relish their antiquated ways. They too want a washing machine and a car and instant cake frosting. They are tired of carrying water up the hill. They come to realize that trash pickup is better than throwing things in the river.

However, the pace of change will be uncertain. Transylvania is evenly split between urban dwellers and those in the countryside. Such deeply rooted farming practices will take a while to shift.

Some remnant will remain. Just as we have farmers' markets for fruits and vegetables, so there will be orchards and truck farms located, in Maramureº and trading on their famous name to a newly urbanized population. Just as westerners have folk dance clubs to preserve old dances, there will be those who make knowledge of Transylvanian dance and music their passion.

However, the well-worn wooden spoon quality of village life will fade as Romanians learn the meaning of "quaint." The fullness will fade as roads improve and isolated villages become bedroom communities.

This page of history is turning. We give thanks to the peasants of Maramureº for preserving their customs so long and for offering them to the lens of this book, bearing witness to the waning days of our fairy-tale heritage.

Wikipedia: Maramureº

The Color of Hay: The Peasants of Maramureº