Life as Art

A mountain hare’s footprints patterned it.

Mountain hare footprints CH Jun 19

Flowers weave a carpet over it.

Wild pansy

 

Wild pansy3 Jun 19

St Bruno’s lily

St Bruno's lily CH Jun 19

Poet’s narcissus

Poet's narcissus CH Jun 19

The Findelbach washes it – watercolour most literal.

Findelbach Jun 19

And the mountain stirs storms above it.

Matterhorn in thunderstorm Jun 19

Hard to believe, all this in three nights. I didn’t even know that I was going to Switzerland until less than 24 hours before I boarded the flight. But life does that sometimes.

This land is art. And it has made an impression on me.

That is what great art is supposed to do.

Taschhorn meadows

Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

Mattertal mtns Jun 19

And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Down the Trail

Poppy unopened CH Jun 19

The poppies still in bud will have a surprise: they won’t flower alone. Every plant here has its attendants – winged, busy and bold.

Swiss butterflies1 Jun 19

Butterflies are abundant, and so are smaller creatures.

Bug on herb-robert Jun 19

The red and black stripes of the minstrel bug warn predators that they taste foul.

Bug on flowers CH Jun 19

And of course, the colouration of bees signals their ability to defend themselves.

Bee on round-headed rampion Jun 19

But despite subtle warnings, the path is peaceful, winding over gentle slopes of meadow and coniferous forest, the shockingly tranquil toes of the Alps’ mightiest giants. Not that the mountains let you forget them; there is still a snowpack flanking some streams, and all the water ferries glacial dust into the Vispa.

Vispa River Jun 19

That milky hue – the colour of a snow leopard’s eyes – is mountain blood and bone. Glaciers scratch the peaks as they move, scouring rock to powder and sending it to the river via by their outflow streams. It is a familiar story from mountain ranges everywhere, but I’ve not seen many that do it with such haste. Water here is hasty; it has to be, with valley rims on both sides soaring over three kilometres above the river. Streams leap from the glaciers in waterfalls so numerous, I suppose that no one has ever thought to give them a name.

Yet this is a valley of humanity, as well as wildlife. The village of Täsch is at least seven hundred years old. Today it largely survives on tourism rather than agriculture, but relics of former times are in the streets – a drinking trough for livestock lives on.

Tasch water trough Jun 19

Flowers, insects, water, people – none are alone. They are all part of the fabric of the Mattertal.

Walking in a Paintbox

So many colours! All shining between snow and sun.

Alpine meadow Jun 19

Hurried breakfast, out on the trail. It is a switchback – what could be more Swiss? – and it is fragrant, pine sap perfume leaking from a thousand trees. Red squirrels flit between them, much darker here than their lowland kin.

Red squirrel CH Jun 19

The Matterhorn is veiled – clouds encircle it, as if entranced. Somewhere to my right are the misshapen summits of the Monte Rosa massif, western Europe’s highest mountains after mighty Mont Blanc. It is always winter up there, and even ten thousand feet beneath the Rosa, the snow is yet to die.

Trail 50 waterfall and snow Jun 19

Waterfalls infuse the Vispa River with glacial glow. But the meadows sparkle on with every colour in the paintbox.

Mountain houseleek

Mountain houseleek CH

Globeflower

Globeflower CH

Yellow alpine pasqueflower

Yellow alpine pasque flower CH

Alpine aster

Mountain aster CH

Every forgotten bank and unnamed corner is as rich as England’s best SSSIs. Up to eighty species of plant per 100 square metres – this is a garden of wild things, stretching onwards for mile upon mile.

Zermatt meadows1

The trail has not ended. Many hours have passed. Time to pause and reflect.

Of Flies, Bees and Men

That kind of title can only mean that it’s wild orchid season. Enchanting, bizarre, complicated – some of them are also very rare, but where the chalky fields of the North Downs have escaped modern agriculture, they host a strange and wonderful show.

Of wild men, for starters. This is a man orchid, an endangered species in the UK which acquired its name from the little long-armed figures dangling from each flower.

Man orchid 3 Jun 19

Then, there are the replica flies.

Fly orchid2 6 Jun 19

It’s hard not to wonder what the spider is concluding as it encounters a make-believe version of its traditional prey.

Fly orchid with spider 6 Jun 19

While fly orchids are rare, bee orchids are more widespread. But a single flower is the culmination of up to eight years of growth, so their appearance in specific sites is unpredictable.

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017.jpg

Our most familiar orchid, however, is the beautiful common spotted-orchid, which sprinkles old meadows with pink blooms.

Spotted orchids 6 Jun 19

Not that all orchids are bright; the twayblade is easily overlooked.

Common twayblade 7 Jun 19

Many do score high on the conspicuous scale, however. The rare green-winged orchid is another species typically found on chalk. And like all its relatives, it only survives because of fungi. Orchid seeds contain almost no energy and cannot germinate without forming symbiotic relationships with their less lauded partners.

Green-winged orchard North Solent NNR 13 May 19

Fungi are very sensitive to ‘improvements’ such as fertilisers, ploughing and reseeding. So orchids are more than just a pretty show: they also reveal where soils are still undisturbed.

We use flowers to symbolise so much human emotion. It is fair to say that these ones are symbols of our gentleness upon the land too.

Blue Carpet

You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.

Bluebells woods 2019a

They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.

Bluebells woods 2019c

Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.

Bluebells woods 2019d

And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.

Red campion

Red campion 4 May 2019

Buttercup

Buttercup 4 May 2019

Bugle

Bugle 4 May 2019

The Second Frost

With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.

It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.

Spring blossom 19 Apr 19

The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.

Bluebell dew drops 19 Apr 19

Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.

Khamsin in bluebells 21 Apr 19

I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.

Cowslip dew drops2 19 Apr 19

Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.

Toothwort and little slug 19 Apr 19

Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.