Vodnikov Dom sits below the cliffs of the north side of Tosc, protected by a little rocky knoll with a few larch trees on it, and just about on the tree line; the window of my room framed a section of horizontal limestone strata, and below the refuge steep slopes of partly stabilised scree rich in plants fall away to Velo Polje, literally big field, a flat bottomed valley about 200 metres lower. Polje is one of two words which Slovenian has given to the world thanks to its geology, the other being karst.1 A polje is a valley like a basin with no obvious way out; the water goes underground through the porous limestone. Elsewhere there would be a shallow lake. They still keep cattle on the polje in the summer and make cheese. As well as the old buildings there is even a new one, a beautifully constructed traditional timber shelter or byre, immaculately jointed and speaking immediately of EU funding. As I approached a substantial stone dwelling house a farmer came out of it, and I said, dober dan, hello, but he looked right through me. I thought I’d forgotten about him pretty quickly when I discovered the level plain of the valley floor, and enjoyed the ease of walking on flat turf studded with thousands of globularia, dryas, lotus, forget me nots and gentians, and then came to what seemed to be not an ordinary field wall but a retaining wall stretching several hundred yards across the valley, three feet high, and made of beautifully fitted limestone blocks. On the other side the level, stony ground lay brim full to the top of the wall. Then a few hundred yards further on another wall, another terrace, and the ground became more stony. Soon after that the valley narrows, larch trees come down almost to the bottom and a rocky stream bed runs through a small gorge which is then blocked by a third wall, like a dam, the shortest but tallest, lapped by a flat lake of white stones which at first glance seemed as bare of plants as a car park, but a spot of yellow in the whiteness became a brilliant clump of Draba aizoides as I came close to it, and then I discovered other alpines, fugitives from the peaks and ridges above, camping out on this level playing field, some with many yards of bare stone around them, Linaria alpina, Petrocallis pyrenaica, I’m on intimate terms with them but can only refer to them formally although I’ve seen them in France and in French: linaire des alpes and petrocallis des pyrenees, there also they seem to pedantically keep their distance, their names not truly vernacular but translated from Latin. And on one isolated ten ton boulder on the edge of the stone lake, rising from a depression still deep in snow and strewn by winter storms with broken larch branches, more distant spots of yellow were a group of rock loving Primula auricula, a latin name more friendly because naturalised and familiar – at least to gardeners, for auriculas were madly fashionable once; from the wild yellow they bred many colours – and apart from a single plant above the refuge these were the only ones I saw which were still in flower, for all the others I was too late, though their broad, fleshy leaves were still conspicuous, but these were perfect and suddenly the sun came out and lit them up.
Then when I came to the footpath sign, a rare substantial metal signpost instead of a circle of paint on a rock, and saw the sticker on it announcing, in the new international language, a trek without borders, ‘for travellers, migrants, refugees’, a walk from Ljubljana to Nice which, if you can’t imagine it is, whichever way you go, an arc across the Alps from east to west, a rainbow if you like, taking in all the colours of the alpine cultures and their languages, Slav, Germanic and Romance, (past Spitz and pic and piz and Horn, Berg and mont and monte, cime and cima); slipping in and out of the privileged citadel of Switzerland, if you have the right kind of passport, a country with four official languages; crossing frontiers where people died trying to escape, or were deep frozen when overtaken by a storm 3000 years ago, or were blown to shreds in the First World War during fighting between Austria-Hungary and Italy along what is now the border between Slovenia and Italy. You can still see an uncatalogued military museum on the mountains near Krn, for example, a mountain which rises up steeply from the Soca valley where the Austrians finally broke through the Italian lines in one of the most deadly battles – most clearly I remember rigid, black leather, parts of boots with neat lines of nails in the soles, preserved as if in a case where humidity and temperature are controlled, and there were scraps of barbed wire, torn fragments of shells, bits of bone, and all left respectfully untouched, although of course I couldn’t tell how much had been taken. Up there presumably they also died for King or Emperor and Country, and yet Slovenians, Czechs, Croats, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Bosnians died for a state which ceased to exist in 1918 and for an Emperor with no successors. Maybe I was more disturbed than I realised by my encounter with the surly guy at the farm house, but it was as if I was no longer alone in the misty valley, on that strange level bed of broken white limestone, with its perfectly isolated brilliantly coloured flowers, at ten yards a tiny speck of yellow against the stone, where I had been completely absorbed in flowers and photographs, having to underexpose for the glare of the rock even on that dull day so that when I suddenly became aware that I no longer had my stick, and guessed I had put it down to take a photo, though I had no idea where, and had been wandering without a plan from one spot of colour to another all across that great expanse of flat stone for about half an hour, I had the good idea to look through the sequence of pictures I had just taken on the screen of the camera, and managed to retrace my steps from plant to plant, like Theseus following the thread which he had laid through the labyrinth back to the light, until I came to the stick lying beside a Linaria alpina, a mountain toadflax, and I was so pleased to find it because it was a good hazel stick which I had come across several days earlier having already lost my walking pole, probably in a similar fashion. Seeing that sticker on the signpost made me suddenly feel my isolation and jolted me out of my botanical reverie; I remembered borders, loss, loneliness, injustice, exile and tears came to my eyes. That’s about the best way I can put it. And it was strangely comforting, like being washed in love. Tears came to my eyes, or my eyes filled with tears: as if the tears themselves, or the eyes, are the agent, not I. It’s like finding a lost reflex, and it happens much more often these days, similar to the thump of adrenalin in the stomach, to saliva dripping from the mouth of a hungry dog, to the tingle at the back of the neck on hearing certain music, to sexual desire. I went with Sheila the other day to the Homerton for a physio appointment, her first since breaking her thumb, and Sharon the physio noticed the scar and slight swelling on her wrist from the break last October, so I told her that Sheila had also broken her shoulder, but that thanks to Mr Sivardeen the surgeon she now had good movement in her shoulder, and I said did she know Mr Sivardeen, and she said she did, what a lovely man, at least I think that’s what she said, and I thought that yes, everybody agrees that he is – a Doctor I know says that orthopaedic surgeons have a reputation for being mechanics, for treating people as if they were an engineering problem, which of course they are, but of course they’re more than that, and I thought of the approach to the Tamar Bridge, with the big bold square lettering, I K BRUNEL 1859, that massive span with tubes like bones 155 years old and the slow scream of the wheels as the train rounds the steep bend on the Cornish side and crawls respectfully or timidly across so as not to disturb those ancient bones, and the tiny wrinkles on the distant water and the battleship grey remains of the Royal Navy in the docks, as you stick your head out of the window, on the only trains left where you still can stick your head out, the broken toilets a price worth paying. Mr Sivardeen has a neat white cap and a long black beard, very soft looking and not curly but wavy, and a gentle, modest manner, despite his professional eminence. Paul the plasterer whom we visited for a cast after Sheila’s previous accident agreed that Mr S was a lovely man, not like some of them, and we said yes, he was so kind and reassuring, and there seems to be something in the acknowledgement of his qualities that draws people together. And yes, it’s important that he’s a Muslim, that seems to be part of the coming together, a kind of healing in itself. And as I said to Sharon, do you know Mr Sivardeen? I felt again the hint of tears in my eyes. Moved, we say, moved to tears.