At Vodnikov Dom 5









. Rhodothamnus chamaecistus. Gardeners will notice that the leaves are very like those of anazalea, (which of course is a rhododendron.)

2. It looks particularly beautiful with the light shining through the flowers.

3. A ‘dwarf’ cistus in Greece.

4. The real alpine rhododendron, also in Slovenia, with (yellow) helianthemum

NB these notes and photos should be at the end, not the beginning, but they don’t want to be moved.


After about three days alone in the mountains I generally start talking to myself, although I don’t have much to say. Anemone narcissiflora, I try to remember, or Ranunculus aconitifolius or Thalictrum aquilegifolium,the buttercup with leaves like an aconite, the anemone with leaves like a narcissus, the thalictrum (or meadow rue) with leaves like an aquilegia (or columbine) – the names had slipped away again but I looked them up, luckily I nearly always recognise what I can’t remember, and wrote them down on the back of an envelope which I found downstairs by the bed): it can be confusing when a species name tries to be helpful and informative by emphasising a link with a different genus1: the anemone with flowers like a narcissus, the buttercup with leaves like an aconite, the thalictrum with leaves like an aquilegia. This time I was trying to remember the name of a beautiful plant which I had never seen in flower before, Rhodothamnus chamaecistus, (a name I’ve practised to remember), which is a very small shrub with delicate pink flowers like a rhododendron, grows in rock crevices where you can often look up into it and see the light shine through and is one of the very few members of the ericaceae family which likes lime. Its name means red-shrub-dwarf-cistus, although it’s not related to cistus;  there’s nothing scientific about the names themselves, and I don’t much like the word ‘dwarf’ which is in common use to describe plants – does it just mean very small, or does it suggest abnormality and freakishness? So I would be walking through the mountains sometimes making my binomial linnaean incantations or more often with a tune going round and round inside my head stuck in a loop, and I can’t remember the cunning ways in which Mahler or Beethoven move the music on, their resolutions and progressions and interruptions and changes of key, or it might be a Bob Dylan song that I can only remember a few words of – who fills his mouth with laughing / and who builds his town with blood, or on a bad day it might be Dire Straits, who got in thirty years ago and won’t come out.

Rhodothamnus chamaecistus: can we find a vernacular name? A name to make it approachable, pickable, to help us to possess it? ‘Dwarf alpenrose it says in my book. It’s in the rhododendron family and alpenrose is the name often given in English to Rhododendron ferrugineum, the common rhododendron of the Alps. In German it’s Zwergalpenrose, Zwerg meaning dwarf again, and carrying inappropriate connotations: why should something small, or relatively small, be described as ‘dwarf’? In French it’s rhodothamne ciste nain, the dwarf again, and another direct translation from the botanical term rather than a true vernacular word. In Italian I’ve found both rododendro nano and rododendro cistino. In Slovenian it’s navadni slecnik, unapproachable to all who are unfamiliar with Slav languages.

In the mountains each social contact and its nuances are striking, especially when you are alone, and you are suddenly, briefly returned to the human world. People always greet each other, the British more cheerfully than most, except that occasionally you meet people who don’t yet know the convention, or a line of walkers who ignore you because they are in a group or realise that the solitary walker they are passing doesn’t want to say hello 14 times. Usually of course people say hello in the language of the country in which they find themselves, but the French often say ‘bonjour’ and the British and Americans often say ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ and so do sensitive Germans who seem to recognise anglophones before they have opened their mouths. I remember in 1989 when I first became aware of the importance of this ritual just as it began to break up, like losing a signal: as I came down from Veliki Draski Vrh, the mountain summit where I had met three middle aged Slovenians with whom I couldn’t talk but who had generously, ceremoniously given me coffee and schnapps so that I felt in love for a moment not just with the mountains but with an entire culture, to the outskirts of Stara Fuzina, which is just big enough to have outskirts, and began to encounter more and more people, some of whom naturally were not walkers but just going about their business, on their way to a shop or a hotel or just out for a short stroll, fewer people caught my eye though I looked at everybody expectantly, until after a little while as I entered the village proper, no one greeted me and I felt neglected, invisible. As against this experience, there is a little park very close to where I live, a long thin park with a straight path right through it so that you see people approaching in the distance and sometimes, if you look at them as you pass, and they look at you, we greet each other with a nod or a hi, so that it is possible to acknowledge a complete stranger as you walk, even in the middle of London, and this is moving, encouraging. If you have a dog and they have a dog and the dogs are more or less the right kind of dog it helps, of course. When I made the long, damp descent from Vodnikov Dom to Stara Fuzina through the forest all day I only met one couple, and so we celebrated that rare encounter with a pause and a short conversation: I could bring news of their destination and the approaches to it, which might have given me a little importance in their eyes, and they were from Australia, which seemed to make meeting there more strange, and it was all new to them. Then there are the rhythms and etiquette of passing on a narrow track. I like to step aside and wait, because I’m old and out of breath, and that is often interpreted as a friendly gesture, which it is as well, and am usually rewarded by a nod or a word of thanks in which ever language they choose. Sometimes the old make way for the young because the young are naturally faster and because making way for the young is what we all have to learn to do eventually, and sometimes the young make way for the old out of respect or friendliness.

A type of contact which exists in this country and in Ireland, one of those cultural forms which knit together all these islands, like tea drinking, is the nod or wave between drivers and pedestrians on quiet country lanes where the motorist is going slowly enough to make eye contact with people walking by, and when he or she is not hidden by darkness or busy windscreen wipers or bright reflection. In other parts of Europe the absence of this convention, which seems like an attempt to overcome the absolute division between people on cars and people on foot, often makes me feel slighted and even more hostile towards motor traffic, even when I know rationally not to take being ignored as a slight on me, even when it happens in a country, like Greece, where people are normally courteous towards strangers in lonely places.

1For example, ranunculus and anemone are the family names, the names of the genera – genera being the plural of genus – and the suffixes aconitifolius and narcissiflora indicate the species, the particular family member. The word binomial, with two names, indicates that every living thing has a two word name – even the clouds, even a ford cortina. ‘Linnaean’ because Linnaeus, the Swedish biologist invented the system.

and the above notes should be in a smaller font than the main text, but in 40 minutes struggling I have failed to find out how to change the font.

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