I got stuck. I got lost. I was trying to write about, or move towards writing about, certain perfect spots, mostly in the mountains, and trying not to use words like perfect, or magical, or secret, or timeless, or sacred although the invocation of the Garden of Eden seemed inevitable, but of course people kept getting in the way and even in that place above the Gasterntal I soon found myself back in Omagh.
This is something I wrote a few weeks ago when I was circling around the subject. Don’t bother reading it if you’re not particularly interested in plants.
I looked again the other day at a favourite book, ‘A Colour Guide to Rare Wild Flowers’ – in Britain, though the title doesn’t spell this out – by John Fisher. We have so few. There are plants in this book with a handful of lonely survivors which are guarded in cages but which are common by the roadside in France or stand in crowds on mountains in Switzerland. A word which has stuck in my mind to describe our flora is ‘depauperated’. There are 153 plants in the book, and in all my walking through Britain, which has been superficial and infrequent compared with John Fisher’s, but considerable compared with most people, and I keep my eyes open and close to the ground, I have only come across three of them: bastard balm, Jacob’s ladder and stinking hellebore, and they of course are among the less rare.
As the book is concerned with rarity it is about places as much as plants, and the description of Jacob’s ladder makes this clear. I found it because it grows in a spectacular ‘beauty spot’, Malham Cove, which I passed through on a long walk which included sections of the Pennine Way, so I wasn’t looking for Jacob’s ladder, I happened upon it, which made the discovery all the more memorable. And the plant was first recorded as growing there 300 years ago, by John Ray:
“Called by the vulgar Ladder to Heaven and Jacob’s Ladder (this was) found by Dr Lister in Carleton Beck, in the falling of it into the River Air; but more plentifully both with a blue flower and a white about Malham Cove, a place so remarkable that it is esteemed one of the Wonders of Craven. It grows there in a wood on the left hand of the Water, as you go to the Cove from Malham plentifully…”
It’s still there today and, as Fisher says, ‘the true appeal of Jacob’s ladder comes as much from the remote rocks and ravines in which it sometimes grows as from the plant itself,’ and indeed what could ‘the plant itself’ possibly be? Jacob’s ladder is a common garden plant, but it took on a different identity when I saw it, by surprise, in a wild and rocky place, uprooted from its suburban herbaceous border association. (And there are many moments of revelation in nature when you see a plant which you have struggled to grow in the garden and realise what it needs, what it likes, where it is at home.) The plant itself could be a dried specimen in the herbarium at Kew Gardens, or a cut flower in a vase, or lined up in a garden centre. The idea of the plant itself inspires Mr Fisher to another of his rare magic moments: ‘Almost certainly there are other sites to be revealed in the Chiltern beechwoods. For no matter how overcast the day, the beech leaves, curled a myriad different ways, will snatch the light from the sky overhead and transform it into dozens of reflections, any of which could be the plant itself,’ (ghost orchid.)
But my three plants all grow in dozens of places, which of course is a lot fewer than the millions of places where common plants are to be seen.
Fisher is understandably reticent when it comes to the precise location of the rarest plants:
‘on downland high above the Thames, where the orchid is guarded by a warden during the flowering season’, (monkey orchid)
But for others he gives entertaining details:
‘against the wooden skirting to the coastal path on the seaward side, more or less opposite a stall selling ice-cream cornets’, (long-headed clover);
‘drive north along the west side of Ullswater, looking on the west side of the road for a lane uphill with a sign bearing the legend “Seldom Seen…”’, (alpine enchanter’s nightshade);
‘here the plants delight to grow as near as possible to the edge of the cliff – especially where it has begun to crumble’, (small hare’s ear);
‘a site which I discovered myself, where it is unlikely to be sprayed: namely the outer wall of Roedean School’, (shepherd’s needle);
‘a glance from the beach… shows that the cliff is sharply divided into two sectors, the nearer being made up of red sandy soil while the other consists of chalk. The boundary between these two sectors offers the best prospects for success’, (yarrow broomrape)’;
‘some observers have noted that cypress spurge seems to show a partiality for localities where racehorses are trained’;
‘it also shows a partiality for golf courses, where the grass is kept comparatively short and the greens are sprinkled from time to time with sand from the surrounding bunkers’, maiden pink;
‘plants can also be viewed from outside Littlehampton golf course through the barbed wire perimeter fencing’, (sand catchfly);
Some plants insist on absolute peace and quiet:
‘The rootstock develops underground with the aid of a beneficial fungus for as long as 15 years before the first leaf pierces the ground. A few more years roll by before the first flowers appear. During the whole of this period, the ground must remain undisturbed’, (burnt orchid);
and we have seen how Jacob’s ladder has enjoyed a settled home for centuries, but other plants have dynamic, adventurous lives, sometimes even thriving on revolutionary change:
‘there might also be new colonies on the ground disturbed by the construction of rail links with the Channel tunnel’, (white mullein);
‘in 1978 hundreds of plants appeared at Crowlink in East Sussex, in a field near the sea which had recently been ploughed up’, (pheasant’s eye);
‘the plants seem to thrive on land that is disturbed by vehicles – even tanks – and grazed by rabbits, (meadow clary);
And here are some more notes which I’ll put down now because this might be as far as they ever get:
I wanted to say that when you get high enough, although of course the composition of the air we breathe is being altered by human activity, and there are sometimes vapour trails in the sky, you leave behind obvious human influence. Then along came the qualifications. In a few popular areas there are cable cars which go up to more than 3000 metres and some refuges, which these days are noisily supplied by helicopters, sit on summits up to 3500 metres. In Italy and Slovenia you can see the remains of bunkers and trenches and tunnels from the First World War. Some high valleys are filled with reservoirs, and electricity pylons often from hydroelectric projects stride across the landscape. The paraphernalia of the ski business climbs higher as a response to climate change. I nearly forgot the marked paths with their ubiquitous splashes of paint on rocks, still forbidden in this country, very welcome on obscure paths and in the mist all over the Alps. With them go occasional signs, often at junctions there will be metal signposts with clear, neatly printed names and often timings since, for example, 1 hr means more than 1 or 2 or 3 kilometres, and a spot height too, which will usually be written on the map so that you can work out just where you are. But still, across most of the Alps above about 2500 metres, and frequently lower, especially in national parks and other areas which have not been developed for winter sports, there are none of those things, and of course no walls or fences, no crops, no ploughing or mowing, no managed woodland – no trees at all, no domesticated grazing animals, although sheep and cattle are still brought up for the summer, but they rarely go much above 2000 metres, no roads, no traffic. Until the late eighteenth century, when local guides began to climb up with their English clients, no one ever went higher than agriculture or shepherding demanded – except the odd hunter.
In the high mountains, as in the desert when it blooms, or in an Arctic spring, new life is astonishing, and the contrasts between winter and spring seem absolute. The mountains treat dead and weak growth severely, it is broken and frozen, swept away by wind and flood and avalanche and rock slide, and the white sterilisation of winter prepares for the perfect spring, where everything is new.
The chamois and ibex, in many parts of the Alps reintroduced and seemingly knowing that they are safe from hunting are if not tame, then bold enough to stand their ground and look you in the eye. Sometimes even the marmots, normally quick to dive underground if the watch guard hears humans a mile off, will stand up bravely on their back legs and be admired. This reconciliation between people and animals is an echo of paradise; we are the lions who lie down with lambs. And when we see a particular plant for the first time, we experience the newness of creation. When we puzzle over the name of that plant we are playing the role of Adam, charged by God with giving names to everything, in the days before Babel of course, when we all spoke the same language, which is what botanists try to do with their clumsy latin. Richard Mabey wrote about his experience in the Burren, in County Clare, about the feeling that one perfect spot, in a harmony of stone and plant, was perhaps the Garden, and the Garden of Eden is always more easily imagined in an uncultivated place, untouched or apparently untouched by people, than it is in any real garden, no matter how hard that garden strives for perfection.
When a blade of withered grass appears boldly in the viewfinder of the camera, intruding on the view of the perfect flower, and you reach out and bend it back or pull it up, it’s like Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was instructed, not to do any ploughing or planting, let alone ‘landscaping’, which is the work of God or time, but merely ‘to dress and to keep’, which I have always understood to mean little touches here and there, the kind of thing the nice lady in the pension plan adverts does in her retirement, light secateurs or snips in her right hand and an artisan crafted wooden trug hanging from her other arm with a few roses lying in it, a straw hat on her head to shield her from the constant sun. It’s work as leisure, or leisure as work, the way of devoted gardeners who can never simply sit and do nothing, but will always be dead heading or helping a clematis shoot to climb and entwine or moving a pot six inches to balance a composition or saving a few seeds or looking for slugs in dark corners.T
Today I heard Richard Fortey on the radio, on The Life Scientific, talk about his first trilobite, which he found when he was fourteen. A lucky swing of the hammer and it appeared, perfect, ‘as if it was made for me’. It’s the same when you find the Garden, where perfect plants grow in ancient rock, apparently without any soil, and at high altitudes have to develop, flower and set seed between late June and early September. Some plants, like the soldanella, produce buds already containing the flower which lie dormant through the winter and push up, ready formed, through the melting snow.
But along the alpine mountain tops run, invisibly, things you can only see on the map: international frontiers. Now I remember the young Irish nationalist, he couldn’t have been much older than seventeen, in spite of his seriousness, whom I met while hitchhiking along the Antrim coast road in about 1970. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but it was soon after the road leaves the coast to rise through the hills towards Ballycastle, and just outside a village. It was late on a summer’s evening, and he invited me back to the cottage where he was staying with his family from Belfast. I was made welcome, given tea, listened to a few rebel songs on an old record player, and then the boy walked along the road a little way with me, and before we said goodbye, he opened his arms to the hills and said, how could they divide this land? And it was true that the unbroken sweep of the landscape seemed to mock boundaries. I’ve often thought since that that boy, courteous and friendly as he was, clearly not in the least anti-English, inspired as much by idealism as a sense of injustice, stood a poor chance of surviving the next 20 years. Or maybe he became a successful politician.
And now I’ve been remembering other human contacts, however slight. In the Gasterntal a little community feeling develops around the search for the lady’s slipper orchid, (here at last a proper vernacular name, and one which in English has survived the virtual extinction of the species itself). I was shown them, and I was asked if I knew where to find them. There was giving, and receiving, and trust was implied in these exchanges, the trust that none of us would pick any of the precious plants, which have an almost sacred status.
On Veliki Draski Vrh the loneliness was complimented, not broken, by the people who offered me schnapps and coffee before, after a few minutes, we set off in our separate ways.
Paradise doesn’t have to be, after all, empty of people. And though there are snakes , they are not dangerous, they only ask to be left alone.
We long for loneliness, but fear it. In a German trekking forum I was reading about the Friuli Dolomites, an empty and protected area where even the refuges are in the valleys though there are some high level bivouacs, just to the east of the Dolomites, which must be, for all their beauty, the most developed area in the Alps. One person was attracted by the isolation, but also worried about how to cross Schneefelde – snow fields – without falling and sliding down, and not having a signal for his mobile –’handy’ in German – so that one could lie injured on the mountain and wait days to be rescued, or not be rescued at all…. A rediscovery of risks that were taken for granted until recently.
ladies’ slipper orchids in the Gasterntal, Switzerland