Piz Nair is a mountain almost exactly 3000 metres high above St Moritz in the Engadine, south eastern Switzerland. It’s famous for its alpine flora, and it’s easy to reach because a rack and pinion railway, for the first part, and a cable car, for the second part, take you all the way. I would have walked up a few years ago. But if you take the first ride up and the last ride down you can spend eight hours up there. I went twice, and the second time I walked down to Corvaglia, where you change from railway to cable car, but neither time did I walk more than about three miles. I did a bit of slithering and scrambling but mostly I wandered about broad areas of scree, some firm and almost flat, some more tempestuous, looking for flowers. There are also fabulous views, of bare mountains nearby, and bigger mountains still with glaciers across the Engadine valley.
Up on the open spaces of high mountain saddles and ridges rare plants sit about in a relaxed kind of way, just being normal, in the same way that it’s normal in Estonia to be Estonian, even though globally Estonians are extremely rare. You can walk about all day on the uplands of Piz Nair in the Engadine, or around the Lőtschenpasse between the cantons of Bern and the Valais/Wallis; they are whole worlds entire unto themselves. I would sometimes look up and see fabulous snowy mountains and bold crags in the distance and think, wow! yes, that’s what people come up here for, I see! And then go back to the rock fissures and scree slivers and their ornaments. I find it hard to get used to androsaces being normal, each one seems a miracle and I take too many photos.
At first the flowers are invisible. There must be some rule of optics which says that if spots of colour are diluted by sufficient distance they become invisible. You look across a stretch of crumbly shale scree and all you see is stone. Then as you come a little closer the plants begin to appear. White and yellow are the first to show. The purple of alpine toadflax may be the last, against the purplish sandstone. In the same way flower-rich grassland from a distance is simply green.
People see things differently, of course. Mountain bikers take their bikes up the cable car to the top of Piz Nair, and as they whizz down they only see what’s immediately in front of their bike, otherwise of course they’d fall off. The same is true for most walkers on rough ground: unless you often pause or go very slowly you have to concentrate on where you’re putting your feet, so what you see most of is your feet.
Whenever I watch football on television I miss so much. Was that handball? Was he off-side? Who got the last touch? Was that a dive? The commentators, the good ones, see so much that I can only see with the fourth slow-motion replay.
Moisture retentive soil derives from the thin, shattered shales above which are sent scattering and fragmenting every spring. In places, mudstones revert to mud again. Fragments of the ridge beneath stick up like the splintered planks of an old wreck on a beach. Plants in competition cling to the relative stability of the still half-solid rock. Its fissures are exploited and worn away by plants.
As well as the bikers I had to share Piz Nair and the skies above it with a helicopter, a glider, walkers in several categories and by the cable car station all those with Unsuitable Footwear who’d come up for the view and a cup of coffee. There was even a little group of ultra-orthodox Jews. I said, do you come from Stamford Hill, they said, no, they were from Belgium. But one of them, an elderly lady, had grown up in Heathland Road! I told her I had been up here all day, she said, “weren’t you bored?” And once there was a group of boys with a powerful music machine belting out demented rhythms, they greeted the pass with great shouts and whoops. The helicopter seemed to be going through some kind of training exercise, it did numerous swoops up valleys and around mountains, alighting carefully and momentarily on a col near the ski-lift station at Pass Suvretta, then doing another little low level tour before roaring back again. I didn’t see anyone else who had strayed from the path.
But it was all right because, like all of these, I was in my little world. Enormous world. And everybody else sticks to the path – well, not the helicopter obviously, though it seemed to be following paths of its own as it repeated manoeuvres, approaches, landings – which leaves me huge slopes and ridges all to myself. Now I’m back I miss that space, plants with all that space. Space to display a wonderful array of stone, an isolated limestone crag; a purple sandstone looking a lot like fine-grained Torridonian , but only about 40 million years old to Torridon’s near billion, comes alive when the sun shines on it; some sharp, dark, almost oily in the sunlight shale, breaking up fast and slithering down. Ranunculus glacialis hanging on. Lichens light up the more stable places, generally on the long whale-back cols and ridges. A line is neatly drawn down the middle of a small dry valley, dividing purplish from yellowish.
Set against stone and highlighted by it, though almost invisible at a distance, some of those dainty cushion plants are like a tiny print at the centre of a big mounting board. The frame and the board draw you in close to examine the picture.
A star cast of flowers, and this was their moment – it was the third week of July. Doronicum and Geum reptans are the biggest and boldest, both bright yellow. Sometimes clumps of doronicum will mark out a rocky gully which has moisture near the surface, a landscaping gesture, with dozens of clumps curving down the hillside. The geum likes moisture and scree. It ends out runners, like a strawberry – a not so close relation – and often they all fail to find the right space to root into and so they die, and spoil the portrait of its golden globes of flowers the following spring, persisting as they do as stiffened, dead twigs. Starry white cushions of minuartia. Purple Linaria alpina with two tiny bright yellow lines on each flower when they open, and on one broad flank of shifting purplish shaley scree they were multiplying bravely. Saxifraga exarata and S. bryoides, in quantities on more or less solid rock and stabilised scree, and just a few patches of S. paniculata on the ridges. Campanula cenisia, a kind of dusty blue and the flowers more open and upturned than most campanulas, more exciting because I’d never seen it before, below the limestone crag where the soil would be more alkaline. Draba aizoides, tiny starry yellow flowers, it usually turns up somewhere. Gentians, will I ever get their names right? G. bavarica I think, more intensely blue than the sky. A few patches, in fine, dry scree of little grey Artemisia genipi from which one of those horrible alpine liqueurs is made. A densely flowering clump of potentilla. Ranunculus glacialis, most past their best, their pure white petals turning pink as they fade, but where snow had lain later, or on north facing slopes, they were still perfect. And Androsace alpina, freshly created, each patch with flowers in a range of perfect delicate princess pinks astonishing against the harsh rocks . And lower down a few Androsace obtusifolia, easily overlooked when Androsace alpina has made you star-struck. A white daisy, Leucanthemopsis alpina, like a compact, elegant ox-eye daisy. Another new one for me, Arabis caerulea, with its violet-tinged flowers just opening. A tiny veronica, V. bellidoides I think, with clusters of deep blue flowers, and of course Myosotis, Vergissmeinnicht, forget-me-not, a few gorgeous, generous clusters of alpine forget me not, of a more intense blue that our paler spring flowers. Drifts of cerastium, in the same family as our stitchwort, but with bigger, white flowers. It enjoys relative stability in rock with plenty of fissures to root into. Erosion breaks the shale down to fine grains which accumulate in the crack and fissures for plants to root into, but in the end those same erosive forces destroy what they have built, and the plants as well. The flowers and the mountain itself are always on the move.
An astonishing list of plants for an area which at first glance seems like a desert.
It’s amazing how healthy everything is. Most of the bacterial and fungal infections which affect plants in our gardens cannot survive at high altitudes. These plants only have to cope with the constant refashioning of the mountain. You notice little seedlings of ranunculus all over the place, often trying to muscle in on an androsace or a linaria. As plants are destroyed in one place, they are germinating anew in another.
Alpine flowers, living through eight month long winters, knowing nothing of the rich, easy living to be had in the valleys, appeal to puritans. Reaching them can be an arduous pilgrimage, (or a cable car ride which makes me feel slightly guilty: it shouldn’t be that easy, and leads to the absurd and sinful triumph of the Audi quattro in a huge advert on the upper cable-car station. The high mountains, it says, are the home of this car. The search for a homeland grows ever more desperate. There are no roads up there. But to have the image of a car dominate the view, or a view, at 3000metres, that’s the thing. Looking through my back pages you might come across a photo of our red VW Polo parked in Britain’s most scenic lay-by above the south shore of Loch Torridon, on the road to Shieldaig, the setting sun extra fiery on its polished flanks. Adverts for cars so often show them on their own in remote country that you might think that the best thing about them is that you can use them to get away from other cars, other people’s cars. That this is so many drivers’ fantasy is confirmed by the bad temper so many of them show at having to share the city streets with other vehicles. So unfair. John R. Stilgoe (‘What Is Landscape’ p. 216) says ‘to survive in cities, the typical person learns to ignore almost all signage as he or she ignores almost all ambient noise and conversation. The educated person learns to ignore a great deal more.’ I wish I could. Must be badly educated.The Audi sign in the mountains, where one expects no printed words, is determined not to be ignored. I’m reminded of the relief of lapping water by the Thames in central London where suddenly there are almost no words,and the sound of trains and traffic is largely screened out.)
26 august now, bank holiday weekend, cold, raining
From a distance almost all these plants, except for the showy yellows, are invisible. These mountains appear to be utterly barren. The riches reveal themselves gradually. the luxury of space
Now I’m home, my crowded garden reminds me of the impossible search for Eden in the early botanical garden: that idea that an assembly of all the world’s plants would recreate the Garden of Eden, a vision the pursuit of which becomes obsession and pedantry.
I tried to identify the various saxifrages I had seen in Switzerland, and found the distinction between S. moschata and S. exarata tricky, even though I had taken photos which revealed the leaves. On the former the lobes of the leaves are rounded and not grooved, on the latter the lobes are blunt and grooved. Since these lobes are about a millimetre long, this was difficult. Then in another book I found a reference to S. exarata ssp moschata, so at least some authorities don’t regard them as separate species at all, and at that point I gave up. I’m not yet ready to take a magnifying glass out with me..
Post script. I’ve been unable so far to find an explanation for the German word for androsace: Mannsschild. Man’s shield? or it can mean a coat of arms. The aristocracy have their coats of arms, the glorious androsace is the coat of arms of the ordinary man, who in those parts would be the shepherd. That’s my imagined etymology. I’d seen photos, but still I was surprised and delighted by them, their delicate but powerful colour, pink and white, their apparent fragility set against a variety of rock and scree, their improbability, their perfection – even when hanging on.
lLinaria alpina, Androsace alpina, Doronicum grandiflorum, rough scree, Audi.