The highest ground pulsates with life

High Alpine meadows, like their near relatives prairie and wetland, teach us to consider the world from a fresh perspective.

Take any path that leads upwards from a Swiss mountain village and you will find two distinct forms of meadow. The first, in clearings and open spaces below the treeline, has distinct flora, a lush mix of grasses and wildflowers that was once found all over Britain but is now mostly a fond memory (some estimates suggest that 80 to 90 per cent of our hay meadows was lost, in the space of about 70 years, in the shift from traditional farming to industrial agribusiness).

We have to concede that, in one sense, these hay meadows are artificial – they arose where native woodland was cleared to grow hay for livestock – but they are extraordinarily rich spaces, nevertheless, with a diversity and abundance of plant and insect life that most of us can only dream about. Here, the open ground is a brightly coloured tapestry of geraniums, hawkbits, bellflowers and daisies, while the dappled shade at the meadow’s edge offers sanctuary to diadems of Astrantia and that “queen of poisons”, Aconitum vulparia. Wherever you look, butterflies of every hue and pattern drift from flower to flower in seemingly impossible numbers.

These “artificial” meadows are a testament to what can be achieved when human culture dovetails with the natural world; they may result from our interventions, but they are havens for birds, bees and other wildlife and a perennial source of inspiration for painters, poets and musicians. That we have almost lost them demonstrates not only appalling carelessness, but also an astonishing stupidity on our part.

Continue that walk a few hundred metres further up the mountain, however, and you come to natural, or perennial, meadow, a terrain that is as old as the mountains themselves. Here, in spring and early summer, the ground is covered with clusters and carpets of gentian and saxifrage, Androsace and primulas, mountain asters and those fleshy clumps of sempervivum that, in flower, look like miniature krakens from some 1950s science-fiction movie.

The more you look, the more this natural variety and beauty become present to the eye. High Alpine meadows, like their near relatives prairie, desert and certain varieties of wetland, teach us to consider the world from a fresh perspective, to open our eyes and take account of what we have missed, reminding us that, in spite of our emphasis on the visual in everyday speech, we see so very little of the world. To appreciate these high meadows requires exquisite attention, but the exercise is salutary, considering how flabby our everyday awareness has become.

So, it is gratifying to know that, over the past few months, meadows have been in the news: Prince Charles, whose own garden at Highgrove contains a traditional hay meadow, recently set up a scheme to fund 60 “coronation meadows” across Britain. A few local councils have come to recognise the importance of permanent meadowland, with such projects as the Sanders Park initiative in Bromsgrove garnering huge support. And individual gardeners are beginning to forgo the joyless backyard monoculture of mossfree, manicured lawns for wild gardens that, however small they may be, offer way stations and refuges for insects and birds in cities and suburbs.

Any and all such projects, no matter how modest, are to be applauded, but we must always remember that, with regard to meadows, as with so much else, the elephant in the room is our continued tolerance of an agribusiness system that is both toxic and socially unjust.

Unless we change the very nature of our rural economy – first by breaking the hegemony of corporate subsidy-milkers, and then by supporting only those for whom farming is both a vocation and the expression of a living tradition – the diversity and abundance that makes for quality of life, in the fullest sense of the phrase, may never be regained.

World anew: the wild but subtle beauty of highland meadows commands attention and excited delight. Photograph: Misha de Ridder.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge