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.