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21 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:24am

Meet the slithering serpent at home in the Alpine Eden

I went to Switzerland for quiet and found the Vipera aspis – a common species in the canton of Valais.

By John Burnside

When I first arrived at the writer’s atelier in Raron, Switzerland, my intention was to use the peace and quiet to finish a long-overdue project – but it is difficult to resist the great outdoors when the thermometer is steadily in the low thirties and the meadows are clouded with wild flowers, day moths and butterflies.

By midsummer, the scent of phlox spreads through the verges up and down the valley; slender spikes of wild salvia rise above the trefoils and forget-me-nots like elegant, purple church spires; the trees and reeds are loud with bird calls and there are butterflies and diurnal moths everywhere (among them the astonishing hummingbird hawk-moth, which can hover amid a stand of valerian flowers for minutes at a time, its bronze wings humming in the still summer air). Tiny blue butterflies flicker through the grasses like thin flakes of lapis lazuli, swifts flit back and forth, and rarer sightings – such as the gorgeous wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), a bird of blue-grey and crimson plumage that inhabits narrow gorges and sheer rock faces – are no more than a brisk walk away.

Today, almost my last day in Switzerland for a while, I am out walking in the Pfyn-Finges national park with my friend Hanna, following one of those cold streams that run down off the mountains to merge, finally, with the river on its way to Lake Geneva and on again into the south of France. One of the great pleasures of following a waterway is the sense of connection that it gives to the great world into which it will continue flowing when you can travel with it no longer, a vision of floodplains and oxbow bends and cities criss-crossed with bridges rising in the mind’s eye as you keep pace with its current form.

Here the stream is quick and cold. In the summer heat, it is a luxury to kneel down and splash the icy water on our faces, the scent of the high snow lingering, still, in every drop. There is more water this year than most, which is not surprising, considering how hot it has been, after a slow spring; and the colour is that greeny grey of glacier water, rich in minerals and almost alive when I scoop it up in my hands.

You never know what other animals might be drawn to its freshness, too – which is how I came to be standing, fixed to the spot, while an asp viper slithered past my feet and away into the dusty undergrowth. The asp viper (Vipera aspis) is fairly common here. Although the bite is rarely fatal, it is said to be extremely painful and it can take considerable time to recover from its effects.

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We hadn’t come to look for snakes, however. We had come for the meadow flowers and in hopes of seeing one of the more colourful birds that haunt this valley – a bee-eater, say, or a hoopoe. We went to several likely places, but in the end we had to settle for the viper and a meadow full of brightly coloured butterflies and moths.

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This area, especially the land protected by the Naturpark, has always been renowned for its Lepidoptera, but many species are now the focus of concern, mainly because seemingly innocent changes in land use can threaten priceless habitats. Pfyn-Finges provides a haven for the other creatures that inhabit the Valais, but we have to remember that, just as the river flows, so do pollutants and other hazards, and as the temperature warms, habitats change from hospitable to challenging to life-threatening.

On the drive back to Raron, I couldn’t help but think again of Rainer Maria Rilke, who made his home in the Valais at the end of his life, of how he loved this place for its beauty, its tranquillity and the sense he had, in this final home of his, of a land as “warm as new bread”, suspended “between earth and sky”, where he could walk all day on “roads that lead nowhere”, other than, it would seem, between two meadows, into pure space.

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge