Gentiana Kochiana, G. Verna, And Silene Acaulis At The Col De La Forclaz, Above Martigny, In The Rhone Valley. Early In June.
But, fascinating as this subject is, and deserving as it is of deep and lengthy study, we must pass on to another characteristic, obviously less noticeable, though none the less remarkable - the roots of these Alpine wonders. In their battle against the fierce winds and excessive dryness, these plants send roots down to astonishing depths - astonishing when compared with what is to be seen of the plants above ground. A little tuft or rosette of leaves, the size round of a five-shilling piece, will often have a system of roots extending a foot or more down into the soil or into the depths of some crevice in the rock, with ramifications in all possible directions. Nor can this surprise us when we come to study the conditions under which they live the year round. These roots, gathering in the moisture when and where they may, are the plants' larders and store-rooms. Think of how many months they spend in obliteration from the world. Buried often for some nine months in the year beneath the snow, they needs must have well-stocked larders to draw upon. Often, even, it may be some few years before they see the sun and breathe the mountain air again. This, to some, will sound a Munchausen-like exaggeration, but it is only the simple truth. It is not every summer that the sun has power to rid the sheltered little Alpine valleys of the winter snow; often must many a plant beget its soul in patience for at least two years, comforting itself, 'in the mad maze of hope,' with thoughts of all it will accomplish during the brief interval of sun and air when it will once more put forth its flowers.
I remember, on one notable occasion, coming upon a more than ordinary instance of this reawakening of Alpine plant-life from an abnormally long seclusion. It was in August, and late in August, in the little, secluded valley (the French have a better word - vallon) of Susanfe, at the back of the Dent du Midi, and between that mountain and the Glacier de Soix. There, in an extensive hollow, lying beneath the rocks and cliffs which mount to the glacier above, was a large bed of ice and snow doing its best to melt and disappear whilst yet there was a chance. This ice was evidently not of one winter's making. Probably there is always more or less of it here - according to the sway which summer can obtain. And yet here, all around the edge of this ice, in the rusty, sodden turf, were springing up, with all the haste of pent-up eagerness, quantities of the year's earliest flowers. Even away under the hollow dome of icy snow, which resembled the snout of some miniature glacier, tiny plants could be discerned already busily developing their bloom-buds. Here, late in August, was very early spring! Here was the Crocus and the Vernal Gentian, the Solda-nella, Viola, and Oxlip. Here, too, was Trollius europceus, the Globe Flower, and Ranunculus alpestris - not, as lower down in the normal spring-time, making their usual growth of stem and leaf before opening their flowers, but hurrying up at once their blossoms on the shortest of thick, fleshy stalks. Here was no time for easy loitering; here was but to do - or die! In another month, perhaps less, snow might be expected to be again in possession of the scene; and then for another nine weary months of seclusion - perhaps, even, for another two live-long years! Truly, it is a state of things which, much on all-fours with that of the traditional toad and beetle, cannot but give pause for thought and wonder, and the more so when we think that there, under that remaining mass of ice, are yet more hundreds of little Alpine plants which can never hope to see the light of day this year!
This is an extreme, but by no means rare, instance of those conditions which compel Alpines to be as they are - for the most part all root and flower. Small occasion have they for the elaboration of much foliage. Nor is it to their advantage to attempt much show in that direction. This is the region, if there be any such particular region in wild Nature, of concentrated efficiency: a region where all energy is entirely practical: a region where the scarcity of humidity and the frequent occurrence of tempests, the presence of a most 'personal' sun during the day and of very keen frost during the night, renders the striving after great stature and much foliage a positive madness. But if anywhere in this world unadulterated sanity reigns, it is here; here, if nowhere else, the one absorbing interest is in keeping an ever open and alert eye on the main chance, and in employing such chance without hesitation.
And happiness is the outcome - as complete and real a happiness as is to be found in this world of unsatisfied satisfaction. Give these plants more 'comforts' - such conditions as we look upon as 'home comforts' - and we at once upset their happiness. 'Home comforts' they have in abundance. A winter of nine months spent under snow, a summer of feverish haste, of alternate frost and burning sunshine, of storm and drought - these are their 'home comforts,' satisfying and indispensable, as real a set of comforts as any we ourselves possess down in the plains. Do we think to know better, and to urge upon these happy Alpines some of our ideas of happiness and comfort, we only end in making them miserable, and in showing once again our traditional and egregious conceit.
Almost anywhere in the Alps at an altitude of between 3,000 and 5,000 feet we may meet with striking illustrations of the Alpines' dislike and dread of civilized 'comforts.' Almost anywhere at this altitude we may find pastures dressed annually with manure by the peasants, running side by side with others that are untouched in this regard and are used the season round as grazing-ground for the cows. Perhaps a rough wall of stones, or one of the rustic Alpine fences, will separate the two pastures; but such boundaries are not necessary, except to keep the cattle from the pasture dressed for producing hay, for the line of demarcation is most distinctly marked by the vegetation. The dressed enclosure is positively rank in its growth compared with the close-cropped appearance of the neighbouring ground. Not that there is anything remarkable in this fact of itself. The remarkable thing is that on the dressed field and slopes there is an almost total absence of all the truer Alpines, It is useless looking here for any of the blue Gentians, for instance, or for the Viola, the Soldanella, the Antennaria, or the Alpine Avens. They have long since fled in dismay at man's unnecessary attentions. Although the Crocus does not seem to particularly mind one way or the other (and it can scarcely be considered a pure-blooded Alpine), it is as much as a few sulphur or white Anemones can do to withstand the 'comfort' heaped upon them by civilization. And yet, just over on the other side of the boundary, there will be a wealth of Gentian, Viola, and Anemone, and of a score or more of other Alpines, disporting themselves in the greatest happiness, and showing their disdain and repugnance for human ideas of careful luxe and kind consideration.
It is an object-lesson, and one that should be borne in mind by those who attempt the culture of Alpines in England. Born in hardship, as children of hardship, Alpine plants have so attuned themselves to harsh conditions as to make of these the very mainspring of their joy in life. Only there, amid such conditions, are they at their fullest ease; only there can they smile as we know them capable of smiling. Those wild, stern places of so angry, hard, forbidding circumstance are most obviously their most precious birthright. Be it in winter, be it in summer, be it in storm, or be it in sunshine, these Alpine wilds are their well-loved home - aye, and more than home, their Paradise.