Switzerland probably owes nearly as much of its popularity to its flowers as it does to its mountains, and although in this regard we may find it difficult to dissociate the one from the other, it is not impossible, nor, indeed, unreasonable. There is a season when the mountains are devoid of flowers and yet remain popular. But the popularity which surrounds the Alps in winter is not, and probably never can be, the wide popularity which surrounds them in spring, summer, and early autumn. Whilst Goddess Flora slumbers, Nature's appeal is more particular than general, and this even to so strenuous, athletic, and sports-loving a race as the British; for, as Mr. E. T. Cook so rightly remarks in the opening chapter of his 'Gar ens of England,' 'there is a love of flowers fast knit into the very fibre of our British nature.' Rocks and crags radiant with gem-like florets must exercise a fascination far more universal than when brown and bare - a fascination which must reach even most climbers climbing for mere climbing's sake. The Matterhorn or the Jungfrau, set amid a glory of Rhododendron and Gentian, must ever have more constant admirers than when wrapped about with snow. Slopes dyed richly with red and blue and gold must ever make wider appeal than when draped merely in white. For white, in human economy, is a luxury - a wholesome condition for a select season. It soon has palled upon the imagination; it soon has served its useful purpose of duly stimulating appreciation for an estate more sentient, more colourfull, and - yes, more vital.
'The winter Alps are melancholy,' says Leslie Stephen in 'The Playground of Europe,' 'as everything sublime is more or less melancholy;' and it is just this melancholy - 'this living death, or cataleptic trance of the mountains' - which, fascinating though it be for awhile, soon palls. Or, at any rate, its effect is this upon the generality of mankind. The generality of mankind are not Leslie Stephens. The generality of mankind, I venture to think, could not write a long book about the Alps, as he has done, without mentioning the unique and wondrous flora more than to remark: 'It is pleasant to lie on one's back in a bed of Rhododendrons and look up to a mountain - top peering at one from above a bank of cloud.'
It is true, quite true, that 'the Alps in winter belong to dreamland.' It is true, quite true, that 'from the moment when the traveller catches sight, from the terraces of the Jura, of the long escarpment of peaks from Mont Blanc to the Wetter-horn to the time when he has penetrated to the innermost recesses of the chain, he is passing through a series of dreams within dreams. Each vision is a portal to one beyond and within, still more substantial and solemn. One passes by slow gradations to the more and more shadowy regions, where the stream of life runs lower, and the enchantment binds the senses with a more powerful opiate.' All this is true, quite true. But 'there are dreams and dreams,' as Sir Leslie himself elsewhere says; and I make so bold as to think that the dreams engendered by these selfsame Alps in a setting of floral wonders must ever obtain a larger, more real, and even healthier hold upon the imagination and enthusiasm of humanity.
Our most insistent demand is for something more in tune with the human joie de vivre - for some more intimate touch of Nature which will make all things akin. And this, assuredly, the flowers contribute to the otherwise superb melancholy of the Alps.
I know of no more dream-like and inspiring sight than when, in early spring-time, the mystic Alps, ridding themselves of their superfluous snows, are thundering down avalanches over their mighty crags and cliffs, and yet the while, in the tranquil, grassy foreground lies a lovely new-born wealth of Soldanella. Here at once is the melancholy, mystic grandeur of winter healthily allied with the more intimate interest of living colour, making of the whole an experience whose appeal is, and must be, far more irresistible and general than if winter stood alone, mistress of the entire landscape.
'One cannot be, and ought not to be, for ever on the snow.' This is the opinion of that veteran Alpinist and lover of the Alps, Mr. Frederick Harrison, in speaking of 'the superstition that glaciers and snow-peaks are the only things in the Alps worth coming to see.' He dubs it 'a silly conceit'; and so, undoubtedly, it is. Let it be repeated: whiteness for man is a luxury. Among his main and necessary elements of sustenance is colour, pronounced and varied. Whatever his spirit may yearn for in snow, 'the body's coloured pride' will not be gainsaid; its clamour is loud and imperative. Steely-blue has been the prevailing colour throughout the winter - a colour which, whatever the fascination of its appeal, can never be the same full, intimate appeal of the blue-blue of the Gentian. It is, therefore, with very real and reasonable enthusiasm that men wait upon the reawakening of their goddess; and it is with enthusiasm equally real and reasonable that they should give to Alpine flowers their due - a prominent place among the popularity-compelling beauties of the Alps.
Now, many observers affect to believe that this popularity is waning, and that the Swiss Alps have seen their best days as an attraction to the student and lover of Nature. I find it difficult to subscribe to this. It does not seem to me to be true even for the seeker after 'new sensations.' Quite the contrary: I find considerably more justification for believing that the popularity of the Alps has as yet by no means reached its zenith. Compared with the vast army of tourists and others annually visiting Switzerland, it is but the few who know its Alps in some of their most bewitching and distinctive moments. Comparatively few are in the mountains in early spring, or, indeed, know the mountains during any part of spring. About the middle or end of February there is a rush away from the mountains, away from the threatened melting of the snow; and the return thither, in any marked degree, is not until late in June or early in July. And during the interval - during, that is to say, the months of April and May - there is in progress a rapid and delightful transformation which it were a thousand pities to miss: a transformation such as no other months can supply.
As the snow recedes, the brown bed of the pine-forests is decked with myriads of Hepatica; their thick clusters of mauve-blue blossoms, relieved here and there by the rarer forms of white and rose, glint gaily among the sombre tree-trunks, creating a veritable laughing fairyland where, usually, all is sedate, if not actually gloomy. The gorges are peopled with the nodding caps, tipped green and yellow, of the large Snowflake (Leucojum vernum), and with the white, brush-like heads of the Butterbur (Petasites niveus), while the damp and rocky sides of these gorges are stained magenta-red by innumerable tufts of the Sticky Primrose (Primula viscosa) nestling in every nook and cranny. Over the plateaux, as far as eye can roam, spreads a silvery haze of white and purple as the Crocus and the Soldanella are freed from their winter covering; on every hand, upon sunny bank and grassy slope, blue is strewn in dazzling profusion - that pure and matchless blue of the little Vernal Gentian - sometimes to be happily intermingled with the pale yellow of Liottard's Star of Bethlehem (Gagea Liottardi), or with the brilliant gold of Geum and Potentilla; while the more marshy ground, acre upon acre, lies rose-red and brazen with its densely packed burden of Primula farinosa, the Mealy, or Bird's-eye Primrose, and with the Marsh Marigold.
All of this, and much more, is missed by the majority of visitors, who arrive perhaps in time to see the last fast-fading blossoms of the Rhododendron. Of course, they do find vestiges of spring's abundance, but only vestiges. From the very nature of the Alps, spring lingers long upon them, and often may be found nestling side by side with summer. On the ground higher up than it is necessary to go in the earlier months, on some sequestered slope, or in some shaded hollow where the snow has taken a tardy departure, or where, even, it may still be lingering, these summer visitors will frequently come upon bright patches of the earlier spring flowers. But it is nothing compared with what has gone before - nothing compared with the sumptuous feast which has earlier been spread, to right and to left, on the lower sun-favoured ground. What they find, however, is an inspiring and suggestive sample of a wealth which mere words utterly fail to picture properly. Of tales of this wealth they will hear; their appetites will be whetted for the feast; and surely will they make mental resolve to encompass, another year, this marvellous and distinctive season.
Because, then, the possibilities of the Alps are not as yet known or appreciated as they should be and, assuredly, as they will be, it seems safe to say that they have by no means reached the zenith of their popularity. Already, indeed, one can remark a development in this direction. Already many mountain hotels and pensions make arrangements to meet an earlier demand upon their hospitality, Already, quite early in May, British and other wayfarers may be found delightedly established in many an 'out-o'-way' place, indulging in day-long rapture over the wonders so lavishly unfolded April before them by the increasing year. For, just in the same way as they have found out and recognized of late the healthiness and fascination of Alpland in winter, so are they coming to see that spring has its possibilities equally great, if not, indeed, greater.
Hepatica In The Woods At Bex, In The Rhone Valley.