There is a curious fact about the Alpine wanderings of the Nettle which is worthy of notice. Although it is ready to sting him upon the slightest provocation, this Nettle appears really amicably disposed towards man. It seems to love to be with him, and to go where he goes, even following him up to the glaciers. For, as far as I have observed, it is not found in a really wild and lonely state in Alpine altitudes, but only where the soil has been disturbed by the peasant and his beasts, Around cattle-sheds and chalets, however remote these may be, one can generally count upon finding this Nettle; but away from all human habitation or human influence one never meets with it; at least, that is my experience. And how does it get to these regions? What subterfuge does it employ in order to accompany man upon such long journeys? Can it be the winds or the birds which aid it? It may be that its seeds travel with the peasant and his cattle - on the boots, the clothing, and the belongings of the former, or on the hoofs and in the hairy coats of the latter. This method of transport is by no means uncommon; many a plant now found in Britain is believed to have come over with the Romans in some such fashion. Any way, there it usually is, close beside the peasant's dwelling, 6,000 to 7,000 feet, maybe, above its ancient home. Perhaps, then, this is one good reason why it has no recognized place among the Alpine 'upper ten.' But why should not such reasons as these debar the Globe Flower from inclusion among the elect? May not this plant also (and, for that matter, many another plant) have travelled upwards in some such fashion as the Nettle? Who shall tell? With winds and air-currents as violent and erratic as in Switzerland, anything in the nature of seed distribution is possible. But however that may be, it does not appear to be a point which counts. The point which appears to count, at any rate in the present instance, is that the Globe Flower shows a certain independence. It is to be found, up to some 7,000 feet, on damp pastures, sunny or shady, wellnigh anywhere in the Alps, whereas the Nettle does not roam on its own account; it does not spread to every desirable nook and corner of the Alps - indeed, as circumstanced in the Alps, it can scarcely be called wild; it seems, really, to detest Alpine conditions, and to hug whatever it can find of the grossness of lowland, civilized soil. Perhaps, then, this want of independence bars the Nettle, if not from admittance, then from official recognition within the charmed circle of Alpine vegetation.
But independence is not always the necessary passport, or what are we to say of the Dock? Here is a subject which offers us another instance of the apparent attachment of some plants to man, especially when they find themselves in Alpine places. Unlike the Nettle, however, the Dock is admitted to books on the Alpine flora, and is there given as Rumex alpinus. But what is the plant's origin? What is its history? Does its present habit of sociability with man date, like that of the swallow, from prehistoric times, from the times of the cave-dweller? There are certain grounds for doubting the strict legality of its title, just as there are grounds for doubting the title of Myosotis alpestris, though in the case of the Dock these doubts are perhaps graver. There is some evidence of the Dock having been planted expressly in times past - indeed, I have met with a kind of tradition to this effect among the peasantry. It is a useful plant to the montagnard (although its dry flower-stem is abomination in his hay). He employs it as a medicine for himself; and not only is it excellent fodder, in the green state, for the pigs (and the cowherd or peasant frequently brings a pig or two with him into the mountains for summer), but its leaves are still often used to wrap around butter to keep it fresh, and in times past, before the introduction of special linen for this purpose, the custom was general - upon much the same principle as, in the Ardennes, the Nettle is used for keeping fish fresh.
Then, again, why should Tussilago Farfara, the common Coltsfoot, be excluded from books on Alpine flowers? The Coltsfoot suffers from no such disabilities as the Nettle. It is a lonely, independent wanderer, making itself as much at home in the moraine of a glacier as it does upon any rough ground down in the plains. Is its exclusion a case of familiarity breeding contempt; and is this, too, the real reason for snubbing the Nettle?
There are, in fact, no lack of examples which might be quoted in support of this indictment. Even Gentiana verna is not altogether free from suspicion, it being frequently met with in the lower valleys, or, as they are termed in Switzerland, the plains, though, with all due apologies to Byron, it cannot be accused of having been seen by the Prisoner of Chillon from his cell! I have found it, and its beautiful white form also, by the Rhone, at Lavey-les-Bains, near St. Maurice (about 1,300 feet altitude); and Mr. H. Stuart Thompson, in one of his luminous articles contributed to the Teacher's Times, mentions this Gentian as having been found by him 'as low as 1,600 feet, near the beautiful lake of Annecy in Savoie.'Gentiana lutea, too, I have found blooming freely by a stone-quarry quite close to Villeneuve. But I suppose we must take it as quite out of the question to attempt to impeach these two plants, and to bar them from inclusion with true Alpines. Their place on the list of the elect is secure; we cannot spare them - as we can the Nettle!
Enough has been said, however, to show that there is some very real difficulty in drawing any hard and fast line among Alpine plants without doing some injustice to either one side or the other of the line. The fact is, no such lines can, in strictness, be drawn anywhere in Nature; such lines can only stand for purely utilitarian purposes. In 'The Face of Nature,' Dr. C. T. Ovenden declares, in his chapter on 'Vegetable Life,' that 'it is easy to say that man stands at the head of creation, that the animals are lower, and the vegetables lower still, but our difficulty commences when we try to draw a sharp line of distinction between the low forms of animal life and those which are vegetable.' But are we not becoming aware that our difficulty begins before this? Are we not beginning to feel that it is easy enough to say, but not at all easy to prove, that our difficulty about drawing a sharp line of demarcation arises only when dealing with the lower forms of life? We feel to-day that there is a 'missing link' between man and the apes, and we are continually coming upon links which connect those creations which stand on one side of some old, dogmatic line with those which stand on the other side. Gradually, but surely, are we erasing these lines for all ultimate purposes; gradually, but surely, are we coming to recognize them for what assuredly they are - useful, even necessary, but ultimately unscientific and untruthful. Although Dr. Ovenden finds a difficulty in sharply dividing vegetable life from the lower forms of animal life, yet further on he has no difficulty in speaking of organic and inorganic life; and this, I think, is an apt illustration of our growing recognition of what will, some day, be a general difficulty. The difficulty with regard to animal and vegetable life did not exist for us a little while back, and presently we shall recognize difficulties in the way of scientifically dividing organic from inorganic life.
Let me quote another author on this point - Mr. Edward Step. In the introductory chapter to his 'The Romance of Wild Flowers,' he says: 'It may be fairly claimed that during the last half-century our prevailing notions respecting plant life have been greatly modified, and, concerning flowering plants, have been entirely changed. Fifty years ago there could be found very few botanists who were not satisfied with the generalizations crystallized in the Linnsean axiom: '"Stones grow, Vegetables grow and live, Animals grow, live, and feel."
Alpine Garden (La Thomasia) At Pont De Nant, Above Les Plans, With The Glacier De Martinet. Middle Of May.
There, in less than a dozen words, was a handy and easily-remembered formula, serving as a kind of touchstone which, when applied to any doubtful organism, would detect whether it were plant or animal. But other times, other methods: the Linnaean formula is absolutely obsolete to-day.'
And so must this broadening of our views continue as our powers of perception and appreciation become greater. It is our ignorance which enables us to draw dogmatic lines with so much complacency. We are on little more than bowing terms with evolution; our practical conception of it is as yet more casual than intimate. With evolution accepted in its logical fulness as a thorough article of faith, how, in strictness, draw the line anywhere in circumstance which must be one unbroken chain? Science will some day oblige us to know that such distinctions as 'something' and 'nothing,' organic' and 'inorganic,' are simply useful terms relative to the exigencies of finite thought and speech. We can, and we shall, always think more than we say, but every day we say more and more what we think. And in time we shall not only think, but convincedly and intelligently speak, of creation as an indivisible whole - divisible only temporarily, and for our own mortal convenience.
In dealing, then, with Alpine flowers, it is necessary to draw some line of demarcation; but, at the same time, and with regard to a number of plants, we may know that the line is only rough and relative - relative to that need for cutting up Creation into sections which is so inevitable an element in our means for obtaining even approximate understanding of the whole.