In her last mail to me before I logged off for a couple of weeks of R&R, an office colleague recommended a couple of her favourite mountain walks: easy trails through mountain meadows, forests and deep-cut valleys with occasional glimpses of towering peaks and Alpine lakes.This content was published on November 4, 2020 - 12:08
Her advice was to follow paths that are both well-travelled and very close to home. And that’s where I balked. Too familiar. Been there, done that.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the beauty I see every day through the window of my “home office”. And you’ll often find me heading into the local hills as soon as I’m untethered from my laptop.
I convince myself a mutant gene known as DRD4-7R is responsible for my annual compulsion to go far and experience novelty. One in five of us has the variant. DRD4-7R has been linked to curiosity and restlessness through the way it controls dopamine, even if it has been too simplistically referred to as the “wanderlust gene”.
Yet just understanding that I can’t control this innate need for newness is in itself empowering and helps me cope with the inevitability of a staycation.
And while Covid-19 has grounded most of us, I’ve also taken solace in the fact that the pandemic hasn’t held back the migratory impulses of creatures in the animal kingdom, for whom travelling long distances is a matter of life and death and the well-being of our planet.
A recent scientific article in the German-language newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung looked at the latest research into the migratory habits of insects. In the case of some butterfly species the scientists are still puzzled why one part of the population sets off on an annual long-distance flight while another stays put. Mutant genes I’m sure!
The marmalade hoverfly
The marmalade hoverfly has shown no signs of such hesitancy. The small tiger-striped insect that flits from flower to flower in my garden in summer departs on an epic journey twice a year. The Swiss Ornithological Institute estimates that around 60 million of them cross the Alpine pass, Col de Bretolet, each autumn. And that’s just the one mountain pass where the research was conducted.
Scientists in the UK, using narrow radar beams, have counted half a billion hoverflies crossing the Channel each spring. Once they’ve settled on UK soil for the summer, they pollinate about the same number of plants as honeybees, and – as a bonus – their larvae feast on aphids that damage wheat crops.
That was food for thought as I, like many thousands of other sun-hungry Swiss, sat on a crowded train on a recent Sunday to escape the grey north of Switzerland for the sunny Rhone valley to the south.
As the train slowly made its way south, it passed a handful of villages, including a place called Mitholz. As we crawled by, a passenger across the aisle briefed his friends on the unusual fate of the village.
None of the Mitholz inhabitants have the luxury to decide whether they want to stay or go – all of them will be forced to abandon their homes for ten years. My colleague, photographer Thomas Kern, has portrayed some of the villagers in the story “Life in the shadow of a ticking time bomb”.
It is a chilling reminder of how – even in neutral Switzerland – decisions made during the Second World War still have a great impact on our lives.
My previous article, questioning whether crosses should be erected on mountaintops, divided opinion on our social media channels and prompted interest from a leading British newspaper. The paper’s Rome correspondent, who was assigned the story, was at a bit of a loss when he called me up, unsure how to report the story, admitting he had very little knowledge of the Alps, its people or diverse cultures.
Since my story was published, I’ve come across more research shedding light on not only why crucifixes crown summits, but also why some parts of the Alps are rich in wayside shrines and chapels.
As the Swiss states split along religious lines during the Reformation, church leaders in the Catholic regions went on the offensive during the Counter-Reformation that followed, erecting numerous ostentatious structures.
This historical aspect was explained as part of an evening of talks in mid-October in the central canton of Uri. The theme was the “sacral landscape”.
I was thinking about that as I sat on a nearby mountaintop a few days ago, staring at a wooden cross. Maybe a staycation can be enlightening after all.