Bob and the others had left during the day yesterday when I was in Digne and Joël had remained there since it was his home town. This was the first day since my arrival when most of my conversation was in English, albeit with myself and, rather unsatisfactorily, with Jane on the TomTom. Reflecting on how I had done, I realised that I had moved through the language with the same ease a man moves through deep heather with his trousers round his ankles.
I estimated 25% proper comprehension, 25% comprehension through extrapolation and 50% hoping I wasn’t smiling idiotically when being told about bereavement, illness, divorce or other forms of personal tragedy.
I decided to return, for the third time, to the Foret du Morgon. I needed somewhere in this unfamiliar landscape to feel acquainted with, something that could happen only with successive visits. And the place I had enjoyed most of all – and that still had treats in store – was this forest.
I re-shot narrow leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) when I found a better specimen growing at an eccentric angle near the lady’s slippers I photographed with Joël. Close by, a single plant of white helleborine was coming into bloom. While the white helleborine is absent from Scotland and the narrow leaved species rare, both belong in my mind to a more southern community of calciphiles. As such, they don’t excite me as much as rarities of the Scottish flora that grow on our scarce outcrops of lime. Uppermost in my mind was the plant I now found in front of me: whorled Solomon’s seal (Polygontum verticillatum). Apart from its obvious elegance (shown off to effect against the white background) it is where the plant grows in Scotland that is a large part of its appeal: all but one of its nine stations (there are none in England) are in humid, shady riparian gorges cut deep enough to keep the plant cool even in hot summers. Sometimes scarcely accessible, these ravines retain a degree of wildness absent from much of the landscape bordering them. They are refuges, sanctuaries where we can feel closer to something elemental.
The forest felt very distant as I rejoined the N94 to head north to Mont Dauphin Gare that Sunday afternoon. Almost immediately I came across a convoy of 12 or 13 Ferraris of various vintages heading south, in the much the same way as I had encountered one of Porsches last summer in Austria. This is perhaps human bonding behaviour at its most bizarre. I was sorely tempted to execute a handbrake turn and subvert the parade with my Punto but mindful that it had as much torque as a Trappist monk, I didn’t rate my chances of keeping up.
During a couple of previous visits to the fort that lies above Mont Dauphin Gare and Guillestre I had seen a few of the marmots that live on the slopes beneath it. This was at a much lower altitude than one would normally expect to meet these rodents and at dinner that evening, Michel confirmed they had indeed been relocated to this site at some stage in the past.
I arrived on the slopes about 0700 before anyone else was around. And sure enough, after a while, a large male marmot appeared on a rock near to where I was standing. I cast my eyes down, turned my head away, and started to edge ever so cautiously towards him, watching his reflection in the shiny screen on the back of my camera. Once I judged I was on the edge of his fear circle I stopped and slowly turned the camera in his direction. He didn’t flinch. I shot a few frames. Edged a little closer still. Still watching me. No warning whistle from him or any of the other marmots. I was framing up another composition a short time later when a local woman with an enormous bag of dandelions (Taraxacum spec.) walked onto the flat grassy area nearby and started calling. Several marmots came bounding up to her, at times even taking the salad from her hand. It looked like my caution had been a bit superfluous so I adopted a cat-like nonchalance as I started to take pictures of the marmots being hand fed. The Park tolerates people feeding the marmots with dandelions but in the height of the tourist season there is a problem with some visitors ignoring the signs and offering chocolate and other food inappropriate to a mammal whose normal diet is mostly green.
Later, one marmot sentry spotted a circling red kite and, stood on its hind legs, issued a piping whistle, a bit like an oystercatcher’s contact call. After a while she went silent but still her mouth hung open as if in a silent rage. “Ah, the song of the marmot,” I commented to the dandelion lady, her bag now quite empty and brow furrowed.
I returned at 0630 to the marmots only to find them less interested in me than yesterday and keen to keep out of the way of a noisy school party making its way up to the fort. After breakfast I resolved to try to make a panorama of alpine flowers and drove to a meadow near Vars that Bob had shown me. But such was the strength of the wind and frequency of showers that I had to give up after shooting a crab spider on a Euphorbia and some spikes of broad leaved everlasting pea. Time to pack and ask Jane nicely to guide me back to Turin airport.
Niall Benvie / Wild Wonders of Europe
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