Story type: Essay
Everybody knows mountain flowers are beautiful. As one rises up any minor height in the Alps or the Pyrenees below snow-level, one notices at once the extraordinary brilliancy and richness of the blossoms one meets there. All nature is dressed in its brightest robes. Great belts of blue gentian hang like a zone on the mountain slopes; masses of yellow globe-flower star the upland pastures; nodding heads of soldanella lurk low among the rugged boulders by the glacier’s side. No lowland blossoms have such vividness of colouring, or grow in such conspicuous patches. To strike the eye from afar, to attract and allure at a distance, is the great aim and end in life of the Alpine flora.
Now, why are Alpine plants so anxious to be seen of men and angels? Why do they flaunt their golden glories so openly before the world, instead of shrinking in modest reserve beneath their own green leaves, like the Puritan primrose and the retiring violet? The answer is, Because of the extreme rarity of the mountain air. It’s the barometer that does it. At first sight, I will readily admit, this explanation seems as fanciful as the traditional connection between Goodwin Sands and Tenterden Steeple. But, like the amateur stories in country papers, it is ‘founded on fact,’ for all that. (Imagine, by the way, a tale founded entirely on fiction! How charmingly aerial!) By a roundabout road, through varying chains of cause and effect, the rarity of the air does really account in the long run for the beauty and conspicuousness of the mountain flowers.
For bees, the common go-betweens of the loves of the plants, cease to range about a thousand or fifteen hundred feet below snow-level. And why? Because it’s too cold for them? Oh, dear, no: on sunny days in early English spring, when the thermometer doesn’t rise above freezing in the shade, you will see both the honey-bees and the great black bumble as busy as their conventional character demands of them among the golden cups of the first timid crocuses. Give the bee sunshine, indeed, with a temperature just about freezing-point, and he’ll flit about joyously on his communistic errand. But bees, one must remember, have heavy bodies and relatively small wings: in the rarefied air of mountain heights they can’t manage to support themselves in the most literal sense. Hence their place in these high stations of the world is taken by the gay and airy butterflies, which have lighter bodies and a much bigger expanse of wing-area to buoy them up. In the valleys and plains the bee competes at an advantage with the butterflies for all the sweets of life: but in this broad sub-glacial belt on the mountain-sides the butterflies in turn have things all their own way. They flit about like monarchs of all they survey, without a rival in the world to dispute their supremacy.
And how does the preponderance of butterflies in the upper regions of the air affect the colour and brilliancy of the flowers? Simply thus. Bees, as we are all aware on the authority of the great Dr. Watts, are industrious creatures which employ each shining hour (well-chosen epithet, ‘shining’) for the good of the community, and to the best purpose. The bee, in fact, is the bon bourgeois of the insect world: he attends strictly to business, loses no time in wild or reckless excursions, and flies by the straightest path from flower to flower of the same species with mathematical precision. Moreover, he is careful, cautious, observant, and steady-going–a model business man, in fact, of sound middle-class morals and sober middle-class intelligence. No flitting for him, no coquetting, no fickleness. Therefore, the flowers that have adapted themselves to his needs, and that depend upon him mainly or solely for fertilisation, waste no unnecessary material on those big flaunting coloured posters which we human observers know as petals. They have, for the most part, simple blue or purple flowers, tubular in shape and, individually, inconspicuous in hue; and they are oftenest arranged in long spikes of blossom to avoid wasting the time of their winged Mr. Bultitudes. So long as they are just bright enough to catch the bee’s eye a few yards away, they are certain to receive a visit in due season from that industrious and persistent commercial traveller. Having a circle of good customers upon whom they can depend with certainty for fertilisation, they have no need to waste any large proportion of their substance upon expensive advertisements or gaudy petals.
It is just the opposite with butterflies. Those gay and irrepressible creatures, the fashionable and frivolous element in the insect world, gad about from flower to flower over great distances at once, and think much more of sunning themselves and of attracting their fellows than of attention to business. And the reason is obvious, if one considers for a moment the difference in the political and domestic economy of the two opposed groups. For the honey-bees are neuters, sexless purveyors of the hive, with no interest on earth save the storing of honey for the common benefit of the phalanstery to which they belong. But the butterflies are full-fledged males and females, on the hunt through the world for suitable partners: they think far less of feeding than of displaying their charms: a little honey to support them during their flight is all they need:–‘For the bee, a long round of ceaseless toil; for me,’ says the gay butterfly, ‘a short life and a merry one.’ Mr. Harold Skimpole needed only ‘music, sunshine, a few grapes.’ The butterflies are of his kind. The high mountain zone is for them a true ball-room: the flowers are light refreshments laid out in the vestibule. Their real business in life is not to gorge and lay by, but to coquette and display themselves and find fitting partners.
So while the bees with their honey-bags, like the financier with his money-bags, are storing up profit for the composite community, the butterfly, on the contrary, lays himself out for an agreeable flutter, and sips nectar where he will, over large areas of country. He flies rather high, flaunting his wings in the sun, because he wants to show himself off in all his airy beauty: and when he spies a bed of bright flowers afar off on the sun-smitten slopes, he sails off towards them lazily, like a grand signior who amuses himself. No regular plodding through a monotonous spike of plain little bells for him: what he wants is brilliant colour, bold advertisement, good honey, and plenty of it. He doesn’t care to search. Who wants his favours must make himself conspicuous.
Now, plants are good shopkeepers; they lay themselves out strictly to attract their customers. Hence the character of the flowers on this beeless belt of mountain side is entirely determined by the character of the butterfly fertilisers. Only those plants which laid themselves out from time immemorial to suit the butterflies, in other words, have succeeded in the long run in the struggle for existence. So the butterfly-plants of the butterfly-zone are all strictly adapted to butterfly tastes and butterfly fancies. They are, for the most part, individually large and brilliantly coloured: they have lots of honey, often stored at the base of a deep and open bell which the long proboscis of the insect can easily penetrate: and they habitually grow close together in broad belts or patches, so that the colour of each reinforces and aids the colour of the others. It is this cumulative habit that accounts for the marked flowerbed or jam-tart character which everybody must have noticed in the high Alpine flora.
Aristocracies usually pride themselves on their antiquity: and the high life of the mountains is undeniably ancient. The plants and animals of the butterfly-zone belong to a special group which appears everywhere in Europe and America about the limit of snow, whether northward or upward. For example, I was pleased to note near the summit of Mount Washington (the highest peak in New Hampshire) that a large number of the flowers belonged to species well known on the open plains of Lapland and Finland. The plants of the High Alps are found also, as a rule, not only on the High Pyrenees, the Carpathians, the Scotch Grampians, and the Norwegian fjelds, but also round the Arctic Circle in Europe and America. They reappear at long distances where suitable conditions recur: they follow the snow-line as the snow-line recedes ever in summer higher north toward the pole or higher vertically toward the mountain summits. And this bespeaks in one way to the reasoning mind a very ancient ancestry. It shows they date back to a very old and cold epoch.
Let me give a single instance which strikingly illustrates the general principle. Near the top of Mount Washington, as aforesaid, lives to this day a little colony of very cold-loving and mountainous butterflies, which never descend below a couple of thousand feet from the wind-swept summit. Except just there, there are no more of there sort anywhere about: and as far as the butterflies themselves are aware, no others of their species exist on earth: they never have seen a single one of their kind, save of their own little colony. One might compare them with the Pitcairn Islanders in the South Seas–an isolated group of English origin, cut off by a vast distance from all their congeners in Europe or America. But if you go north some eight or nine hundred miles from New Hampshire to Labrador, at a certain point the same butterfly reappears, and spreads northward toward the pole in great abundance. Now, how did this little colony of chilly insects get separated from the main body, and islanded, as it were, on a remote mountain-top in far warmer New Hampshire?
The answer is, they were stranded there at the end of the Glacial epoch.
A couple of hundred thousand years ago or thereabouts–don’t let us haggle, I beg of you, over a few casual centuries–the whole of northern Europe and America was covered from end to end, as everybody knows, by a sheet of solid ice, like the one which Frithiof Nansen crossed from sea to sea on his own account in Greenland. For many thousand years, with occasional warmer spells, that vast ice-sheet brooded, silent and grim, over the face of the two continents. Life was extinct as far south as the latitude of New York and London. No plant or animal survived the general freezing. Not a creature broke the monotony of that endless glacial desert. At last, as the celestial cycle came round in due season, fresh conditions supervened. Warmer weather set in, and the ice began to melt. Then the plants and animals of the sub-glacial district were pushed slowly northward by the warmth after the retreating ice-cap. As time went on, the climate of the plains got too hot to hold them. The summer was too much for the glacial types to endure. They remained only on the highest mountain peaks or close to the southern limit of eternal snow. In this way, every isolated range in either continent has its own little colony of arctic or glacial plants and animals, which still survive by themselves, unaffected by intercourse with their unknown and unsuspected fellow-creatures elsewhere.
Not only has the Glacial epoch left these organic traces of its existence, however; in some parts of New Hampshire, where the glaciers were unusually thick and deep, fragments of the primaeval ice itself still remain on the spots where they were originally stranded. Among the shady glens of the white mountains there occur here and there great masses of ancient ice, the unmelted remnant of primaeval glaciers; and one of these is so large that an artificial cave has been cleverly excavated in it, as an attraction for tourists, by the canny Yankee proprietor. Elsewhere the old ice-blocks are buried under the debris of moraine-stuff and alluvium, and are only accidentally discovered by the sinking of what are locally known as ice-wells. No existing conditions can account for the formation of such solid rocks of ice at such a depth in the soil. They are essentially glacier-like in origin and character: they result from the pressure of snow into a crystalline mass in a mountain valley: and they must have remained there unmelted ever since the close of the Glacial epoch, which, by Dr. Croll’s calculations, must most probably have ceased to plague our earth some eighty thousand years ago. Modern America, however, has no respect for antiquity: and it is at present engaged in using up this palaeocrystic deposit–this belated storehouse of prehistoric ice–in the manufacture of gin slings and brandy cocktails.
As one scales a mountain of moderate height–say seven or eight thousand feet–in a temperate climate, one is sure to be struck by the gradual diminution as one goes in the size of the trees, till at last they tail off into mere shrubs and bushes. This diminution–an old commonplace of tourists–is a marked characteristic of mountain plants, and it depends, of course, in the main upon the effect of cold, and of the wind in winter. Cold, however, is by far the more potent factor of the two, though it is the least often insisted upon: and this can be seen in a moment by anyone who remembers that trees shade off in just the self-same manner near the southern limit of permanent snow in the Arctic regions. And the way the cold acts is simply this: it nips off the young buds in spring in exposed situations, as the chilly sea-breeze does with coast plants, which, as we commonly but incorrectly say, are “blown sideways” from seaward.
Of course, the lower down one gets, and the nearer to the soil, the warmer the layer of air becomes, both because there is greater radiation, and because one can secure a little more shelter. So, very far north, and very near the snow-line on mountains, you always find the vegetation runs low and stunted. It takes advantage of every crack, every cranny in the rocks, every sunny little nook, every jutting point or wee promontory of shelter. And as the mountain plants have been accustomed for ages to the strenuous conditions of such cold and wind-swept situations, they have ended, of course, by adapting themselves to that station in life to which it has pleased the powers that be to call them. They grow quite naturally low and stumpy and rosette-shaped: they are compact of form and very hard of fibre: they present no surface of resistance to the wind in any way; rounded and boss-like, they seldom rise above the level of the rooks and stones, whose interstices they occupy. It is this combination of characters that makes mountain plants such favourites with florists: for they possess of themselves that close-grown habit and that rich profusion of clustered flowers which it is the grand object of the gardener by artificial selection to produce and encourage.
When one talks of the ‘the limit of trees’ on a mountain side, however, it must be remembered that the phrase is used in a strictly human or Pickwickian sense, and that it is only the size, not the type, of the vegetation that is really in question. For trees exist even on the highest hill-tops: only they have accommodated themselves to the exigencies of the situation. Smaller and ever smaller species have been developed by natural selection to suit the peculiarities of these inclement spots. Take, for example, the willow and poplar group. Nobody would deny that a weeping willow by an English river, or a Lombardy poplar in an Italian avenue, was as much of a true tree as an oak or a chestnut. But as one mounts towards the bare and wind-swept mountain heights one finds that the willows begin to grow downward gradually. The ‘netted willow’ of the Alps and Pyrenees, which shelters itself under the lee of little jutting rocks, attains the height of only a few inches; while the ‘herbaceous willow,’ common on all very high mountains in Western Europe, is a tiny creeping weed, which nobody would ever take for a forest tree by origin at all, unless he happened to see it in the catkin-bearing stage, when its true nature and history would become at once apparent to him.
Yet this little herb-like willow, one of the most northerly and hardy of European plants, is a true tree at heart none the less for all that. Soft and succulent as it looks in branch and leaf, you may yet count on it sometimes as many rings of annual growth as on a lordly Scotch fir-tree. But where? Why, underground. For see how cunning it is, this little stunted descendant of proud forest lords: hard-pressed by nature, it has learnt to make the best of its difficult and precarious position. It has a woody trunk at core, like all other trees; but this trunk never appears above the level of the soil: it creeps and roots underground in tortuous zigzags between the crags and boulders that lie strewn through its thin sheet of upland leaf-mould. By this simple plan the willow manages to get protection in winter, on the same principle as when we human gardeners lay down the stems of vines: only the willow remains laid down all the year and always. But in summer it sends up its short-lived herbaceous branches, covered with tiny green leaves, and ending at last in a single silky catkin. Yet between the great weeping willow and this last degraded mountain representative of the same primitive type, you can trace in Europe alone at least a dozen distinct intermediate forms, all well marked in their differences, and all progressively dwarfed by long stress of unfavourable conditions.
From the combination of such unfavourable conditions in Arctic countries and under the snow-line of mountains there results a curious fact, already hinted at above, that the coldest floras are also, from the purely human point of view, the most beautiful. Not, of course, the most luxuriant: for lush richness of foliage and ‘breadth of tropic shade’ (to quote a noble lord) one must go, as everyone knows, to the equatorial regions. But, contrary to the common opinion, the tropics, hoary shams, are not remarkable for the abundance or beauty of their flowers. Quite otherwise, indeed: an unrelieved green strikes the keynote of equatorial forests. This is my own experience, and it is borne out (which is far more important) by Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, who has seen a wider range of the untouched tropics, in all four hemispheres–northern, southern, eastern, western–than any other man, I suppose, that ever lived on this planet. And Mr. Wallace is firm in his conviction that the tropics in this respect are a complete fraud. Bright flowers are there quite conspicuously absent. It is rather in the cold and less favoured regions of the world that one must look for fine floral displays and bright masses of colour. Close up to the snow-line the wealth of flowers is always the greatest.
In order to understand this apparent paradox one must remember that the highest type of flowers, from the point of view of organisation, is not at the same time by any means the most beautiful. On the contrary, plants with very little special adaptation to any particular insect, like the water-lilies and the poppies, are obliged to flaunt forth in very brilliant hues, and to run to very large sizes in order to attract the attention of a great number of visitors, one or other of whom may casually fertilise them; while plants with very special adaptations, like the sage and mint group, or the little English orchids, are so cunningly arranged that they can’t fail of fertilisation at the very first visit, which of course enables them to a great extent to dispense with the aid of big or brilliant petals. So that, where the struggle for life is fiercest, and adaptation most perfect, the flora will on the whole be not most, but least, conspicuous in the matter of very handsome flowers.
Now, the struggle for life is fiercest, and the wealth of nature is greatest, one need hardly say, in tropical climates. There alone do we find every inch of soil ‘encumbered by its waste fertility,’ as Comus puts it; weighed down by luxuriant growth of tree, shrub, herb, creeper. There alone do lizards lurk in every hole; beetles dwell manifold in every cranny; butterflies flock thick in every grove; bees, ants, and flies swarm by myriads on every sun-smitten hillside. Accordingly, in the tropics, adaptation reaches its highest point; and tangled richness, not beauty of colour, becomes the dominant note of the equatorial forests. Now and then, to be sure, as you wander through Brazilian or Malayan woods, you may light upon some bright tree clad in scarlet bloom, or some glorious orchid drooping pendant from a bough with long sprays of beauty: but such sights are infrequent. Green, and green, and ever green again–that is the general feeling of the equatorial forest: as different as possible from the rich mosaic of a high alp in early June, or a Scotch hillside deep in golden gorse and purple heather in broad August sunshine.
In very cold countries, on the other hand, though the conditions are severe, the struggle for existence is not really so hard, because, in one word, there are fewer competitors. The field is less occupied; life is less rich, less varied, less self-strangling. And therefore specialisation hasn’t gone nearly so far in cold latitudes or altitudes. Lower and simpler types everywhere occupy the soil; mosses, matted flowers, small beetles, dwarf butterflies. Nature is less luxuriant, yet in some ways more beautiful. As we rise on the mountains the forest trees disappear, and with them the forest beasts, from bears to squirrels; a low, wind-swept vegetation succeeds, very poor in species, and stunted in growth, but making a floor of rich flowers almost unknown elsewhere. The humble butterflies and beetles of the chillier elevation produce in the result more beautiful bloom than the highly developed honey-seekers of the richer and warmer lowlands. Luxuriance is atoned for by a Turkey carpet of floral magnificence.
How, then, has the world at large fallen into the pardonable error of believing tropical nature to be so rich in colouring, and circumpolar nature to be so dingy and unlovable? Simply thus, I believe. The tropics embrace the largest land areas in the world, and are richer by a thousand times in species of plants and animals than all the rest of the earth in a lump put together. That richness necessarily results from the fierceness of the competition. Now among this enormous mass of tropical plants it naturally happens that some have finer flowers than any temperate species; while as to the animals and birds, they are undoubtedly, on the whole, both larger and handsomer than the fauna of colder climates. But in the general aspect of tropical nature an occasional bright flower or brilliant parrot counts for very little among the mass of lush green which surrounds and conceals it. On the other hand, in our museums and conservatories we sedulously pick out the rarest and most beautiful of these rare and beautiful species, and we isolate them completely from their natural surroundings. The consequence is that the untravelled mind regards the tropics mentally as a sort of perpetual replica of the hot-houses at Kew, superimposed on the best of Mr. Bull’s orchid shows. As a matter of fact, people who know the hot world well can tell you that the average tropical woodland is much more like the dark shade of Box Hill or the deepest glades of the Black Forest. For really fine floral display in the mass, all at once, you must go, not to Ceylon, Sumatra, Jamaica, but to the far north of Canada, the Bernese Oberland, the moors of Inverness-shire, the North Cape of Norway. Flowers are loveliest where the climate is coldest; forests are greenest, most luxuriant, least blossoming, where the conditions of life are richest, warmest, fiercest. In one word, High Life is always poor but beautiful.