An Imagined Landscape


Have you noticed that you have to consciously choose to go for a walk in woodland? Most of the rambling that we do here is in open countryside - and it really is open, as there are few trees and very long views. The only thing that breaks up this landscape is the endless walls or fences that mark out the patchwork of field boundaries. You may come across a small spinney or a piece of plantation, but there are unlikely to be paths through it, and so it becomes an obstacle to walk around.

I want you to imagine a landscape with no walls or fences; where trees cover half the land and where the meadows seem like natural openings in the woodland. Fill the meadows with pink-flowered colchicum (meadow saffron) and allow the also-pink cyclamen to tumble out of the woodland. Listen for the bells clanking around the necks of sheep and cattle roaming free in the meadows of openings higher up the woodland-covered hills, and watch as the incredibly flower-rich, short grass of the lower meadows is cut for hay as winter feed. Note that each seemingly un-differentiated section of higher meadow has a charming summer hut staking a claim, with possibly a nearby communal banking of gaily decorated beehives and the fruit trees they are there to pollinate. Contrast with the individual allotment-type plots scattered through the bottom meadows, playing the same role as the huts, of denoting individual meadow sections. The meadows provide hay; the plots grow that quartet of essentials in potatoes, climbing beans, sweet corn and squashes.

Place a settlement in that landscape and see how the livestock barns and other agricultural buildings combine seamlessly with the residential, often the two being joined as one. Admire the small gardens attached to each house, brightening up the village with colourful annuals, and providing the salads and other leaf crops. Start out from this village on a walk that takes you past these flower rich meadows, over and along a refreshing boulder strewn river, before turning up through riverside woodland, dense with ground flora, pausing to enjoy the cooling spume from waterfalls, passing through meadow openings large and small, before you emerge from the woodlands into a sub-alpine scene of scrub-like pine, with more and different flowers. Continue up to the scree-line, leaving the woody plants behind, but finding the small pin cushions of alpine plants. Where there is a little more soil, the rough grass is grazed by chamois: wild, lithe and disinterested in your presence. If you had more courage than me, you could continue this walk up open rock, assisted sometimes by short stretches of metal handrail, until you reach the summit and some pretty fundamental views.

You don't have to imagine this landscape as it already exists in the Triglav National Park in NW Slovenia. The Park encloses a chunk of the Julian Alps, a southern alpine mountain range that straddles the nearby border with Italy. The National Park was set up in the late 1920's to protect its very impressive wild flora and, while it is not strictly a wilderness, the lightness of its use (very low levels of livestock grazing and woodland management) means that the landscape vegetation is some way towards what nature intends. Trails criss cross everywhere, passing through woodland and meadow, subalpine and alpine, allowing relatively easy access to observe these differing habitats. In fact walking seems to be a national past time, for the Slovenians grow up with family hikes over the mountains - they have no fear!

The Julian Alps are a range of jagged, limestone peaks of which Triglav is the highest (2864m) and which gives its name to the park. The alkalinity of the soil, continental climate (cold winter, warm summer) and the lack of Ice Age glaciation, makes this a landscape of abundant flora, and immense enjoyment comes from observing its plants and trees, growing together in the guilds or communities that are characteristic of their particular habitat. You find yourself putting together in your mind those characteristic guilds such as hellebore, daphne, spurge, cyclamen and mayflower as the ground flora in pine woodlands, with solomon's seal, Jupiter's Distaff (yellow salvia), wolf's bane, dark-red heliborine and willow gentian at woodland edges. A new guild for me was around the scrub pine (Pinus mugo) where juniper, alpenrose (type of azalea), broom and bilberry form an understorey and the fringed gentian and cyclamen add flower colour. Occasionally, you see sycamore as a seedling tree in this scrub pine and as a woodland edge tree of the pinewoods. This is its natural mountainous habitat, where it rarely gets much bigger than 5m and most are only 2-3m tall. The bullying size and deep shade that sycamore generate back here shows the peril of introducing a tree (in the 1600s) and then not growing it in its correct habitat.

Simpleton that I am, I keep thinking about how this level of woodland coverage would translate to our own semi-upland landscapes. We don't have the same palette of woodland species - or wildflowers - as the Julian Alps (for instance, we only have one species of pine tree) but it would be worth sorting out the species that would make up the types of guilds that you might expect to see around if nature had its way.

I imagine a wooded landscape for my local moor. It has remnants of its millstone grit woodland guild around its edges, such as the few silver birch, rowan, holly and grey willow, and there are the shrubs in gorse, broom, heather, bilberry and crowberry. But the grazing of livestock for a thousand years prevents this woodland community from re-emerging in numbers in this landscape. What it does have is dense bracken covering a third of its area, denying that space to grazing land and offering little by way of compensation. I see this bracken through my window as I write these words, but I am imagining instead that this part of the moor is covered in a natural open woodland, surrounded and filled with new life. The bracken is still there, but it is within the woodland and at one-hundredth of its previous density. In my mind, when I go for circular walks on the moor, I travel through this woodland, coming across openings on the arid summit of the moor or where the dampness holds back the trees. My walk in this imagined landscape has everything that nature has to offer.

Mark Fisher, 25 September 2004