John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, hiked in 1911 through the Alps to the Aletsch Glacier, the largest such ice flow in the Alps. He wrote later: “My heart still lingers in these high-altitude rocky deserts, on moraines and scree [loose rock] slopes, in the great silence broken only by the murmur of small glacier streams.”
Film-maker Michael Gregor declares: “Here he found the model for his Mirkwood [the great forest of Middle-earth] and the mythical creatures of the Lord of the Rings.” Gregor’s film for the Wild Switzerland series, available on Netflix, tells the environmental story of the Aletsch region.
The age-old trees made a big impression on the future professor of Anglo-Saxon. Stone pines, known locally as Arven, living for 1,000 years, can survive in -30C temperatures. Tolkien’s mighty queen of Gondor “is not named Arwen by chance,” says Gregor. (Frodo is also the name of a waterfall in the Ticino, by the way).
Part of this region, the Massaschlucht (the 6.5km Massa Gorge) below the Gibidum water reservoir, “could be Middle-earth, full of its elves, hobbits and trolls. As in the novel, Bilbo the hobbit could emerge from a cave or Gandalf the wizard could pop up behind a rock anytime,” Gregor notes.
To biologists the Massaschlucht is prized for its orchids. But it was also the source of a legend, when a flashflood burst on the valley and killed many people. The catastrophe was blamed on “Rollibock”, a giant goat with big horns, with whom you had to be on good terms to avoid disaster. Gregor is certain: Tolkein explored the region “and was inspired by the scenery and the myths of Valais”.
The Greisinger Museum in the Eastern Swiss wine-making village of Jenins (Graubunden) is dedicated to the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, housing all former fund-manager Bernd Greisinger’s Middle-earth collection, with a Hobbit’s cave door near the entrance (LINK). It is said to be the largest collection in the world devoted to Middle-earth. It doesn’t have fixed opening times. You have to book online.
A major gateway to the Upper Valais, the town of Leuk, celebrates Middle-earth with a street festival, but it was last held in 2012, though you can buy a video of the celebrations (LINK).
You may know of the Aletsch region, too, from the Villa Cassel, the “nutty dream” of a British banker at the end of the 19th century as his summer residence on the Riederfurka not far from the glacier. A “pompous half-timbered” mansion (LINK) used as a hotel after the death of Sir Ernest Cassel, it was taken over by Pro Natura and opened in 1976 as Switzerland’s first nature conservation centre. It was renovated in 2019 to become CO2-neutral despite its problems from poor insulation, and Pro Natura now offers visitors meals there using traditional local ingredients (LINK).
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As well as telling these stories, the documentary on the Aletsch enables you to make the acquaintance of Centre director Laudo Albrecht and his concern for local marmots. The animals have to increase their weight some 50 times from their birth in July to October, so that they have enough fat to survive their first winter till mid-April. But global warming has sent them into their tunnels to escape the heat, making it difficult for them to explore or find enough food.
Other sufferers from global warming are “glacier fleas” (actually a springtail, an arthropod with a forked tail that gives us its name). It can survive in temperatures of -3 to 0 Celsius in glacier water. But, researcher Dominik Nellen, son of a mountain guide, tells us: “When it get too hot, it dies.”
The retreating glacier has made possible higher cattle meadows and deforestation, endangering the survival of the stag beetle, “the king of the insects”. In response, local foresters and volunteers are creating a protection belt for them, burying logs to provide substitutes for the tree stumps the beetles need.
The rising tree line has also occasioned a plague of red deer that feed on the highland tree shrubs and young plants. Forestry manager Peter Aschilier gets help from a hang glider to scout out the deer in the region and has even launched a CHF2.5K tree sponsorship project (LINK). “We have fought for every tree in the past 30 years,” he told the filmmakers in 2017. (See Global Insights article on how Swiss resorts are coping with climate change)
Gregor warns: “If the forest zone gives way, the Rhone valley will be damned.” It could also destroy the most important transport axis of the Upper Valais: the Furka pass road and the Matterhorn-Gotthard railway (MGB).
The Bader Protection Forest Zone above the valley and transport zone is now closely watched for developments, and Aschilier manages fences erected to keep the deer away from the plants.
The glacier, starting at the Jungfraujoch, 4,000 metres above sea-level (with its famous mountaintop hotel), has lost 3km of its length since 1860. It now extends 23km into the Valais but it can lose a metre every week, some 50m each year. Scientists fear it could vanish within 100 years. It has been estimated that if the Aletsch melted completely, the water released could provide everyone on Earth with one litre each day for four and a half years. On a hot summer day 60,000 litres of water flow from the glacier every 24 hours. But because the glacier no longer expands in winter, it retreats by an average of 28 metres each year.
In 1678 Pope Innocent allowed the people of the Aletsch’s Fiescher valley to hold a procession to pray against the growth of the glacier. 150 years ago, in what is known as the Little Ice Age, the expansion of the glacier drove away cattle and destroyed farms, the film notes. Many farmers’ livelihoods in the Upper Valais were threatened. Milk cows need about 100kg of fresh grass and aromatic herbs each day, and 100 litres of water. The environment for the region’s hardy Valais blackneck goats, known for perhaps 1000 years, was also drastically reduced.
The farmers erected pilgrimage chapels and held prayer processions in the hope life would improve.
Since 2010 their prayers have changed. The Vatican now allows the local inhabitants to hold their processions to pray for Heaven to stop the glacier shrinking. “The chances for the Alpine glaciers are slim, if no miracle occurs,” the documentary observes.
In German with English subtitles, the film’s biological translations are exemplary. Its focus on the people and life of the region as well as the environment is eye-opening, and heartening.
For example, we see Sabrina Gurten, whose farming family was once among those who could spend the summers in the high Alps. Today she is a specialist in mountain bees, particularly the threats from persistent organic pollutants, and the Valais has 480 wild bee species.
From Lisa Engler, a herbalist specializing in wild plant medicines and food, we learn about bell flowers. “My favourite,” she says. “I use it to decorate salads or herbal quark. Very sweet and tender.” She reports on several others as well. Children used to collect up to 10kg of herbs each day from the highlands for local village stores, she recalls.
She now offers herb-based dinners in winter at the Restaurant Gläcktricka in Bettmeralp (LINK). Gläcktricka is the Valaisan dialect word for an animal’s feeding trough.
Photographer and biologist Carsten Brügmann takes us into the Massaschlucht to seek rare orchids in the region above Naters, the saffron village of Mund and the “family holiday destination” of Blatten-Belalp. With him we explore the managed water courses (bisses or Suonen in the local languages), recorded as far back as 1385.
Vanil Noir, Engadine, Verzascatal
The three other documentaries in the series, each around 50 minutes and now some 5 years old, adopt the same focus. One is devoted to the breathtaking Vanil Noir region between Fribourg and the Vaud (directly west of the Aletsch), where the African continent meets Europe, and provides a home to “the world’s smallest tree, the dwarf willow”.
In the Vanil Noir one gamekeepers’ job is to keep wild animals away from domesticated stocks – a foot disease transmitted from goats or sheep is suspected of decimating the capricorns (wild rock goats), reducing the herd by one third in three years.
The Vanil Noir’s karst landscape with its calcareous rocks, making cattle grazing unprofitable, enables insects and plants to flourish here that are vanishing from other parts of Europe. It has more than 100 species of butterflies and moths within 10km2. In a few kilometres you find plants here that are otherwise native to the Mediterranean or found only thousands of kilometres away in the Arctic – “from Spain to Spitzbergen” in the words of University of Fribourg biologist Gregor Kozlowski. He thinks the variety is perhaps unique on the continent, and it remains largely inaccessible to outsiders.
Two thirds of the Vanil Noir now belongs to Pro Natura. As a result of preservation orders, the western part of the region has many medicinal plants such as the great yellow gentian, straw foxglove and the anti-depression trefoil, but collection is strictly forbidden.
Cattle pasturing in these Alpine regions is mainly a problem because of the cow dung that changes the pH of the soil for sensitive plants, but many environmentalists want to preserve tradition and encourage young farmers to return to the area. As a result, one Vanil Noir product, L’Etivaz hard cheese made from unpasteurized milk on an open fire and matured for 30 months, was the first Swiss cheese to receive an AoC designation in 2000 (since 2013 an AoP = protected certification). The farmers also keep forests from taking over the landscape with their cutting and herds.
Legend has it that dwarves known as Bounets Rodzos lived in the lowlands of the Vanil Noir before the cheesemakers and farmers came. They were so hardworking the farmers could just sit in front of their homes and watch the day go by while the gnomes toiled. But then Capuchin monks turned up and, it is said, were jealous of the Bounets Rodzos. The locals wouldn’t listen to them. So the monks chased the gnomes into the mountains with magic spells.
One thing still amuses the dwarves, however, it is said: to throw a stone off the mountain and see how these gather bigger and bigger ones with them as they roll down the hill. Mountain guide Cyrille Cantin says: “When you hear stones falling down at the end of the day, and listen very closely, you hear a squeaky laugh.” Remind you of Tolkien’s stories?
In a third film we see the Oberengadine, which boasts “the highest shipping route in Europe”, whose nature saved Friedrich Nietzsche from psychological breakdown.
The fourth documentary depicts the spectacular Verzascatal (Green Water Valley) in Ticino, “one of the grandest valleys in Europe”, now a tourist hotspot where only a few years ago poverty was rife. For a long time, Corippo in the Verzascatal was the smallest commune in Switzerland, with a population of nine, until it merged with neighbours in 2020. Doing up Ticino stone houses, known as rustici, for snowbirds has now become a major industry for the valley.
It also has a bungee jumping site from the Contra Dam after this was featured in the Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond film GoldenEye, named the best film stunt of all time in 1995. It has been seen in numerous other action films. Even in early September the valley is packed with visitors.
In the Verzascatal heights, the native black goats eat the buds and leaves of plants, preventing the bushes from taking over pastures, and consolidate the soil with their hooves. But as semi-wild animals they give much less milk than domesticated animals, and farmers can only continue to make a living herding them with official subventions that make up half their incomes. Numbers of the Verzasca goats are in steep decline, down to 5000. The species now counts as having become officially endangered within 15 years.
These four documentaries focus on what makes Alpine environments so important for biodiversity, culture and the environment, without ever descending into knee-jerk alarmism, which makes its warnings of possible disaster even more striking and food for reflection.
Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Insights Magazine and the Global Geneva newsportal.
- 31-disc Lord of the Rings 4K Blu-ray box set is the most Lord of the Rings yet available for 20th anniversary of Lord of the Rings film. Ultimate Collector’s Edition includes all 6 films in theatrical and extended form. Warner Bros. released the box set on 26 October 2021. It costs fans $249.99. Polygon, 9 September 2021 (LINK).
World Nature Forum, Naters, opens Tuesday-Sunday. (https://www.bls.ch/en/freizeit-und-ferien/ausfluege/world-nature-forum): “The exhibition was designed as a base camp for the World Heritage site. With films, interactive stations and various artefacts, the exhibition raises central questions about how best to understand this natural heritage. The Panorama area offers UNESCO World Heritage films on a 100m2 screen.” New exhibit from July 2020: “insects are often viewed as pests in everyday life, even though they are vital and play a key role in our ecosystems. For example, they serve as a food source for a variety of animals, produce raw materials and pollinate around 87.5% of wild and cultivated plants. Destruction of their habitats, the use of pesticides, intensive farming, light pollution and climate change are having a devastating impact on insect numbers. Our new exhibit not only presents you with the diversity and benefits of the insect world but also invites you to discover our Alpine flora and some of the animal inhabitants.” (slightly edited). “Every Sunday, enjoy a Püüru-Zmorgu breakfast in the World Nature Forum’s Jungfrau-Aletsch restaurant in the town of Naters. The generous brunch buffet (9-1pm) includes meat and cheese specialties from the World Heritage region” (CHF42 for adults, CHF15 for children under 10).
‘Aletsch forests are threatened by climate change and bark beetles, but not immediately’. 11 September 2020. Web24news (LINK). ““Experts believe that the protection function of the Griewald forest will be able to be maintained for another 10 to 20 years,” notes the State of Valais. It must be rejuvenated with “the widest possible range of tree species adapted to the climate. And if the forest could no longer fulfil its function of protection for the population and the infrastructures, the municipalities, with the financial support of the Confederation and the canton, would have the time to plan and build adequate protection works,” assures the canton. “To improve forest protection, the township is also putting pressure on deer, in particular with greater hunting of females.”
Aletsch Arena summer season lasts till 24 October. You could have caught a whole range of indigenous activities in the region (all links in German): Cows came down in a parade from their mountain summer pastures home to Fiesch on 18 September. The Swiss national night orienteering championship took place in Bettmeralp on 24-26 September. Riederalp park’s autumn festival with bike races, minigolf and frisbee golf was held on 25 September. Rollibocktrophy in Fiesch, described as a Fly and Hike event with paragliding was scheduled for 9 October. A Dinosaur trail trip and workshop was organized in Fieschertal for 23-24 October.
Because of the unpredictable weather, Bettmeralp authorities cancelled the 19 September traditional demonstration of Gilihüsine, an original form of the Swiss paddle hockey game Hornussen (called hornets from the sound of the puck in the air).
The Nobel Prize Committee Rejected The Lord of the Rings for an award: Tolkien “Has Not Measured Up to Storytelling of the Highest Quality” (1961). openculture.com, 22 September 2021 (LINK).