You emerge from the dark green woods, the smell of pine needles, warmed by the sun, gives way to fresher air and the strong odour of cows, hay, perhaps the faint smell of wood smoke and the sound of clinking plates.
The Alps are alive with humans. They are more than a wonder of nature but a home to people, sometimes precarious, often innovative existences, their thinking guided by the limitations and hardships of the environment.
Steep black wooden pitches, drying lofts, cow bells, stone walls, murals, tools, transport - everything reflects the environment in which life is sustained, from the natural to the man made world.
You may have walked into the mountains for their sake but you must be unusually apathetic to not be intrigued by those whose relationship with these cathedrals of nature, is and has always been more than fleeting and more than seasonal.
These are my Alps - more than mountains, more than a holiday, more than an escape from the everyday. My forefathers tilled the alpine earth, their young backs breaking to look after a handful of goats on the steep slopes as their parents toiled in heat of the valley to make ends meet.
This is my history. This is what makes me. My grandmother, hid her injured brother, his injured arm limp, blood dripping rhythmically on the floor like the advancing jack boots of the Nazi occupiers.
My grandfather built a house only to see the land around destroyed by rampaging torrents as the river tore a new path down from the heights..
My uncle, mayor of a small community, strove for years to improve and to survive as the young left alpine villages for the city, for jobs and for prosperity.
The Alps are not just hiking holidays or the brazen wealth of a ski resort. And for this reason anyone who loves the “ playground of Europe” ought to scratch beneath the surface and learn the history of this humanised landscape.
Right now, that I am all misty-eyed I come to Jon Mathieu’s The Alps: An Environmental history.
This book covers a lot of territory in just around 160 pages. Inspired by, and often referencing, Ferdinand Braudel, this book recaps the early history of the alpine regions but focusses largely on their humanisation. From the discovery of paleotlithic remains to the subsequent development of alpine economies and ultimately the social, religious and cultural transformations that occurred. In the latter stages Mathieu also examines the perception of the alps through art and the birth of mountaineering before skipping onto the post war era.
In this respect it is very much an introduction to Alpine history, whether it is truly an environmental history I am unsure but "Economic, social, political and cultural phenomena can all bear reference to the environment”.
I found it interesting, as someone who is fascinated not only by the mountains as geographic phenomena but also as a student of the people and the lifestyle through the ages.
This book can get away as being an introduction, leading you on to look at more in depth studies or indeed books which focus on certain aspects of mountain life. However, considering how brief it is, it ought to be more readable. I think it comes across as the work of a scholar but not necessarily a writer. I hope I don’t cause offence at this statement - it can be interesting and worthy as a general (and packed) introduction to the history of the Alps but it can be difficult to read at times. Perhaps some style is lost in translation, but I found it quite hard going at times.
The Alps: An Environmental History by Jon Mathieu is published by (and available from) Polity Books.