The Alp Named after a Puddle

Just under the vertical cliffs of the Hohgant, under the peak called Aff, the monkey, the forest turns into grass which turns into loose stones which turn into a rockface.

I have followed the forgotten stories of an old woodcutter from the valley below, and they have lead 1,500m high. Somewhere here, it is whispered, is a rock of sandstone, and carved on it, the names of the men who worked on Glunti for the past 500 years.

But it is steeper than it seemed from below, and it could be anywhere, if the rock existed at all, so there’s nothing more to do except turn down and return to the bowl of land that holds Glunti, that lets it soak in all the water flowing down three sides of the mountain, before finally draining, halfheartedly, into Hennenmoos, the moor named after a hen.

Glunti comes from Glungge, Swiss-German for puddle. It is a centuries-old alp, like so many others that dot these mountains, but there’s something special about it, something that sets it apart. Something about its size, sitting silently in an amphitheater of rock, with the Hohgant twisted around. About the hiking trail that has no hikers. About the forest above, with boulders the size of cars that hide behind trees. Boulders that fell off the mountain and pepper these slopes. About being centerstage on the wrong side of the mountain, where the sun doesn’t seep through for half the year. And the names of the dead on a forgotten stone above, forever in shade.

We sit in the half light, waiting for lunch. The bench has to be shifted so it doesn’t rock into a bad patch between the massive slabs of stone that make up the floor. There’s an old wood oven in the centre of the room, but it’s modern compared to the one it had replaced. A couple of meters away used to be a cauldron for making cheese. And above where it stood, an ancient snowshoe.

Sylvia sets a pan on the oven and adds a lump of pig fat. The pasta, or Hörnli, go in, and then a handful of eggs from the chickens that graze on the grass just beyond the balcony. We sit down for lunch in the next room, with a vase of flowers on the table, lace curtains on the windows and prints of idyllic Swiss life on the walls. There’s a saucer of rough cheese grated fine, two jars of cooked fruit by the side, apples and prunes, Äpfelmus and Zwetschgenmus. And a bottle of Maggi seasoning.

Sylvia’s father left when she was eight. “He just went out the door. And from then on my mother worked. She had to work. She became a bookkeeper.

“I grew up with my grandparents. The neighbors were all farmers and I was always with farmers. In school when the others had holidays I went to the farmers and worked. We weren’t really a family, and I liked doing it, and, I dunno, then I didn’t have to watch my sisters either.”

She never heard from her father again, except the one time she bumped into him by accident. And the next time after that was when she heard he was dead. “My father died one and a half years ago. My mother always said she hated him, which wasn’t true. But in the end they died the same year.”

Sylvia and her husband Dänu worked on farms, but they couldn’t afford their own place so they went to Canada and bought one, in a place so remote even the helicopter ambulances didn’t fly at night because the maps just showed blank space. Such concerns were some of the reasons that eventually brought them back to where they started, on another alp in Switzerland.

Sylvia almost died on an alp once, when a cow attacked her for seemingly no reason. She was on her back with the cow on top, trying to fight it off with a stick, and had to be airlifted to hospital. She met a man in the hospital who was smoking while he should’ve been recovering, and she asked him why. He said it was precisely because he had almost lost his life that he chose to smoke. And she’s been smoking ever since.

Danu is hunched over the old oven, his ragged face lit up with a ragged cigarette. “I was born into a family of workers. I remember the weekly bath: parents first, then the eldest child and then the rest. Everyone in the same bathtub with the same water, because hot water was expensive. I was the last one and I was kind of spoilt. There was not always enough food, though now everyone throws it away.

“That’s another reason why we are Hirt (the people who look after someone’s animals on an alp): we don’t fit into the consumer society. It bothers us to live that way.

“I wore the two tires on the wheelbarrow flat, picking stones and gathering firewood. We’re getting old. And the wheelbarrow is getting heavy.

“After the crisis of 1973 we felt betrayed because we were taught to save gasoline, but look around now. Why should we break our backs with the wheelbarrow when the riffraff go to Langnau for a coffee in their SUVs?”

But it is winter now, and Glunti has been abandoned for another half year, another half year to wait, another for Sylvia to knit till she feels she could knit in her sleep. We are in their summer retreat down by the main road around 300m under Glunti, the big farmhouse a stone’s-throw above the Emme, just where the boulder called ‘the red’ stands, sticking out of the river where it had been dumped by the ancient glacier. But now there’s no glacier and barely a river, mostly frozen.

And a floor up, through a maze of unlived-in rooms in the rented farmhouse, the sound of the electric guitar, and Danu’s voice, like rough whiskey on a cold day.

“Right now I’m trying to write a song. But I usually start with the music. I have an idea, and it mostly doesn’t work out, and you redo it, and you redo that, and then you erase everything because you think it’s shit. Writing is a hard thing. I can’t read or write music. I just have it in my head.”

A long time ago, Dänu was on the verge of becoming a professional musician. “When I was young you could call me a musician, because they’re generally difficult people and so that suits me fine.” But he gave it up for family, “which was a better choice, because with music you tend to end up with drugs and being disappointed.

“Quite honestly, I have no ambition, I’m too old for that. I love music but I’ll put it away soon, the whole thing. I just can’t let go yet.”


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