Take a walk, Mrs Merkel: dispatch from high above the G7 summit

Schachen rock wall

Schachen rock wall

At the tree line on Mount Schachen on the last day of May it was noisy. Beneath the complex songlines of the ring ouzels was the multilayered gush and rush, blip and trickle of snow melting in the sunshine. The standard spring soundscape of the Bavarian Alps. But the massive rock wall above us amplified the explosive racket of the helicopter making regular passes over the small plateau where we worked and rolled it down to meet the rising sound of the police cars swarming the forest roads and trails. The mountain was being prepared for total shutdown.

They were getting ready for the 2015 G7 summit, taking place at the famous ‘wellness spa’ at Schloss Elmau nearly 1000 metres below us. We were there recording phenological phenomena, collecting data to inform our understanding of climate change.

G7 and climate change and a view from above the summit. Blimey, I thought, and for a moment I followed the glimmering seam of symbol and metaphor. But spring on the mountain is so insistent, so physical that I let go in favour of the here and now.

Isn’t that the problem? So much here and now, so much business, distractions from the big issues, the politics, the meta-narrative. Maybe that’s why the G7 leaders have to be locked up together, sealed from the outside world, so that they don’t get distracted by the messy detail of other people. Or shopping.

We were on a small north-facing plateau at 1850 metres above sea level, making the first visit of the year to the Alpengarten auf dem Schachen. It’s a satellite garden of Munich Botanic Gardens established more than 100 years ago and surrounded by nature reserve. At this altitude, spring doesn’t arrive before start of June. Or at least, that’s the accepted story. We were examining individual shrubs of different species that had recently lost their snow cover and were embarking on their seasonal rituals. They had been chosen for the study because they respond to spring with a series of discrete, successional phenomena that can be noted by anyone with a trained eye. Bud burst, the opening of the female flower, the unfurling of the leaf and so on, exhibited at distinct intervals that can be correlated with the calendar and the compared with other years. The botanist said: ‘We all know what is happening and we know it is accelerating. But I need data.’ The collective – and almost unanimous – opinion of the global scientific community is not enough.

Spring gentian

Spring gentian, flowering in the snow melt

The G7 leaders and their mega bureaucracies make sense of the world through data, percolated through multiple membranes of analysis and interpretation. The 2015 summit has an extensive agenda but has no formal framework. It is a self selecting group of self styled industrial nations. It doesn’t include global players like China, or emerging economies like Brazil or India. It has sent Russia to Coventry for its actions in Crimea.

But it’s not all about data and analysis and evidence. If it were, they could just as well contact their business by email, or teleconferencing. No, the G7 is all soft diplomacy. From the official G7 website: ‘Web conferences are used to exchange facts. They are not conducive to creating the informal, relaxed atmosphere in which ideas are formed and trust is established.’

If that’s the case then there’s a chance they might be influenced by more visceral experience. On the agenda is the UN conference in Paris on climate and the environment later in the year. So far, the carbon pledges of the international community are notable for their lack of ambition and lack of urgency. Perhaps our best hope for raising their sights is if our leaders take a walk guided by their host. They say that German chancellor Angela Merkel is a keen hiker. Nothing brings people together like a shared response to natural beauty and Schloss Elmau and its mountains have it in spades. So please, Mrs Merkel, take a walk.

Itinerary One. Conservation option. Rating: inspiring. Let’s say they have an hour between the briefings and discussions, meals and photo ops. Just long enough to amble out into the flower meadows surrounding the Schloss (avoiding the 50 protestors who have been allowed inside the security cordon). Right now the grass is an almost fizzing green and it spills over glacial hummocks like velvet. Hear the insects hum among the orchids, catchflies and buttercups and the listing hay barns. See the mountains reflected in the cold still water of the ephemeral ponds, whose shallow margins writhe with tadpoles. This beauty and abundance comes through traditional land management. The danger with is that they might be reassured that all’s well in the countryside. Once you’ve got them outside, Mrs Merkel, please lure them higher.

Woodstore at the alpine garden

Woodstore at the alpine garden

Itinerary Two. Biodiversity option. Rating: challenging. If they had three hours, they could take the crunchy track up the hill through the spruce forest, averting their eyes from the large area that has been cleared, leveled and tarmacked to provide parking for all the security vehicles and a helicopter landing pad (there is a commitment to return it to forest). Pass the kingcups blazing in the boggy tumbling streams. Pass nut-brown thatched domes of anthills, seething with worker wood ants who come up to the surface in rotation, warm their bodies in the sun and return to the subterranean chambers, living heat transfer systems. Hear grating rhythm of the chaffinches and the hollow hammer of hunting woodpeckers. As our party lingers in the warmth between the trees, Mrs Merkel could tell them about the devastation of lower Bavaria’s spruce forest by bark beetle. She could point out the sycamore, beech and mountain ash, just unfurling their brilliant green mantles and explain the threat they face from the Asian longhorn beetle, now conquering Europe. This might be a bit of a downer, so to raise their spirits, Mrs Merkel, do go on.

Mountain hare tracks in the snow

Mountain hare tracks in the snow

Itinerary Three. Climate change option. Rating: alarming. Given eight hours, they could climb to the treeline and see the grey, gnarled trunks of the the keystone species, Pinus cembra, their silver roots clasping limestone outcrops. Individuals live to 500 years. Hear the complex song of the ring ouzels, see the tracks of mountain hares in the shady combes where the snow still lies. Catch a fleeting shadow of the chamois on the rock wall high above and the golden eagle hanging in a thermal. Look out to the magnificent snow capped summit of the Alpespitze (echt-summit to their pseudo-summit). See below it the curve of the Schneeferner glacier, diminishing fast. Since 1860 it has shrunk almost tenfold, from 300 to 39 hectares. It is predicted to disappear in the next fifteen years. These days it gets covered in tarpaulin in the summer, to protect it from sun and rain. Not for environmental reasons, you understand, but through the commercial interests of the winter sports industry.

From far away the moutains seem enduring, immutable. Close up, Mrs Merkel and her guests would see that they are changing. They need careful stewardship and they need it now. The motto of the 2015 summit is ‘think ahead. Act together.’ I guess they won’t be taking that walk, but perhaps at least our leaders might appreciate the irony of the closure, two weeks ago, of the protestors camp – ‘due to flood risk.’


About Katherine Price

My creative non-fiction has been published by Litro, Caught by the River, The Clearing and Earthlines. My short fiction by the Lampeter Review and Worcester Literary Festival's Flashes of Fiction. I wrote 'Kew Guide' (2014) for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I wrote 'Get Plants: how to bring green into your life' (2017) for Kew Publishing and my writing about plants and gardens has been published in The Plantsman, The Alpine Gardener and the English Garden. I worked as a gardener at Kew for ten years and I am currently writing a novel. I live in Twickenham, a suburb of south west London. @wildsuburban
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