There were blue tits nesting in the eaves above our front door this spring. The parent birds brought beakfuls of fat green worms and spindly flying bugs for the calling babies. We moved into a small gite, the lower floor of a chalet at the top of a small French mountain just a month before the birds moved in, just a few weeks before the pandemic lockdown. And as the coronavirus descended, so too did a disease among the blue-tit population in Europe. Suttonella ornithocola, which causes lung disease and pneumonia-like symptoms in blue tits. A German conservation group NABU recommended social distancing for the birds: the public should stop feeding the birds or providing them with drinking troughs. We all kept our distance.
“May your babies survive this,” I told the parent tits, as I shielded my own from the raging coronavirus. When we exited the gite, we knocked first before opening our front door to leave, otherwise, we surprised the birds each time, and the parents fled in a panic. I told my children: in a sense, when we walk out of our front door, we are entering their home. It’s only fair to knock. Outside, the Alps stood by.
Throughout spring, and throughout the early days of the pandemic, my eyes referred constantly to the mountains. I might even say that the mountains lifted me— perhaps because they seem to be in a suspended state of soaring. The mountains contained large truths, they stood in balance to the micro-viral world of which we were all suddenly so aware. My mind was jittering then: I am afraid for my children. The mountains replied with their long gesture of soaring.
The alpine snow was melting, and I watched this too. As the virus abated and the weather warmed, I witnessed the undressing of the mountains. Every day I wondered if my eyes are deceiving me— were the frozen masses morphing? We moved higher in the mountains in June for the summer and from my window I can now see Mont Blanc. There is too little snow on this mountain now, it is half brown, not all white. At night, the ice on the mountain seems to glow through the dirt — and this is only mildly reassuring. Black peaks push up into star-punctured nights. Scanning to the North, I can see the comet Neowise, stuck in an endless flamboyant plummet. I go to bed with the “awful doubt, or faith so mild” that Shelley says the wilderness teaches us (Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni).
The glaciers on Mont Blanc are temperate glaciers and so they exist at melting point— water and ice co-exist. They rely on winter precipitation, the snow that falls at their upper reaches and melts down onto them, extending them, allowing them to advance. Temperate glaciers are easily affected by the slightest change in temperature because of this fine balance between liquid and solid. When the sun glints off the mountain in the vivid midday sun— am I seeing water or ice? I am too far away to see any flowing but I will keep watching for the massive changes to appear to my little eye from the gigantic mountain.
We suffered unusual heat waves in May and June, and this will cause trouble as the weeks pass. An early summer heatwave is much more dangerous than the heat of late summer because there is more time for the heat to penetrate the mountain, rise up through its rock. Late summer heat is quashed by the early cold of winter. Such are the effects of our now disturbed weather patterns— the heat is coming at the wrong times. Whole sections of rock are becoming destabilised— Italian scientists tell us to expect tens or hundreds of thousands of cubic metres to collapse. Overall, the air is warming slightly faster here, the Alps have seen an increase of an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the last century.
Today, the snow seems to sag in places. The eagles are circling, and we are so impressed by their ability to see their prey from their high holding patterns. We are seeking a new perspective— from the tiny world of our pocket hand-sanitiser, to the distant icy peaks, we are constantly defocusing, refocusing. “Let’s go and see it for ourselves,” I told the children. Next week, we will go to see the Mer de Glace, the ‘sea of ice’, a glacier of Mont Blanc, accessible by telecabine. We hope to catch a glimpse of an eagle’s nest with our binoculars. We will get to see the glacier, maybe even to touch it. If you visited the Mer de Glace in 1988, you could go down three steps from the station there to touch the ice. Now, you must descend 580 steps to the greying glacier (it no longer shines white with thick ice), such is the dramatic scale of the melt due to global warming. Eighty of these steps were added just last year. The children will see this and even they will understand that these new steps represent loss.
Natasha Randall is a literary translator of the works of Dostoyevsky, Zamyatin, Gogol, and others, for publishers such as Penguin Classics and the Modern Library. Her writing and critical work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Moscow Times, BookForum, The New York Times, Strand magazine, The Yale Review, Jubilat, and on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor to the New York-based literary magazine A Public Space. Her novel Love Orange (riverrun) will be published on 3 September. Follow her on Twitter – @natasharandall.
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