Spending an hour at dawn in a hot spring in the Swiss village of Vals was sublime. I went there because Swiss architect Peter Zumthor designed the Hotel Therme's elegant spa using only the natural stone from the soaring mountains just outside. The building was lovely, but here nature far surpassed a mere human's clever embellishments. There were several inside pools with varying temperature, but because it was February I couldn't resist the one outdoors.
The hot water sent up clouds of steam, through which I stared at the stupendous snow-streaked granite mountains looming almost overhead. Gray clouds covered the sky, and then it started to snow. I floated in the hot water, breathing air so cold it dazzled my lungs and feeling little pricklings of the snowflakes as they fell on my face.
If a moment that magical needs to be analyzed, I'd have to say that it was as if I had at last really entered the core of the Alps themselves—not the people, not the history, nothing but the phenomenal reality of stone, air, and water in almost every form. I still think back on it with astonishment and gratitude.
| Looking back I realize that there is a basic contradiction in the Alps, one that is not unique to the region. Simply put, economic well-being has come at a drastically high cost to the quality of life and prospects for everyone, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. Certain activities with obviously positive aspects, such as skiing and winter tourism, have created a tangle of drawbacks. Increased construction of roads, facilities, and dams alter the environment. Traffic—and the resulting pollution—from trucks ferrying commodities are on the rise. And logging that supplies the demand for lumber disrupts habitat. Major events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are also extremely damaging to the environment. Modifying or even reversing such changes requires actions by lots of people over a long period of time, steps most people resist taking.
I'm not romanticizing the past or suggesting that we go back to living in lantern-lit huts. I'm merely observing that to impose a modern template on this terrain is more complicated and often more damaging than most people—even those who live there—want to acknowledge. So despite the tremendous amount of work being done by many dedicated people in different fields, my sense is that the Alps are being protected only in the most piecemeal way. In the end such limited efforts won't produce any serious improvement in the life of this amazing part of Earth.
| I've never been particularly attracted to Carnival festivities, but there are scores of different ways of celebrating it throughout the Alps, especially in the German-speaking parts of Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.|
Perhaps the most curious event was the Scheibenschlagen, which I witnessed in Landeck, Austria. It's organized by the Landeck firemen, who cut up six-inch (15-centimeter) flat squares of birch wood, drill a hole in the middle, and set the squares on fire. Then, using a simple homemade catapult to launch the flaming squares as far into the night sky as possible, the firemen yell out the name of a particular person. The burning wood represents the sun, and firing each square symbolizes a wish of good fortune for that person.
It was really fun to see all the people turn out in the snowy winter night to eat and drink, hear their names called, and collect a charred square to take home. They even called my name, and while I can't say it brought me unusual good luck, it was really nice to see the townspeople enjoying a custom that wasn't put on to entertain tourists. And you have to admit that it isn't every winter that you get to see chunks of burning birch flying through the air.