Sentinels of Arolla
Text by Joel Kuennen, Images by Jakob Kudsk Steensen
In the Spring of 2022, artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen invited me to come on a research trip into the mountains of Switzerland to translate the changing Alpine environment into digital spaces, experiences of this increasingly rare environment. We picked Arolla, a (mostly) forgotten village high in the southern alps that has become a beacon for backcountry ski enthusiasts when the snow pack is good. We rented a room in an old Kurhaus that was initially built at the end of the 1800’s as a forest-bath destination. It was believed that the Arolla pines that stubble the mountain sides exude a healing air. That the tree’s scent, its breath, could heal the maladies of the newly industrial person. So the kurhaus was built of this scraggly pine, every aspect: walls, beds, tables, chairs. One could imagine the pinene and limonene-rich atmosphere in those early years. A century later, these terpenes have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-stress, and antibacterial properties but the scent of Arolla has long since vanished.
Named for this place or this place named for them, it’s hard to know but the Romans knew pines from Arolla produced an excellent waterproofing pitch for shipbuilding. One can imagine large distillation camps being built in the spring when the trees’ sap pumped heartily, centurion trees chopped up and boiled and steamed and winnowed to an essence that could keep arks afloat and fleets seaworthy.
The evening we arrived was quite warm given that it was the middle of February, maybe just below freezing so I sat on the pine balcony of the 19th century sanitorium and watched Orion rise up between Aiguille de la Tsa and Mount Collon. His tilted belt and raised arm trailed behind his legs that pulled it West in an arc over Mount Collon, trailing after the seven sisters. Skylink satellites, a string of lights swept in front of this narrative as old as humanity. Two white masses of ice moved on either side of the flattop peak too slowly to perceive but I watched closely anyway. They glowed white in the moonlight, vibrating. At the base of the mountain, between the termini of the glaciers, a small black mouth gaped in the field of white, seeming to sigh gently as it slept.
In the morning we hiked up the mountain behind the kurhaus as fresh snow fell in large needle-like flakes and stopped at a large, hundred year old Arolla pine where a droplet of golden sap had become cold-hardened, lengthened, and hardened again.
One warm afternoon, when the sun caused the snow to soften and rivulets of melt water to run under the pillowy tufts, a spotted nutcracker landed on a branch higher up. Its toes nestled into the hairy arms of wolf lichen that bristled the pine, effectively doubling the tree’s carbon capture potential. As the bird curled and flexed its feet satisfyingly, tiny branches of the shrub-like lichen broke off, softly floating down to other limbs of the tree where new symbionts would establish.
One of these pieces collided with our drop of sap. Its branches were soon incorporated into the droplet. Weeks later, it cracked on the bottom during a particularly cold week. When the warmth again returned, four petals bubbled around the crack before another bead bloomed from the centre and descended further so that the main structure was now: a drop with partially embedded lichen, a floral burst of droplets framing a second tear.
It was formed on the underside of a branch, a response from some penetrating insect that had burrowed into the phloem of this centigenerion to wait until the spring thaw transformed these snowy slopes into rich carpets of floral energy. That is, if it doesn’t get confused by a streak of warm days in mid-February and emerges to find a field of slushy snow.
Then something strange happened in the life of this would-be amber. The viscous resin in its inexorable flow pushed out horizontally, forming a branch of sap that reached out laterally from the main structure. A thin pier into space grew perfectly perpendicular to the rest of the phloematic scaffold. On the tip of this peninsula, a teardrop grew upwards. It was unusual, but at the same time it was following a logic: surface tension and temperature overtook gravity to determine this shape. It was as if the resin was growing towards the sun. Like, exactly. The sun at this time of year is about 30 degrees above the horizon, just high enough to clear the mountain peaks that frame this valley to the south. And that is where it reached, following the warmth.
It struck me how when a lesser force (surface tension) sublimates a normally dominant force (gravity), otherness is induced.
Jakob took macro images of the droplet for 15-20 minutes (we would return another time if the object transferred well) while I stared at layers of lichen piled high on the limbs of a gnarled pine across the trail. I thought about how these fuzzy sponges create moist microclimates for each tree, pulling humidity from the air, condensing it between their delicate limbs. How each droplet of water that falls to the ground matters to these ancient trees clinging to the dust of the Earth.
That droplets could rise or fall.
Stopping for a coffee break on the way up the mountain, we talked about how physics creates mood in simulations. A connection to the physical experience of space is established in this way because it shares its logic, its systems become knowable and therefore inhabitable. It may be faster, slower. It may be true to reality, it may not. Controlling these rules, manufacturing dynamism, becomes the director’s gaze.
“This is how to create a sense of the sublime,” says Jakob through the swirling steam of a coffee clutched between gloved hands. “The interconnectedness between objects comes through their common law…”
“...animation becomes apperception…,” I trail off.
A short while back, this area was crushed under glaciers hundreds of meters thick. The weight of the ice pulverized much of this rock into glacial flour that now seats the Arolla Pine and feeds it through ectomycorrhizal fungi which slips between the trees root cells, between the actual cell walls forming what is called a Hartig Net. While there are many species in this community, the most common and important is a delicious bolete called Suillus plorans, crying pig in Latin. The Swiss pine bolete dissolves metallic minerals in the glacial flour with organic acids in order to uptake these nutrients and trades them with the Arolla pine for photosynthates.
Sweet sucrose that makes all the piggies squeal.
This glacial flour is 400 million year old metamorphic granite milled to the size of a few microns. As soon as this dust is exposed to the atmosphere, the exhaled breath of all that lives on this planet, the calcium reacts with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate and free up vital nutrients like phosphorus and magnesium. As it is washed down the side of the mountain into blue-green rivers that are unnaturally opalescent, calcium minerals continue reacting, pulling out more carbon dioxide from the water and settling into muddy layers of future limestone.
Composed of sericite, epidote, and chlorite, the rocks in this mountain valley have a greenish luster but when powdered, they become the grayest gray, like the gray of a cat. No matter the breed or lineage, is always the same shade of gray. This part of the alps is dominated by feldspars: magnesium, iron, nickel, manganese, calcium, aluminum, and silica of course. Many of the same minerals that comprise a glaze or a clay.
These jagged massifs were once sheets of crust, subducted then cooled in that zone where water seeps between the cells of rock under the immense pressure of the ocean before being pushed up in stacked sheets that bend until they break, the fulcrum, in this case, reaching above 3000 meters.
Maybe I’m thinking of time too quickly. There wasn’t a moment when the mountain snapped. It’s more like running against a hurricane that is so powerful it strips layers of lipids and whole skin cells off your body. You have no choice but to continue sprinting towards the vortex at the center, pushed by the simple condition of your being.
Observing the world closely calls agency into question in interesting ways. Not just in a sense of awe but by reversing how we see causation. Yes, we can detail a series of events and see how one causes another but this linear, algebraic flow hides something. An event causes another event but it’s the reaction, the clean up, the accommodation by the event’s surroundings, by other actors that is the real agency of the world. The reaction is what truly matters. It determines what will happen next in an ever retreating panoply of response.
It is this accomodation that is supremely comforting, a kind of limitless acceptance, something akin to the depths of agapé. Unconditional love from an unknowable being.
Jakob’s partner, Liz, texted that an atmospheric river was bringing a flow of microplastics over Switzerland. Before he relayed this information, I was crawling through hip-deep snow, trying to stay afloat on the powder and as I took deep breaths, gusts of wind would blow cold fresh snow deep into my lungs. I thought about how those polymers are embedded in my alveoli now.
I wondered if these airborne microplastics would alter the shape of snow, turning fragile fractals into tiny ice pellets as the ice now had to share the sky and accommodate tiny plastic spheres into their chains of causation. The snow, gentle no longer, would assault the ground with *tink tink tink* as the ice and plastic dots bounced off rocks and collected in strange ways: no more soft curves and pillows, just angular accumulations of white dots.
We skied up to the Bas du Glacier Arolla, cross-country up the valley towards the softly sighing mouth of Mount Collon. The trail followed the stream that drained the melt from the valley up to a wide morraine with hoodoos of glacial flour corrugating the sides of the valley. They’ve been weathered into sentries, some holding up tectic boulders against all sense.
It was a difficult ski, too hot, some of the way we did in t-shirts before getting high enough that the wind pushed the heat off our bodies faster than we could produce it. When the terrain became too difficult and the trail vanished, we took off the skis and switched to hiking boots, sticking them into a snow drift so that they stood at acute angles next to the snowy path. The snow was deep and rocky along the tongue of the moraine. Sometimes the snow held, sometimes we fell in to our hips.
We passed a small hydropower setup that had been built in the 1950’s and continued until the dark mouth we saw from below yawned open into a massive cave. It has beckoned since Jakob confirmed it with his telescopic lens from the pine balcony. We knew it was there but even as we came closer and closer to its mouth, its body remained undefined. It looked small, it kept retreating, but after a 3 km trek and 400 meter ascent, we arrived at the cave’s maw. It wasn’t a cave but a tunnel. 20 meters high, double that in width, and 200, maybe 300 meters long. It’s hard to gauge scale here. And somehow it doesn’t matter, everything just makes you feel small.
Later, I would learn that this cave was originally drilled into the base of the glacier to get at the meltwater underneath, the hydropower station we passed being the reason for this cave’s existence. I’m not sure why they had to do this to generate power, maybe it had something to do with the pressure of the water underneath all that ice, maybe not. But I assume there was a logic.
Gusts of snow and fine glacial flour borne on the wind burnished this tunnel into waves and peaks over the years. Even now, a light snow is howling through the tunnel. But having this in mind, thinking about this action and its effect, didn’t seem to account for its silken touch.
Ice is soft. I didn’t expect this. When I crush it in my mouth, it is hard, breaking into shards that push uncomfortably on my gums. Even its coldness is sharp, making my mouth feel both like it is burning and freezing at the same time. But this tunnel of ice, its walls were smooth and soft, soft like my tongue pushing warmly against the roof of my mouth. Its blues and aquas and whites, striped with gray like an aqueous mille feuille were soft too, the colors somehow unstable, soluble, just shades overlapping one another. The striations came at different angles, sometimes running North at 45 degrees, sometimes 10 degrees.
This tunnel was the terminus of two glaciers coming from opposite sides of Mount collon, it was the pierced medallion of a frozen necklace. Now those glaciers have retreated past the end of the valley, abandoning its jewel, a mouth with no throat, no tonsils, just agape.
From within, I get the sense that the mouth isn’t sighing, it’s squealing. Painfully.
Perhaps the reason for its velvety quality was the same reason one could briefly hold dry ice, a fine layer of vapor forming between the solid crystals of nitrogen boiling under atmospheric pressure and my fleshy, pulpy hand that scratches and bleeds. The Leidenfrost effect ensures a certain safety, as long as the two materials are different enough. It’s like physics are briefly suspended if a dynamic is extreme. Even existence doesn’t know what to do in those moments.
“The ice is soft because I’m not touching it. I’m touching the distance between it and myself.” I think.
Pebbles were frozen in the walls of ice, seeming to sink and leaving trails of air bubbles. The sun would warm the dark pebbles and they would slowly melt inside their 10,000 year old tomb, tumbling through time. At one point, a crack echoed. I looked up and saw a layer from the center of the ceiling collapse, crashing to the ground to join a tumble of translucent boulders underneath which a faint trickle of water could be heard, cracks and pops echoed occasionally off the wall.
Its surface is an interior. The point model looks like a digestive tract, the layering of colored points, giving it a structure, the spaces in between brought to near-undefinition. With cameras and drones, we scanned the cave quickly, conscious now that this mouth might close on us.
It rained the next day. The cracks and low rolling thunder of small avalanches echoed through the valley, an ominous denouement as Spring was certainly coming early this year. While much of Switzerland's glaciers have become pieces of complex hydrological stations, hooked up to damns, reservoirs and miles of pipes, acting as giant water batteries, Arolla is not one of them. Once the Bas de Arolla Glacier is gone, this power station will become seasonal, if functional at all. The mountain slopes will become more barren. The alps will begin to look like the Pyrenees, dry scrubland with spring waterfalls and autumn fires.
The healing pines of Arolla may survive in microclimes long enough to repopulate the valley during the next Milankovitch cycle; the orbital cycles that normally govern the Earth’s climatic undulations. The net of life is resilient to a point. But if the current prediction is true, that these cycles will be superseded by man-made warming, if our new dynamic equilibrium is too extreme, the physics of the coming world may just cause the model to collapse into an indefinable, unknowable softness.