When we reach the mountain summits we leave behind us all the things that weigh heavily down below on our body and our spirit. We leave behind a feeling of weakness and depression; we feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration, an exaltation of the body no less than of the spirit. We feel a great joy.
It is when walking solo in silence in the early morning or when I am simply quiet and contemplative in nature that joy bubbles up inside me and I feel and truly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life.
And while I'm passionate about deserts, beaches, forests and jungles, it is the towering peaks that work their special magic for me – and so it has been as I've begun exploring the Great Mountain Corridor that links the Alps with the Grand Massif, Pyrenees and Cantabrian ranges along the Trail to Salamanca. But with each step I've realised how little I understood of the challenges facing humans and other lifeforms in the Alps. Far from simply being a spectacular range of snow-capped peaks that's shared by eight Alpine countries – Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Germany, France, Italy and Monaco – it is a human dominated landscape that's threatening the survival of so many other species.
Meeting with Renate Biedermann and Stephane Morel at the headquarters of Alparc in the charming city of Chambery in southeastern France, provides fresh perspectives around the challenges. Alparc, which coordinates the Alpine Network of Protected Areas, has been pivotal in a wide-ranging, multinational study known as the Econnect Project which examined the delicate balancing act of combining around 14 million human residents and 120 million seasonal tourists with indigenous wildlife, including indicator species like the brown bear, wolf, lynx, fish otter, black grouse and griffon vulture. The human presence and impact is massive in the low-lying areas, especially in the valleys and slopes below 1,500 metres, which has led to the fragmentation of natural areas that the creatures depend on to migrate and disperse as part of their traditional pattern of movement and survival.
The key to ensuring Alpine biodiversity, according to the Econnect Project, is ecological connectivity which recognises that human society depends on a healthy natural environment while wilder areas need to be connected and kept free of barriers to allow species to maintain viable populations. A conclusion is: "Econnect has clearly shown that the essential prerequisite to future life in the Alps is defining, accepting and implementing trade-offs between boundless development and the setting aside of of large tracts of interconnected and permeable lands to maintain a higher biodiversity for regeneration and renewal to occur in the face of ecological disruption.
"Social acceptance, future co-opportunities and political buy-in are as important as building a green bridge to cross a motorway."
Dr Michael Vogel, President of Alparc, observes: "The large carnivores – bears, wolves and lynxes – constitute part of the natural heritage of the Alps. The Alpine countries appreciate the value of their return … however, there is hardly any wilderness left. The small number of protected areas that we have is not enough to provide the space needed by bears, wolves and lynxes . If we want to preserve these species in Europe, we will have to do so by allowing the animals to share the space where we live, work and spend our leisure time. This calls for a strategy based on man and nature coexisting rather than being separated. Conservation and wildlife management is therefore a socio-political mission."
Increasingly it is being recognised that society has to co-operate with nature, with mayor Bruno Murienne of St-Martin-d'Uriage in France, stressing: "Nature is important both to me personally and to my municipality. Fauna and flora form the bases of our lives. We thought it would be worthwhile, in our new land-use plan, to consider the entire ecological network and corridors."
Something as simple as clicking a light switch can have a consequence, however big or small. Studies have spotlighted the impact of light pollution which brightens the night sky. Artificial light can affect the growth cycle of plants, as well as the sensory organs of nocturnal animals, which means a well-lit road can create a barrier and contribute to habitat fragmentation and stop migrant animals in their tracks. Recently more than 20 municipalities agreed to switch off or reduce their lights because even though the valley is surrounded by mountains, there is no real night anymore and it is barely possible to see the stars.
Photographer Pierre Jacques is showing me around and points to an area along the roadside where the grass has been cut short and laments: "If they'd thought it through and left it a little longer the grasses and wild flowers would have provided sustenance for bees and a host of other creatures. It's that simple and just requires a little thought."
Happily more and more homeowners are creating gardens that welcome the pollinators and in one village I see a poster announcing the weekend's movie entertainment: there are no gun battles or exploding cars, but its a documentary about the bees that are crucial to our survival. These villagers, among them farmers and hunters, live closer to nature and many appreciate that we need to raise our awareness and recognise that the future is in our hands. I'm walking and wondering if I'm doing enough when my phone beeps and it's a message from my daughter Bonnie, who with her sister Tammy, always inspire me and encourage me to aim higher. "You just keep on making us prouder," she says. "You make me believe that we can really do anything we want, and it should be fun. Life should be