30th May. I met Joël at 0515 and we headed south on the picturesque, if convoluted, D900 to Dignes les Baines, in the heart of France’s fossil country. He had arranged the previous day with the Director for us to access the Butterfly Gardens before they officially opened in the hope that we may surprise some moths and butterflies with le fond blanc before they stirred for the day. A sunny terraced hillside planted with food and nectar plants attracts over one hundred species of moths and butterflies, all free flying. Within minutes of arrival, Joël had found a finely marked oak hawkmoth at roost that would allow me to set up the field studio around it without difficulty. Disappointingly, this was the only species willing to cooperate as the slope quickly warmed. Consolation came in the form of several vigorous spikes of lizard orchid – a lime-loving rarity in the UK – whose leaves senesce even before all the flowers have opened out. The flowers themselves have massively elongated spiralling lips, giving larger specimens the appearance of streamer-bedecked maypoles.
By 1300 we had done all we could. “I have a big woman,” I declared, “Will we eat?”
Bob and the others had left during the day yesterday when I was in Digne and Joël had remained there since it was his home town. This was the first day since my arrival when most of my conversation was in English, albeit with myself and, rather unsatisfactorily, with Jane on the TomTom. Reflecting on how I had done, I realised that I had moved through the language with the same ease a man moves through deep heather with his trousers round his ankles. I estimated 25% proper comprehension, 25% comprehension through extrapolation and 50% hoping I wasn’t smiling idiotically when being told about bereavement, illness, divorce or other forms of personal tragedy.
I decided to return, for the third time, to the Foret du Morgon. I needed somewhere in this unfamiliar landscape to feel acquainted with, something that could happen only with successive visits. And the place I had enjoyed most of all – and that still had treats in store – was this forest.
I re-shot narrow leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) when I found a better specimen growing at an eccentric angle near the lady’s slippers I photographed with Joël. Close by, a single plant of white helleborine was coming into bloom. While the white helleborine is absent from Scotland and the narrow leaved species rare, both belong in my mind to a more southern community of calciphiles. As such, they don’t excite me as much as rarities of the Scottish flora that grow on our scarce outcrops of lime. Uppermost in my mind was the plant I now found in front of me: whorled Solomon’s seal (Polygontum verticillatum). Apart from its obvious elegance (shown off to effect against the white background) it is where the plant grows in Scotland that is a large part of its appeal: all but one of its nine stations (there are none in England) are in humid, shady riparian gorges cut deep enough to keep the plant cool even in hot summers. Sometimes scarcely accessible, these ravines retain a degree of wildness absent from much of the landscape bordering them. They are refuges, sanctuaries where we can feel closer to something elemental.
The forest felt very distant as I rejoined the N94 to head north to Mont Dauphin Gare that Sunday afternoon. Almost immediately I came across a convoy of 12 or 13 Ferraris of various vintages heading south, in the much the same way as I had encountered one of Porsches last summer in Austria. This is perhaps human bonding behaviour at its most bizarre. I was sorely tempted to execute a handbrake turn and subvert the parade with my Punto but mindful that it had as much torque as a Trappist monk, I didn’t rate my chances of keeping up.