Foreword: So many of the interesting opportunities I am given come about by pure chance. At the 2008 photography fair at Montier-en-Der, Wild Wonders of Europe director, Staffan Widstrand, was approached by Michel Blanchet, chief scientist at the Queyras Natural Park in Provence, with a view to a Wild Wonders photographer covering the rare and beautiful Isabella moth. And so, several months later, I made my first trip to France. © Niall Benvie 2009
25th May 2009
My drive to the High Alps of Provence began in Turin – the closest airport to the Queyras Natural Park – a two and a half hour journey in the company of Jane, the voice of my TomTom. Though flawless in her directions, she is never one for small talk and neglected to warn me about the toll barriers. Nevertheless the experience wasn’t wasted as I learned some Italian swear words while blocking traffic, just while I figured out the lanes. With relief I arrived in the village of Mont Dauphin Gare by the River Durance, my base for the next 10 days, at dusk. It was a bit hard to see, but it looked like le paysage round about was far from flat.
A sunny day in Provence. This, I was soon to learn, was not an exceptional state of affairs, although what was less expected was the coolness of the early morning and strength of the wind that got up by mid-morning. Encouraged by the heat of the day, it goaded the trees all the way to the top of the mountains that crowd in a rather menacing fashion around the valley. These pine forests are home to the animal I had come to try to photograph – the exotic-looking Isabella moth Graellsia isabellina, a relative of the tropical silk moths. Frankly, this would have been a near impossible task without the help of an authority on the species, Robert Lemaitre, who was making his annual sojourn here to trap the moths for a captive breeding programme. And since the moth is strictly protected, I was grateful to be working under his supervision. I joined Robert and friends at 8 am for breakfast and made my introductions. “Good day. I call myself Niall Benvie and I am coming from Scotland. I am a photograph for Wild Wonders of Europe,” I ventured. The French I learned for four years at school and one year at university – a very long time ago – would have to do. Ahead of my visit I had mentioned to Robert some of the other things I hoped to photograph during my stay most notably, lady’s slipper orchid (Venus’s Gardening Shoe, roughly speaking). Ever since I started to photograph plants in my field studio against a brilliantly backlit white background (un fond blanc) a couple of years previously, I had imagined what lady’s slipper would look like shot this way. So, straight after breakfast, I headed out with Thierry and Nicole Guibert (a talented illustrator of insects and artist) to the Foret du Morgon, close by Savines le Lac, to a site they knew deep in the forest.
For someone used to the sparse, rather miserable flora of acidic woodland at home, a forest on lime is a real treat. And although the mixed Morgon forest is hardly wilderness, it possesses all the species that I would hope to see including, at different stage of growth and senescence, hellebores, dog’s mercury, hepatica, herb paris, common Solomon’s seal, woodruff, May lily, yellow wintergreen, narrow leaved helleborine, white helleborine, bird’s nest orchid and, most spectacular of all, lady’s slipper. The plants were less luxuriant than those I had previously seen in Estonia but they were nevertheless exquisite and occupied us for a few hours while I assembled the images for a composite image I had in mind. Heavily dusted with pine pollen, those parts of the leaves that would show in the picture were gently brushed with the broad soft paint brush I use for handling insects. I think my guides were surprised how long someone could take over a photograph.
We spent the rest of the day out of the sun, looking at pictures and preparing for that evening’s work. After dinner, we all drove further into the mountains, quickly gaining altitude. And at a picnic site screened from the road by pines, I took part in one of the stranger rituals I have been party to. We unloaded special mesh-sided boxes from the cars that contained the female Isabellas. Once the darkness was complete on that moonless night and with the six of us ranged reverently around the boxes, the covers were removed so that the sirens could do their work, not with song but pheromone. Before very long, I could just discern some large moths flying around our heads. But rather than using nets, the Graellsia worshippers gently clasped the air to catch the moths in their hands before introducing them to the females. Over one and a half hours the disciples caught 13 males. I was still struggling to adjust to the darkness, let alone muster the coordination to take a moth from the air without clapping it to pulp. I went to bed at half past midnight with one very clear thought in mind: it is only my first full day here but it looks like I am going to get the photos I came for. Surely not!
0430. I‘m sure that Robert arranged the 0600 rendez-vous to test my mettle. Then again it might have something to do with the coolness of early morning being better for working the moths outdoors. Either way I was determined not to be late and rolled up at his riverside chalet at 0545. Robert confided that, in addition to the males we caught last night, he had received three females from an institute, one of which we could photograph too. I set up the field studio, framing an attractive pine branch to indicate the moth’s habitat. I took advice to assure authenticity in respect of how the moth sat and which part of a branch it would naturally favour. Cool and torpid, two different males posed without trying to flee. For an advocate of “pure” wildlife photography, this sort of approach doesn’t sit comfortably – there is a degree of manipulation involved. To its credit, the finished picture is shot out of doors rather than in a studio, and by virtue of the white background, makes no pretence to represent a moment in the wilderness. In practice there would probably be no photos of this nocturnal species without the use of sirens and sets. These are the circumstances under which the pictures had to be made.
At the end of the session, which included some pictures of the sexes together, I was exhausted and desperate to download the pictures. But I needed some sleep first as the day’s work was far from over. A hard-wired Presbyterian anxiety about lying down during the working day quickly subsided as the curtain over the open doors to my room’s cool balcony waved me to sleep.
I woke abruptly a couple of hours later as I freed my leg from the tractor I had just driven at speed through an alpine crash barrier and which, with me a few feet above it, was free-falling into an unfathomable abyss. Ever on the look out for a divine sign, I decided to be extra cautious when I drove up to Europe’s highest village St Véran (2011 metres), in a couple of days time.
“Hi, the whole world, how does it go? I was looking at my photographers and I think I have worked well. In fact, I am very luckily and I hope that your photos walk too, ” I gushed on return to the chalet. One of the nice things about this work is that it is easy, simply by transferring the flash transmitter, to let the people helping you use the same set to get their own pictures. A little bit of sharing goes a long way.
Once the heat of the afternoon had subsided a little, Robert, Thierry, Nicole and myself headed northwest from Guillestre to one of the many small rocky eminences that rise from the floor of the valley. This one is a little different insofar as it is a station of the rare burning bush (Dictamnus albus). As suggested by its English name, this showy plant exudes volatile fumes which, when the conditions are very hot and still, can be ignited with a lighter. But no chance of that today as I was hard pushed even to keep the plant in front of le fond blanc, such was the wind.
The day concluded, as it began, with an invertebrate – a vividly colour Carabus auratus beetle – that Nicole produced during dessert. I felt a little sheepish as I showed her the detail that can be produced in the field studio, detail that takes many hours to paint. But at least all parts of her paintings are sharp.
Just after breakfast, Robert (by this time I had been encouraged to use “Bob” and “tu”) showed me a site for henbane, a fantastically poisonous member of the nightshade family that grows on a roadside above Guillestre. Although I had seen the plant once before in Scotland, these “bushes” were far more impressive. My dictionary describes henbane as “coarse”; I think “sinister” is closer to the mark: its hairy leaves are large and pointed but soft enough to entice the unwary to stroke or even break one off. The veins of the pus-yellow flowers blend suddenly in their inscrutable purple throats. The plant has the smell of something bad having happened. This is not a subject for a white background and instead I used a troubled sky a few mornings later as the backdrop, lighting the plant with a single large diffused flash. I liked the juxtaposition between gentle light and “coarse” subject.
On arriving at the fort on the hill top, we ate the young flowers of Acacia which, at the right stage, taste just like freshly-vined peas. There I noticed some fast-flying Ascalaphids, insects that look like a cross between a dragonfly and butterfly. They looked very tempting, but were going to be a challenge – for later – to photograph.
I returned in the afternoon to the Foret du Margon with photographer, Joël Lejuene, to look at another site for lady’s slipper. While I had felt a little pretentious up until then speaking French to French people (I am British, after all, and not supposed to do that sort of thing) now there was no choice as Joël spoke even less English than I spoke French. My limited vocabulary was tested to the limit as I tried to explain the finer points of my field studio technique, “It is imperative to make that the white background is totally white but not too much. With a subject who is white, the background must to be more far than with a subject that is more black.” Joël is clearly highly intelligent as he made sense of this columbine French and did as I suggested, keeping the background close in behind darker, more opaque subjects and moving it further away from paler, more translucent ones. We concluded our visit to the forest with a male longhorn beetle, Stenocorus cursor, which, though not as colourful as the female of this species, was at least quite placid on the curved scoop set.
29th May. Everything here is VERY. The days are very hot and early mornings very cold. The crickets and nightingales are very noisy and the rivers of glacial meltwater very fast and turbulent. The wind is very strong and the mountains very severe. Nature fills your senses to bursting point – and it is both exhilarating and exhausting.
When I turned up at the riverside chalets to meet Joël, Bob produced a cockchafer for me to photograph in the scoop set. I had seen quite a few of these big beetles in the car park of my hotel where, attracted by the blooming acacia and lights, they had dashed themselves to death in their nocturnal blunderings. But this was one very much alive and, fed up of wandering about on the white set, remembered it could fly. With Joël wrangling the beast, I had a few opportunities to photograph its wings before we let it fly free into the dazzling canopy to meet other cockchafers.
As we set out to drive up to St Véran, I had in mind that we would enter a rocky realm of dripping crags and saxifrages, with rude stone dwellings clustered together for comfort under a looming sky. As my feeble Fiat panted up the inclines we came to an alpine hay meadow where I photographed the elegant St Bruno’s lily. “Formidable, very elegant,” I murmured, my lexicon of appreciation soon exhausted. Such was the diversity of flowers along the edge of this field (venturing deeper into it wasn’t on as it was a hay crop) that I could have worked it all day. Nevertheless, the high alpines I anticipated around St Véran beckoned.
Well, I was in for a surprise. Not only did Cembra pines still grow tall and straight at 2011 metres (if we had a natural tree line in eastern Scotland it would be about 700 metres at best) but there were no saxifrages and no mean hovels. On the contrary, St Véran, set on the slopes of the Montagne de Beauregard (there’s a clue) is one of the 141 Plus Beaux Villages in France, comprised of largely wooden barn-like houses each with an improbably sublime view of the high Alps. The light was almost unbearably bright: I could feel my pale Celtic skin age under its glare so, rather like some of my invertebrate subjects, I found myself drawn to the cool shadows.
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.
During a couple of previous visits to the fort that lies above Mont Dauphin Gare and Guillestre I had seen a few of the marmots that live on the slopes beneath it. This was at a much lower altitude than one would normally expect to meet these rodents and at dinner that evening, Michel confirmed they had indeed been relocated to this site at some stage in the past.
I arrived on the slopes about 0700 before anyone else was around. And sure enough, after a while, a large male marmot appeared on a rock near to where I was standing. I cast my eyes down, turned my head away, and started to edge ever so cautiously towards him, watching his reflection in the shiny screen on the back of my camera. Once I judged I was on the edge of his fear circle I stopped and slowly turned the camera in his direction. He didn’t flinch. I shot a few frames. Edged a little closer still. Still watching me. No warning whistle from him or any of the other marmots. I was framing up another composition a short time later when a local woman with an enormous bag of dandelions (Taraxacum) walked onto the flat grassy area nearby and started calling. Several marmots came bounding up to her, at times even taking the salad from her hand. It looked like my caution had been a bit superfluous so I adopted a cat-like nonchalance as I started to take pictures of the marmots being hand fed. The Park tolerates people feeding the marmots with dandelions but in the height of the tourist season there is a problem with some visitors ignoring the signs and offering chocolate and other food inappropriate to a mammal whose normal diet is mostly green.
Later, one marmot sentry spotted a circling red kite and, standing on its hind legs, issued a piping whistle, a bit like an oystercatcher’s contact call. After a while she went silent but still her mouth hung open as if in a silent rage. “Ah, the song of the marmot,” I commented to the dandelion lady, her bag now quite empty and brow furrowed.
2nd June. I returned at 0630 to the marmots only to find them less interested in me than yesterday and keen to keep out of the way of a noisy school party making its way up to the fort. After breakfast I resolved to try to make a panorama of alpine flowers and drove to a meadow nears Vars that Bob had shown me. But such was the strength of the wind and frequency of showers that I had to give up after shooting a crab spider on a Euphorbia and some spikes of broad leaved everlasting pea. Time to pack and ask Jane nicely to guide me back to Turin airport.