The Happy Valley of Sertig

WHEN as a young man I came first to the Clavadel Sanatorium above Davos Platz, I would often hear people talking of SertigDörfli, a little isolated mountain village that is situated immediately beneath the three remarkable peaks — Mittaghorn, Plattenhorn, and Ducan — at the very top of the beautiful valley. These three sheltering peaks, in form so similar the one to the other, outline themselves against the sky like jagged dogteeth.

The sides of these mountains are often so precipitous that even in midwinter there remain places where it is too steep for the snow to lie, places from which the stern face of the adamantine granite frowns out upon the innocent snow that so completely mantles the rugged deformities of the encompassing landscape. To the eyes of the earliest Alamannic settlers these peaks must have presented much the same appearance as they do to-day, as indeed they have done to the peasants of the valley for centuries, to the Ambühls, Kindschis, Baelis, and Gadmers who so many times must have raised their heads for weather signs to these eternal hills of their familiar locality.

Only once as a young man did I visit Sertig. This was on a mild summer afternoon in the year 1910. The old cartway along which I then drove has long been abandoned for a better-constructed road. The more ancient thoroughfare can, however, still be traced as occasionally it raises its grassy causeway a little above the natural level of the meadowlands, above the level of those fat meadowlands which in June, before the first mowing, are parqueted thick with flowers beyond all conception. I was not sufficiently well at that time to explore the valley as I wished, but from the seat of the little carriage I gazed at it long enough to carry away with me a clear memory of the ancient peasant holdings, and of the steepled church so adroitly roofed with compactly adjusted, perfectly fitting shingles, expertly squared out of the wood of Alpine timber. Also I never forgot the white gleam of the waterfall at the farther end of the valley, bursting down from the rocks of the Ducan in a cascade of ice-cold water, to begin its wild career through sunless gorge and by dark forest, down to the Rhine, down to the sea!

More than a quarter of a century went by before I saw the valley again. In the meantime I had been half over the world; but not in the equatorial ranges of Africa, nor in the Rocky Mountains even, had I found anything to equal the undisturbed seclusion of this remote Swiss valley. During this, my second sojourn in Clavadel I have come to know Sertig well and have been able narrowly to observe the effect of each season upon its life.

Of so high an altitude is it that visiting it in midwinter is like stepping upon the roof of the world, a rooftop that carries upon its levels accumulations of snow astounding for any lowlander to contemplate. From the month of December, snow falls from the heavens, now in flakes small and clustering as bees, and now in flakes large as goose feathers. Higher and ever higher it is piled, covering rock and tree, house and hay shed, until after a prolonged fall the whole acreage of the valley is smoothed out under a nativity coverlet twenty or thirty feet thick. And it is not only from the high heavens that the snow — this strange form of matter so mysteriously transformed out of the drops of silver rain — descends into the valley. I have been told by one who has wintered in Sertig-Dörfli how, after an exceptionally wild tempest, the very foundations of the valley were all night long shaken and shaken again by successions of avalanches that came thundering down from the topheavy slopes, each with its own peculiar reverberation of awful disaster. I myself have walked along a lane kept open by the peasants through the snow, the banks of which must surely have been higher than those blind watery walls that long ago penned in the children of Israel when they crossed dry-shod through the Red Sea.

With the approach of spring, all is suddenly altered. Swiftly and surely, as though by magic, the Sertig River draws the snow into its tossing currents, until everywhere patches of green grass begin to show, and the marmot’s whistle is again to be heard as these woodchucks of the mountains emerge, loose of skin, from their hibernating holes to nibble and romp and leave upon the snowdrifts the marks of footfalls flat and clawed as those of miniature grizzly bears. It is then that longsighted peasants may be seen standing stockstill in the garden or meadow, intent upon watching the movements of chamois tracking along the dizzy ledges of the topless mountains in search of fresher herbage.

A few more weeks pass, and, from a crystal cup deftly poised against the celestial space of an azure bright cosmos, Sertig has suddenly been changed to the valley of ‘manycolored grasses’ of the poet’s imagination. How secluded, how beautiful Sertig can then be in its native fertility, in its virginal native simplicity! First come the crocuses, tender and brittle as delicate porcelain trumpets, piercing through the last thin layer of unmelted snow with the spearheads of their folded petals. And after the crocus comes the whole honor of the fields — buttercups, pink campions, campanula, snakeweeds, rampions, great burnets — together with the vernal wealth of the Swiss pastures, of pastures that have been dunged and dunged again by the industrious, large, gripping hands of steadfast workaday women as much at their ease when holding rake or scythe as when perched upon a weaving stool. The grass begins to prosper, and once more life returns to the valley — cows are driven back to upland stalls, horses are housed again in summer stables, sheep bleat and baa at the doors of their summer sheds, and pigs grumble in their sties. The desolate winter whiteness is forgotten, and the gigantic shoulders of the Mittaghorn and the Plattenhorn, covered now with Alpine roses, echo and echo again the voice of man and of beast rising upon the air from the valley below.

When the snow has gone it is possible for the smallest boy herder to clamber to the bottom of the Waterfall, where in turmoil and torrent the river roars its way over the rocky precipice. The climatic change, since winter, has been so extreme that it allows for the appearance of creatures of the most unexpected kind. On the way to the river at the edge of the willow scrub through which the roe-deer come silently, daintily stepping at twilight, I once surprised a salamander. The heat of the sunshine, almost tropical in its intensity because of the rarefied nature of the atmosphere, had made it possible for this beast out of an infinite past to be found lolling, with reptile somnolence, by the margin of a sunny Sertig pool!

Then when the summer days with their swallows and butterflies, and the summer evenings with their moths and silences, are over and gone — behold the autumn is suddenly present! The heaviest labor of the year is now over for the peasants, and before they finally leave the valley they can afford, for a few weeks, to sit about in the inn playing jass and drinking Veltliner. This is the time of the open hunting season, and many a red deer, in the pride of his grease, is brought to his knees in the steep forest; and many a chamois, with hooked, backward-curling horns, is carried down from the mountain heights on shoulders stiffened by the weight of its tub-like body wonderfully plumped out on its scant diet of grass, fir shoots, and the edible seeds of the trees. There is scarcely a back shed now where a marmot, fat as butter, may not be seen, suspended from a beam, its mild beaver-like countenance pitiful in the heavy patience of death.

The valley during the last weeks before the first blizzard is supremely beautiful, each larch tree silently standing in the centre of its own golden circle of fallen needles, the branches of the mountain ashes laden down with scarlet berries, and the ground of the mountain slopes blue with juniper and ruddy with the tiny leaves of the fading whortleberries. Soon, soon will lichen, moss, toadstool, snail shell, and fallen feather lie hidden from the sun and glittering stars, beneath a snowy tonnage pressing them down and ever more down to a forlorn prostrate flatness.

Last year on a sparkling May morning I again visited Sertig-Dörfli. This time I was with an old lady of nearly eighty years. Her father and mother had been peasants in the valley and had owned one of the mountain cottages. All was sunshine, the grass was crocus-white as is an English down with daisies. Sheep and goats herded by laughing children grazed and browsed near the banks of the Sertig River, whose waters, clouded by the melting snows, went swishing past beds of marsh marigolds bright as guineas in the yellow sunshine. My companion presently pointed to a small window in one of the swart, log-built peasant houses and told me the following memory.

As a small child she always came to Sertig before the rest of the family, alone with her mother. This was a great joy to her. It was a fairy change after a winter’s imprisonment in the old Gadmer house farther down the valley. The life at Sertig was freer. The mother’s winter spinning was over, and the little girl associated the romantic valley with a luckier existence. All day long she had to do nothing more onerous than to gather snail shells for the chickens and in careless sort mind a few goblin goats. The mother, whom I remember well as an old woman of nearly a hundred, was at that time in the middle of her active life, and Fida, her lastborn child, was a great favorite with her. They would sleep together in a single wooden bed, young bones knocking against old bones, behind the little square window that my old friend indicated. In her later life she told me her mother had been often used to recall how once, on the occasion of her awaking in the Sertig dwelling, she had sat up in her child’s homespun shirt and, looking out of the window to where the waterfall sparkled across the flowered grass, had cried out in the dialect of the valley: ‘Muotter, Muotter, simer nüd glückli!' (’Mother, Mother, aren’t we happy!’)

They were simple words to have been recorded and pondered upon in the old peasant woman’s shawled head, and yet that morning they seemed to me strangely apposite to the happy mountain retreat, which, though never far removed from the cark and care of husbandry, is a valley having little enough to do with the clamor, clutter, and fret of our present troubled and broken times.