The hostile geography and climate in the high Alps has shaped the culture of its inhabitants.
The daily struggle for survival fostered many traits that are now seen as stereotypically
Swiss: self-discipline, long-term planning and technical sophistication -
but also high levels of social organization with democratic features.
A typical example are the Bergschaften - cooperatives whose roots can
be traced back to Germanic times. While the land in the valley below was
divided into private lots, the forests and meadows up in the mountains were
collectively owned. The Riedji, for instance, consisted of 40 individual
lots but the area above the alp belonged to a cooperative. Members were entitled
to cut wood, collect mushrooms or herd cattle, but they also had to contribute to
the maintenance of the irrigation system and other common infrastructure.
With its dry climate and scarcity of arable land, the Valais is famous
for its complex and large-scale irrigation systems, which date back centuries.
Water was redirected through canals that often measured many kilometers.
These mostly wooden aqueducts (Suonen) traversed forests and meadows,
led along steep cliffs and cut across small valleys. Building such extensive systems
and maintaining them over generations was not only a technically demanding task,
but also required complex forms of social organization. Like most other alps,
the Riedji has been irrigated for hundreds of years. Its water comes from a creek
about a kilometer away and was originally brought down to the meadow through
a network of open half-pipes made from pine trees. On the alp, it was directed
into a system of channels that were cut into the meadow. Remnants of the historic
irrigation system exist to this date and restoring them will be an important priority.
Since fertile land was the scarcest resource in this rugged terrain,
every possible square meter - up to the timber line at 2,100 m and above -
was used for agricultural purposes. Once the snow melted in spring,
the villagers led their animals to meadows in the mountains above.
The few available saddles, flat enough for more extensive use, were cleared of forest
and turned into summer settlements. Like many other alps in the region,
the Riedji was established in the Middle Ages, probably between the 13th and 14th century.
'Riedji' is the ancient word for 'marshy meadow'. With the narrow Matter valley
below receiving little sun, grain was harvested on the southern slopes of the Riedji
until the 1940s - an extreme altitude for such cultivation. Mountain sheep and mountain
goats graze the meadows to this day. Their bells allow shepherds to locate animals
that have gone astray and make for a soothing background sound during the summer months.