The Tree: An afternoon on Dartmoor and a wild idea

Dartmoor is a wonderful upland area of south Devon. It is based on granite rocks which frequently outcrop on high tors. I’m having an afternoon out visiting a few of my favourite places on the Moor. Here’s the view from Emsworthy Mire from my phone’s camera.

From Emsworthy Mire - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Despite Dartmoor’s beauty, it is a desolate landscape which has been almost completely destroyed by humans. From Mesolithic times, people burned the temperate rainforest in Dartmoor’s lower areas to clear it for farming crops. Then they moved on as they exhausted the soil to burn and clear more forest. The high or sloping areas which weren’t suitable for farming were burned as well for animal grazing. 7,000 years later and our Devon farmers are subsidised to keep large areas of it permanently lifeless and sheepwrecked.

Here’s a beautiful stone doorway for sheep in one of the ancient granite walls.

Sheep Doorway - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Emsworthy Mire is a ‘nature reserve’ managed by Devon Wildlife Trust. According to their website: “Fencing has been installed which allows cattle whose grazing will improve the numbers of flowering plants.” All that grazing Emsworthy Mire with cattle does is improve the income of the Wildlife Trusts. Natural rainforest has the greatest biodiversity, not the burnt, acid remains of a destroyed ecosystem which is propped up by subsidies and ‘management’. They perpetuate the destruction to ‘encourage’ a few token species of butterflies, by grazing using animals which increase global warming.

How will we make sure land is set aside for true wilderness when even our wildlife charities are collaborators in its destruction?

It’s also grazed by beautiful ponies. One comes to nuzzle me and I can feel its hot breath:

Dartmoor was not a moor before humans came. It’s the sorry remnant of a destroyed landscape. I read all the tourist information about the Moor or, The Great Swamp, as it’s known locally, with deep sadness. It’s as if we’ve been transported to former areas of the Amazon rainforest and asked to appreciate the devastation of the burning and logging and killing of all natural life and its replacement with palm oil plantations and beef cattle ranching. We’re even expected to revere the shacks of the loggers as valuable archaeology. Then we can sit down and listen to tales of mythical beasts who inhabit the area, when all the real ‘beasts’ have become extinct.

There are a few Holly bushes here which are bursting with life:

The rest of the Moor isn’t.

I was hoping to see some birds but the Hunt has just been through with their horses and dogs so there’s precious little to see apart from a Buzzard high overhead with its legs tucked neatly in to make it more aerodynamic:

Buzzard - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I can hear the sound of shots being fired in the distance. It’s either a crow scarer or someone’s really shooting crows. There might be pigeons destined for the pot.

Dartmoor is covered in peat. Peat is dead vegetation which can never quite degenerate because it’s become so acidic. The use of these upland areas for sheep is self-perpetuating; sheep make it fit for nothing else. This land will never recover from its wrecked state without organisations who believe in creating a wilderness which is truly wild. The rivers here should be full of fish; the land should be covered in forest; the forest should be full of lynx and bears and wolves, the air should be thronging with birds.

A quick trip to Wistman’s Wood might show me what Dartmoor used to be and what it could become once more. There’s a signpost for the footpath which has seen better days:

Footpath Sign Dartmoor - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Along the road are the burnt remains of Gorse bushes with Yellow Brain Fungus Tremella mesenterica growing on them:

Wistman’s Wood is an ‘ancient’ woodland on Dartmoor, although the oldest trees appear to be only 400 years old. Many people view it as a postage-stamp-sized relic of the rainforest which covered the whole of Dartmoor 9,000 years ago. It’s one of only three high altitude old woods on Dartmoor. It covers just nine acres; Dartmoor is 968 square miles.

Wistman's Wood - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

John Fowles’s The Tree mentions Wistman’s Wood. His writing is a call to abandon any sense of nature needing to be useful to justify its existence:

We shall never understand nature (or ourselves) until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability – however innocent and harmless the use. For it is the general uselessness of so much of nature that lies at the root of our ancient hostility and indifference to it.

The Tree by John Fowles (of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is available in a beautiful illustrated edition from Little Toller. The book is made from trees.

One possible reason for Wistman’s Wood’s continued existence is that it’s on land completely covered in boulders, making it unusable:

Wistman's Wood - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Wistman’s Wood is a place which inspires many and is often viewed as a place of spirituality, of demons, of faeries and spirits. It’s name is probably from Wisht, which means eerie or uncanny. Like many faerie tales, the stories of the Wisht Hounds, demon dogs chasing souls in the night, are our primitive great ape reaction to forests which historically were potentially a threat to our health and lives. They really did used to contain animals which could be dangerous to humans. That’s one of the reasons people have burnt forests all over the world and hunted animals to extinction.

Wistman's Wood - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I mentioned to a good friend how damaging keeping sheep on upland areas is, given the huge area occupied by them and the tiny fraction of the human diet they constitute. She replied, “I suppose it’s just land that wouldn’t be used for anything else.”

We need a rewilding revolution in this country which abandons large areas to nature. We don’t need hard-working farmers to be subsidised to manage it. We don’t need deluded wildlife charities to get tax-breaks to ruin it. We just need to leave it alone. Is that such a wild idea?

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