Photo: Wistman's Wood in Dartmoor – a tiny patch of remaining ancient oak woodland.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
. . .
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
From ‘Reluctance’ by Robert Frost
This is my first blog post written since arriving in Britain – two months after my arrival. Those two months of seeking out and immersing myself in 'wild' and 'rewilding' landscapes of England, Wales and Scotland have already allowed me to cast off several skins and skeins. Life is simpler in wild places. Thinking is clearer in the quiet of natural spaces. And after the heat and constant sounds and noise of city life in inner city and North Shore Sydney, the absence of human sounds in places like Dartmoor, where I went soon after arrival, or Glen Cannich in the Scottish Highlands, where I am now, enable quiet and intuitive reflection. Places like these allow the intellectual side of my brain, the academic side, to switch off for a while, and to rest in neutral while the heart, or the soul, or whatever it is that can receive solace from the natural world, drinks in the almost palpable energy underneath and all around me, the energy spilling out of the earth and the air and sizzling and crackling in the few wild places that remain in Britain.
In Dartmoor at Ger Tor I am reminded that I am in a wonderfully pagan setting, a fit place for a Hardy novel or a Hughes poem. Reading Robert Frost's 'Reluctance' and his observation on 'the end/ Of a love or a season' is made more poignant when I am sitting on the granite boulders of 'clitter' (what a delightful and redolent word, too) below Ger Tor, where the only sound I can hear is the plashing and gurgling of a brook or burn cutting its way ever downwards through aeons of time, and I can't even see the burn for the mist and snow swirling around me – I have just flown directly from Sydney's summer into the depth of Dartmoor's winter.
At Ger Tor I can feel the presence of the Bronze Age huts that lie just to the east of the Tor – or perhaps I can feel their presence because I have researched them earlier, and the knowledge of their position nestles securely in my memory. Whichever it is, I make my way towards them through the mist, which is turning now into sleet. The foundations and walls of the houses are still visible after almost four millennia, and I wonder about the landscape the Bronze Age people found here. There would have been forest all over what is now moor, oak-dominated woodlands like the tiny remnant at Wistman's Wood – one of the few pieces of ancient forest those Bronze Age people and their predecessors didn't cut down. I go to visit Wistman's Wood the next day. I sit in the Landrover and read about it, another cognitive and intellectual exercise before putting on my ski-jacket and rain-pants and heading over to experience the remnant of ancient wood for myself. This is a constant flip-flopping that I do – reading up on a place, or a process, letting the information settle somewhere in a recess of my brain, where a gaggle of synapses decide its relevance, and its meaning, if it has any meaning for me yet. Then I get out of the book, or the Kindle, or the notes I have made, and out of the car, and go and drink in the place itself and how it feels to me. I can find out later what poets have said about it, or what ecologists argue for its present state, or what the rational and analytical side of my brain will suggest to me – for now, for a brief time, the wild place is my entire world, and I want to experience it with every sense I can muster.
It is on the path to Wistman's Wood that my rational brain refuses to be stilled, and I surprise myself by speaking aloud: 'George Monbiot is right.' There are sheep littering the close-cropped hillsides along the way, and strands of wool on the gorse that lines the track, and when I walk on the grass of the moorland and through the ancient stone gate leading to the Wood, I can feel how compacted the soil is, and how the water puddles in the clay of the moor. Rain is no longer absorbed into the soil – it runs straight off, and I can see erosion gullies on the far side of the valley. And there is a curious absence of wildlife and trees, so surprising to me when I think how much life should be supported here, with the rich black soil and the water sluicing from the sky. But there is only the shorn grass of the moorland, and gorse, and sedge occasionally where the water is most evident. Apart from the sodden sheep and shaggy ponies there is little evidence of animal or bird life.
A sign at the old stone wall, just over the stile leading to the Wood, tells me how important the sheep and the cattle and the ponies are to preserving the delicate nature of the Wistman's Wood reserve, and I wonder whether the sign is the work of a PR company. It sounds very much like the Newspeak of Orwellian politics, because what the Stone Age and Bronze Age axes didn't cut down, livestock has decimated. Looking at the Wood, I decide that the only reason the ancient oak trees have survived is that they are on steep ground absolutely strewn with great granite boulders, and the sheep and cattle and ponies can't get into the Wood without breaking their necks on the rocks. There are the remains of about one hundred Bronze Age houses about a bowshot-distance from Wistman's Wood, and I wonder what the forest looked like when they were collecting clitter to build their walls. Nine thousand years ago all of Dartmoor would have been covered with forest, and now I sit on one of the mossy stones at the edge of Wistman's Wood, 'Devil's Wood' or 'Haunted Wood' from 'Wisht' meaning 'Devil' or 'Haunted', and I close my eyes and see if I can imagine the sounds of the wind moving through uninterrupted broadleaf forest, nine thousand years ago when elk and bear and wolf and tarpan and aurochs and lynx and wolverine would have roamed through it. I see in my mind's eye the human settlers huddled in a clearing in the wood – perhaps just east of Wistman's Wood – fearful of the great predators of the wild, terrified of the dark, and hacking down the forest and building walls to solidify their presence, and I wonder what it must have been like, to live in a wilder Britain. Dartmoor isn't wild now, but it is still lovely, and wilder than the heart of Woking, say. I would dearly love to see it with great swathes of oak forest, and although the aurochs is gone, perhaps one day its replacement, the tauros, will haunt the British woodlands again.
My ‘rewilding’ journey has begun, my exploration of wildness and rewilding, of landscapes, of woodlands, of animal species, in poetry, and of self – because the term ‘rewilding’ doesn’t apply only to ecological processes.
There is a parallel ‘rewilding’ movement in psychology, in literature, in education – in multiple disciplines outside of the ecological sciences, in fact – which looks at what happens in the human soul and psyche when wildness has been lost. Psychological rewilding suggests that we have become so tamed, so repressed, so shrivelled by social norms and the expectations of mostly urban communities that we have lost touch with the wilder part of our human nature. This parallel ‘rewilding’ movement advocates rediscovering our own wildness, in multiple facets of our lives, to enrich our experience of life, and it mirrors what many poets have said for centuries. Wildness is a way to get in touch with the divine in our natures, and simultaneously a path to experiencing our primal side – wildness is sacred, and wildness is sexy.