Photo: Planting tiny trees on steep slopes at Carrifran Wildwood, a volunteer looks like one of the rocks of the landscape
My blog posts have been out of sequence with the timescale of events – this post was mostly written up as notes just after I crossed the border into Scotland, after a journey from Cumbria in snowy conditions which tested my capabilities with the Land Rover. I crossed over the Hardknott Pass, where the crazy Romans had a garrison fort – THAT would not have been an easy posting for the legionaries involved. I was terribly apprehensive about crossing the pass in the snow and ice, until I met the only other car (also a Land Rover) that I had seen in ten miles: the driver was a young woman in a bobble-topped beanie and she looked absolutely unconcerned at the weather conditions. She flashed me a smile and gave me a wave and headed off in the direction from which I had come, and I laughed at my own worries and drove on feeling that I had just had a little lesson in the essential folly of worry. Across almost the entire Hardknott Pass, the landscape was cropped to the ground, and I passed more than a few bedraggled-looking sheep – George Monbiot's 'white plague' again. And then after a drive through Northumberland, I was in Scotland, home of the brave.
On my list of places to see, and people to talk to, were Carrifran Wildwood in the Scottish Borders and the wonderful couple Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, who were the main inspiration behind the Carrifran Wildwood project. Carrifran Wildwood is a restoration scheme, a rewilding project, which is almost textbook in the way one person, or one couple, can inspire others to form a tight band who rally behind a mission – in this case the mission to begin the ecological restoration of the southern Borders of Scotland. The plan was to purchase land which had seen decades or centuries of degradation by sheep and deer, and to start planting trees to reforest a barren and blasted landscape. The story of how that was begun, and how it continues to inspire volunteers to plant ever more trees and to acquire more and more area to return to a forested state, is covered in Myrtle and Philip's book The Carrifran Wildwood Story, which I would certainly recommend you read if you are keen to learn how to rewild and reforest any degraded and formerly farmed or grazed lands.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a long and fascinating lunch with Philip and Myrtle at their home, where we were joined by one of the other pioneers of the Wildwood Group, Fi Martynoga, an expert in wild harvesting and author of several books on the subject. Again I was reminded and convinced that great things can be accomplished by the strong goal and clear mission of a very small number of people. I was also lucky enough to head off for an entire day of planting tiny trees on the slopes of Carrifran, in the rain, with a group of dedicated tree-planting volunteers. It always strikes me how interesting and varied are the backgrounds of tree-planting volunteers – or any people who dedicate themselves to a cause linked to the restoration of the natural environment. Chatting to Philip and Myrtle and Fi, I heard how impossible almost each stage of the acquisition of the land to reforest had seemed, and how, because they just would not give up on the goal of restoring the great Caledonian Forest which has almost gone, the land and the money for it materialised.
Out on the top slopes of Carrifran, with icy rain drifting in, it is almost as if there are no trees to be seen – then, if you look carefully, at ground level, you see hundreds and hundreds of saplings hugging the sides of the very steep ground. And when you look down to the lower slopes, you see how the trees there are growing, and they are taller, and near the road they are way over the height of the volunteers who come in each week. Rewilding, reforesting, ecological restoration: it is a matter of faith and vision and then work, unceasing work which fills the soul with joy even when the rain is running up and down the inside of your anorak sleeves.
Thank the stars, or God, or the great blue sky (Genghis Khan's deity), or Infinite Intelligence, for people in the Rewilding movement who have the foresight, the vision, and the work-fuelled determination to restore our damaged natural world. Carrifran will be a forest yet, and it will be linked to other great forests, so that one day we may see that the southern Borders of Scotland joined in a ribbon of forest swathes all the way to the Cairngorms, and then beyond those, to John o' Groats in the very northernmost Highlands.