It’s strange isn’t it, how your entire world view can be obliterated in a mere fleeting moment, insignificant in a cosmological sense but earth shattering in our personal timeline as the world we know and love dissolves around us.
The photograph above was taken at Haytor moments after I surveyed the treeless plateau from my position atop the eroded granite megalith. I felt something that I hadn’t experience before in this context: a deep sorrow. The moor has always filled me with delight and excitement as I run along prehistoric trackways and squeeze between cracks in tors but this time something was different. My perception had shifted and all I could see in front of me were the ruins of industry, a desert wasteland stretched out in front of me. I turned towards the harbour on the horizon in hopes that a view of the sea would lift my spirits but all I felt was chill of the the battering wind that once would have brought me such comfort.
I watched as a number of tourists approached the base of the tor, leisurely strolling the few hundred feet from the car park at the bottom of the gentle approach.
I wondered if they had come here to experience a slice of wilderness the National Park promised to offer, if so they would be surely disappointing. One more coach trip, a couple of D of E’ers, a quiet afternoon in the life of Haytor.
For years I received that same message, at times I had even examined the evidence for myself. It didn’t matter who was telling me: Professors in Biology, Geography, Geology or Archaeology, it took this particular moment in time for me to realise the obvious. Dartmoor is dead.
No, Dartmoor isn’t dead, nature endures it always does but for us humans to refer to this lifeless plateau as a wilderness is a joke and to go as far as to say an ‘unspoilt’ wilderness is truly laughable!
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Dartmoor knows that the area has been worked since the Neolithic period with settlers clearing the native ancient forests to make room for farmland. These early practices, similar to the ones we see in tropical rainforests today contributed to the acidification of the soil, soil nutrient depletion and the accumulation of bogs. By the Bronze Age carefully divided field systems covered an area of over 10,000 hectares contributing to the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the United Kingdom.
This information was old to me but as I stood there looking across the scarred landscape, Haytor’s own quarry having supplied stone for New London Bridge in the 1800s, it was not nostalgia for a lost landscape that nipped my heart but a deep sadness that we preserve this landscape at the cost of its ecological potential.
So why this sudden change of heart? Why is it that a land that once gave me so much comfort now only brought me sadness?
The landscape I saw before me was overgrazed, an ecological desert, no more wild than a pet portrait of a Labrador.