lessons from the moor

Down Tor with Lowery Tor, Leather Tor, and Sharpitor in the distance

Finding wildness depends not just upon where you look, but how you learn to see.

Last weekend, I took train and bus to the far western edge of Dartmoor. A drizzly jog of three miles between sharply squared hedgerows took me from Yelverton to Meavy to the Burrator Reservoir and to a climb up the abruptly steep slopes of Sheeps Tor in the late afternoon.

I summited the slippy granite ledges atop the tor through intermittent bands of rain and mist — glyb and glaw — roiling across the hills from Cornwall. Seeking a bit of shelter, I traced an arcing path cross sedge and lowland bog around the reservoir’s eastern reaches before turning up again across Combeshead Tor and Down Tor and north into the fading light and rain-besotted moor. 

Much of the next morning found me wending my way through the southern moor along Abbots Way — less a path, often hardly even the faintest trace — and more of a historic link between Tavistock Abbey and Buckfast Abbey, through what the Dartmoor website describes as a “wide stretch of wild bleak moorland with areas of treacherous bog, high tors and fast flowing streams.”

Leather Tor and Sharpitor at Twilight

As hour after hour passed and morning sloughed into afternoon, I followed contours among low hills and valleys of the moor. I learned (mostly through mistakes) to read the lay of the grasses — how different shades might mean a path of solid ground through bog; how sheltered slopes yield different (and sometimes more substantive) growth; and how the brighter green of pastures shorn by centuries of use by ponies, cows, and sheep give solid footing even in the midst of the most forlorn moor. 

I was reminded of Polynesian mariners on the waters of the southern Pacific looking to shadows in the clouds and changes in patterns in the water to navigate with no land in sight. Their charts of woven sticks —rebbelib, medo, mattang — are themselves like wind-woven grasses on a moor. And like the stick chart, a keen eye toward the ground can help one find the most secure path. 

My run became a dance among the bristle bent to a rhythm drawn from shallow pools and wheatear song. Winds swirl and change the dance as bedstraw and milkwort in November tangles gave way to sodden fescue swathes and, higher, bogs blanketing low domes of hill and tor. 

I came to Dartmoor to search for wildness both outward and within — I found both. 

The moor’s apparent bleakness was deeply life-affirming — taking me from the wind whipped and wet of Saturday’s twilight hours to the brilliant sunshine shining up from the placid Channel beyond Ivybridge toward the trek’s end. 

I am quickly falling in love with this place, and I know I will be back

Abbots Way

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