Moor-haunting: A piece about Dartmoor

**This is a piece that was published with the Elsewhere Journal. I wrote it after I’d been on Dartmoor (in Devon, UK), and was trying to express how it makes me feel, and what it prompts me to do — it’s a feeling I don’t quite encounter anywhere else.**

I moved back to a place that I know; it tugged me in my sleep, seeped into my blood like wine and love. Suddenly I am on Dartmoor, feeling myself dissolve into its shifting mist and separate from my body – like long ago when I was someone I am not, and being under the influence, I drifted away from myself when I hadn’t chosen to. But this time I choose to wander away from myself: not sure whether I am an individual or part of the churning mass of life.

I have become fixated by hares, those mythical and elusive creatures. Search them in spring, and if you’re lucky (I haven’t been so far), you’ll witness the ‘mad march hare’ boxing antics; elegant creatures transformed into tall, aggressive dancers; each one Odette and Odile, black and white swan, fighting for courtship rights. This time I hear them snorting nearby, calling the approaching solstice into being like a spell.

I’ve taken shortcuts that were the long way round. I’ve opted for easy routes that were the boggy, marshy, slow routes. I should know better. But Dartmoor is an ancient cauldron of reason and desire; and I am learning that I gain less from a level-headed caution than I do from imagination and intuition (whilst all the while feeling the edge of my compass in my pocket, safe in the knowledge that someone knows where I am). A stones-throw away in Exeter, where I live, I enjoy wandering and observing life in the city – as Virginia Woolf called it, ‘Street Haunting’. On Dartmoor, I do the altogether more consuming, wide-open-space version; I become a moor-haunter, a Gore-Texed Artemis, roaming; sometimes searching, sometimes found.

Joseph Campbell said, “What the myths are for is to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual.” Dartmoor is a place in Devon, but more than that, it is a myth. It strips me of any role, any context, any time, and takes me into the place behind the pause button. It is here I have heard God and myself. Where I’ve reacted to and interacted with nature. It’s here I’ve doubted myself, and then felt the most ecstatic, frenzied, deep but momentary understanding of absolutely everything. And also where I’ve simply watched a sunrise with a quieted mind and mug of tea.

Once, I saw the carcass of a dead moor pony and I stopped to look. It clutched a foal, half-born. Half in the world and half hidden. Dead before it was alive. The foal wouldn’t get to stagger on lanky legs; hunker down in winter snow; doze in a summer haze to the amusement of passing tourists. Dartmoor is barren, heartbreaking. But it is not cruel. It would rise up to meet the death with soft grazed pale grass, and with it, feed worms, ravens, plants. Nothing mourned, but nothing wasted either. Suffering without cruelty. We’re terrified of our own mortality – especially in the age of the self. But perhaps that pony had no sense of itself as a separate being. It was always connected to all the other creatures on the moor.  “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”, but these are not horses of instruction – they are wild and free, hardy and intuitive. Theirs is a third way inbetween Blake’s aphorism; inbetween wrath and instruction, desire and reason. I see myself there, feel it on Dartmoor – theirs is the here and now, the mysterious kingdom come, on Earth. Not fierce uncultivated energy, and not mindless robotic being either. Rather, free to roam and to congregate, to sense and respond.

I flinch when someone asks a question to which I must respond by saying ‘I like walking on the moor’. It feels like Peter’s denial before the rooster crows, claiming I never knew it. I feel Dartmoor glance at me, granite eyebrow raised, hurt. I do like walking on the moor, but that’s the method, not the purpose. For me it is no hobby. It is essential, like touch, and I like to think it is essential for Dartmoor too. Because we need people who are happy to get lost and get found again; to sit on a rock and all-at-once smile and weep at the grandeur and beauty of a sight that contains scale and possibility; colour and tiny miracles; music. Not a ‘nice view’ that we do not really see, but rather a roaring, existence-shaking singularity where all that ever has and ever will exist is here in this one moment, and it’s all the more heightened because for some reason we get to experience it but the dead foal never will. We need to tap into the soul-aligned ecstasy of being out in non-human nature (rather than mind-aligned ‘pleasure’) because when that joy takes root and turns into astonishment, deep connection, essence, and understanding, it becomes so infinite that one person can’t possibly contain it and so all we’re able to do is give it away, maybe to a neighbour or a child, or to the world. We become protective of it; we lovingly work in a garden, or furiously work on the global sustainability agenda (knowing that ‘sustain’ is a pale shadow of what we really feel or want).

But it all starts with a place, a call of the wild, a call of the divine. And for me that place is Dartmoor – its purple heather that fills lines of folk songs; its yellow summer gorse that in winter, yellowless, shelters sheep; its gentle springs that swell into churning white water; its storied tors and ancient bronze-age traces; its space and howling peace; its smells and shape-shifting light and weather and mood.

Dartmoor is a grazed, razed, bleak and beautiful place. No, it’s more than a place – it’s an experience. But it reclaims the idea of ‘experience’ from those companies that two-dimensionally offer ‘great customer experience’ or a ‘really wild experience’. Dartmoor owns the real meaning of the experience – ‘to feel or undergo; observe as a source of knowledge; an event which has affected one’.

Dartmoor affects me; it reveals knowledge and wisdom that – in my broad travels –  has not disclosed itself elsewhere in quite the same way. So I will keep on moor-haunting. And if we meet, and we talk about pastimes – please know that Dartmoor is more to me than that. It is stopped time; truth-telling time; wonder-full, wild, sensual, transformative time. It is never just passed time.