What does this year’s Fingle felling programme have in common with a nineteenth century conservationist, a wealthy heiress and Dartmoor National Park?
Deep in Hall’s Cleave in the central plot of Fingle Woods, stands a collection of some of the tallest timber trees in the Teign Valley and this year it is their turn for a bit of selective thinning. It’s approaching 60 years since they were planted, back in 1959, and these trees may be large by Dartmoor standards but back home in California is where they can become true giants. The Coast Redwood (or California Redwood) originates from the west coast of California where the climate is somewhat similar to Dartmoor. Ample rain and regular fog suit the “everlasting” Sequoia sempervirens down to the ground and, if conditions are right, they have the potential to grow into some of the tallest and longest-lived organisms on Earth. They are known to live well in excess of 1000 years and have been recorded at over 100m with a 9m girth.
Though this group of redwoods at Fingle are in their first flush of youth, walking beneath them gives you that feeling of towering strength. The soft, fibrous, rusty red bark covers a monumental trunk of timber that reaches towards the sky, rising up to support the canopy way above. Craning your neck, you may be able to distinguish spiny needles that give the tree an archaic look, as if from some primitive time. It has been estimated that this woody giant has been around since dinosaurs roamed the primeval swamps.
So, what is it doing here? Why has this monument of the Californian climate found a home in the valleys of Dartmoor? Among the long list of owners of these woods was the Elmhirst family. In 1929 they bought Fingle Woods and it became part of the Dartington Estate. Leonard Elmhirst and his wealthy American wife Dorothy were philanthropists and their Forestry Venture set out to test new woodland management techniques to support the rural economy; the demand for traditional oak coppicing had been on the wane for some time. Many of the species favoured by the Elmhirsts and Wilfred Hiley, the Dartington forester, were originally from the United States. The western red cedar, western hemlock and the Douglas fir are all common species growing at Fingle today but the Elmhirst’s “signature” tree was the coast redwood. As well as being one of a list of species that produced fine timber, perhaps this was a personal connection to Dorothy’s homeland.
This Redwood connection to Dartmoor goes further back to the 18th and 19th centuries which were a busy time for intrepid global exploration. As early botanists and plant hunters began to document trees from other continents, these non-native species of conifers were subsequently introduced to Britain from all around the world and were beginning to prove their value as sources of high grade timber. At the same time, people were travelling the globe on voyages of discovery. One of these adventurers was John Muir who, as an 11-year-old, left Scotland with his family to settle in California. Through the 1800s he worked and studied but never lost his love of the natural world. He was “at home in the wild” and became one of the earliest active conservationists, observing, inventing, dreaming and writing about the natural world he immersed himself in. His passion for wild places came across in his writing and he is known for his many quotes that capture a deep connection with nature. He said that “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
John Muir lived through a lot of changes and, in a 2013 article on conservation, The Guardian newspaper wrote “On Monday, 27 June 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.” This event was a turning point in the way natural resources were valued and, after some years of discussion and increasing environmental awareness around the world, a new movement took root. In an act of great foresight, the Yosemite Valley with its sequoia trees was first protected in 1864 before being designated as a National Park in 1890 and one of the instrumental players in this evolution was John Muir. As the conservation movement gathered pace and the idea of National Parks was developing wider support, John Muir co-founded the Sierra Club, and today, their website proudly announces that the club was “founded by legendary conservationist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club is now the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation.”
Since that momentous time, numerous important landscapes and ecosystems around the world have been protected and the first British National Parks were established during the 1950s – including Dartmoor National Park. So, back at Fingle, these impressive trees will be staying in place for some time yet while the gradual reduction of the density of forest cover will let a bit more sunlight down to the forest floor to increase the natural diversity of wild woodland plants.
While the legacy of John Muir and the Elmhirsts lives on at Fingle Woods as a place to work, to explore and to learn, a number of community groups and schools will be doing their bit to discover wild places as they set out to achieve a John Muir Award later this year. And in years to come we may wonder, in the damp conditions next to the stream in Hall’s Cleave, will any of the redwoods reach maturity? Will the timber giants outlive all of us? Will the redwoods stay firmly rooted in place, standing like sentries for future centuries?
by Matt Parkins
images: Paul Moody, Matt Parkins and Wikimedia Commons