Perceptions of WildnessPublished: 20th October 2017
After decades exploring Britain’s mountain landscapes, it took a trip to the High Sierra before Chris Townsend discovered true wilderness
A wide belt of Corsican pines runs along the coast at Formby in Lancashire. These were the first large woods I ever saw as a child; mysterious and inviting and promising excitement and adventure. Beyond the pinewoods lay marshes and then sand dunes - the highest hills I knew for many years – and finally the sea. Wandering this landscape I discovered the joys of exploration, solitude and nature. To me it was wild and vast. As a child the concept of wilderness didn't really exist. I just accepted what was there and assumed it was as it should be and always had been.
As a teenager I discovered, via school trips, Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Peak District. These national parks were a real revelation. The mountains seemed huge, the wildness almost infinite. Although I read natural history books I didn't grasp anything about ecology or natural systems. I wanted to identify what I saw but didn't understand how little I knew about how it all related. It didn't occur to me that these wild mountains could be anything other than natural and untouched. I saw sheep - plenty of sheep - but had no idea of the effect they had.
Once I'd discovered the hills my outdoor desires changed from woodland exploration and bird watching to climbing to the summits and striding out along the ridges. I discovered wild camping and started carrying a tent into the hills, revelling in nights out in the silence and splendour of the mountains.
My second revelation came with my first visit to the Scottish Highlands. I wandered up onto the Cairngorm Plateau and stood there amazed at the scale of the landscape. I can still remember the sense of shock. I didn't know anywhere this big existed. All those hills to climb! All those wild places to camp! Suddenly the English and Welsh hills didn't seem so big after all.
I set out to climb all the Munros in what I again assumed was a pristine wilderness. I read Fraser Darling and Morton Boyd's The Highlands and Islands to learn about the natural history of my new favourite place, but the words about deforestation and the degrading of much of the landscape didn't sink in. I didn't 'see' it when I was in the hills. The bare glens looked natural so I thought they were.
A change in my thinking came not in the Scottish hills but in the High Sierra. Here, in John Muir's heartland, I discovered real forests and real wilderness when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Already impressed by the small transverse ranges and the deserts of Southern California I was now faced with hundreds of miles of roadless wilderness. The rugged alpine mountains were magnificent but it was the forests that really impressed themselves on my mind. Many of the individual trees were magnificent but it was the extent and naturalness of the forest as a whole that most affected me as the trail rose and fell, climbing high above timberline and then dipping down into dense forest.
Timberline! There was a new and magic word. I fell in love with timberline, with that band between the bare mountains and the forest where the trees grew smaller and more widely spaced until they faded away completely. I noticed how timberline varied with the aspect of the hills – higher on the warm southern slopes, lower on the colder northern ones. No straight lines here.
The forests continued all the way to Canada. I had never spent so much time in the woods. Back home after the walk I missed the trees and started to wonder why our forests were so small or else were block plantations that didn't look or feel like the woods of the High Sierra and the Cascade mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail had changed me.
I started to think about the tree stumps I saw sticking out of the peat in those bare Scottish glens. I started to wonder why in so many places the only trees were on steep slopes in ravines or on islands in lochs. I noticed the lack of a timberline like that in the High Sierra. Once I started to ask these questions the answers appeared quite quickly and I began to properly understand the concepts of deforestation and overgrazing. I didn't though, think that anything could be done about it and my growing interest in protecting the hills was still solely about preservation. Restoration was a concept still to come.
My second American long walk, down the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail, reinforced my love of big forests and big wilderness. I was reading conservation writers now - John Muir, Edward Abbey, W. H. Murray - and thinking about their words. In the USA I read about restoration projects in wild areas.
Back home, developments in Scotland helped my thinking develop. The year I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the Scottish Wild Land Group was founded, a year later the John Muir Trust came into being. I joined both. The year after I hiked the Continental Divide Trail the then Nature Conservancy Council bought the Creag Meagaidh estate and began the process of forest restoration by reducing grazing pressure. The forest could return.
My eyes open, I could no longer walk the bare Scottish glens without thinking of the forest that should and could be there. Sometimes I regret this. It was nice being innocent and thinking this an unspoilt wilderness. More often I look for any signs of recovery and relish them when I see them, whether it's a single sapling poking through the heather or a fenced enclosure of planted native trees intended to create a natural forest. Overall I prefer not to have fences or planting but if they are the only option I don't object.
Eventually I moved to the Cairngorms, to the area where there is the largest extent of wild forest remaining, and one of my greatest joys is to see this forest regenerating and spreading.
I still return to North America every so often to experience again the vast wilderness areas. Each time I see these glorious forests I think that with will, determination and effort Scotland’s wild areas could be so much more natural and wooded.
- This article was first published in the Spring 2014 (62) issue of the Journal. It is included in the latest volume of essays from Chris Townsend, Out There, available in person from the Trust's visitor centre the Wild Space or online via publisher Sandstone Press.
- The John Muir Trust is a membership organisation. Find out more