3 Jun 2011

Over Hill, Over Dale... and Thoughts Along the Way

In May, I went for a walk in northern England. A long walk: 110 miles (they still use miles there) along the Cleveland Way in the North York Moors National Park. The experience got me thinking about parks and landscapes and people.

After all, you've got to think about something when you're walking for 11 straight days!

Half of the walk lies along the escarpment, with heather-covered moors stretching out on one side and the broad, fertile Vale of York far below on the other side. The second half takes you along crumbling cliffs that tower above the sandy shore of the North Sea. Besides the cliffs and the moors, the park contains cities, towns, villages, highways, factories, farms, and evidence of human occupation from Stone Age burial mounds to abandoned industrial sites only a few decades old.

In Canada -- especially northern Canada -- we tend to think of parks as wilderness, as a way to preserve a landscape with as little evidence of people as possible. Take nothing but photographs, we urge users, and leave nothing but footprints (if that).

The North York Moors National Park is a different beast entirely. It covers an area slightly larger than Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, but this is not a wilderness park. Even its wildest places were shaped by humans.

Ten thousand years ago, the treeless, tundra-like plateau of the moors was a thick forest that provided a living for Stone Age hunters and gatherers. Then, about 4000 years ago, Bronze Age farmers arrived. They cut down the trees to plant crops and set their animals to graze the land. By the time they left, 2500 years ago, the forest was gone and the soil was drained of nutrients. Heather, which cares nothing for depleted soil, moved in and took over.

Today, the heather moorland -- with its population of nesting birds, adders, small mammals, hikers, and 30,000 domestic sheep -- is preserved just as carefully as we preserve our boreal forest and native grasslands. It's a landscape that was shaped by geology, climate, and the actions of the creatures that are part of it, including people. The park celebrates all of that heritage.

The North York Moors National Park reminded me that a natural landscape includes humans. We are not separate from nature, but part of it -- just another species in the planetary ecosystem. We leave our mark on it just as other species do. And, just like them, we have to live with the consequences.

Basically, we're all in this together.

As I said, you've got to think of something when you're walking all day, every day!

Claire Eamer

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