I stumbled across a tree stump a couple of weeks ago, which was remarkable, as the higher parts of the Marsden Moor estate are now a treeless landscape. That wasn’t the case 6000 or 7000 years ago. I know that because peat is everywhere; testament to the fibrous disintegration of tree trunk and branch, leaf and root as well as grasses and moss.
I’ve seen bits of wood sticking out of some of the peat channels and cloughs during my wanderings over various parts of Marsden Moor. Some of it so well persevered through lack of oxygen, buried feet below the surface, that you can tell it’s birch by the still-visible white bark. Those branches or roots are occasionally exposed through the action of water and peat bog creep.
This was the first time I’d encountered a ‘whole tree’ as it were, in the shape of a round tree stump, looking weathered but still in situ, as if it was felled only a few months ago. And it was a big one at that. I’d estimate it was about a foot in diameter.
It stopped me in my tracks, this incongruous find. What the young people of the parish might call a wtf moment. I sat down next to this wooden postcard from the past and had a swig of water and scanned the land dropping away in front of me. I was on Close Moss, having been out a couple of hours already and deciding to go off track from the Pennine Way at millstone edge and make a line for Eastergate, somewhere down below us (accompanied as ever by Brodie dog).
Roll back a few thousand years and I’d have been sat under a tree in full leaf and surrounded by many others. Now it’s cotton grass and heather and moss and fern, amongst other vegetation. All creating a beautiful vista but a very different one for sure. I think birch and other trees could make a tentative reappearance in parts if the land wasn’t actively managed for grouse shooting and of course managed by The National Trust to preserve the blanket bog and peat (which is a good thing for us all: http://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/moorlife)
Now, I have a somewhat sketchy understanding of how the original deforestation / peat formation happened, despite reading a couple of Francis Pryor‘s excellent books on prehistory and the origins of the british landscape.
What I think happened was that hunter gatherers in the Mesolithic period (around 9000 – 8000 years ago) appear to have set up camp on occasion at nearby March Hill (see Penny Spikins and March Hill mesolithic research) and probably also started to clear trees in the area to improve their hunting / quarry corralling. And later Neolithic people accelerated this land / environmental intervention to aid animal husbandry (not full-blown farmstead-based farming as such).
Trees would be cleared over generations with a mixture of tool/axe and fire . The removal of the leaf canopy along with changes to the prevailing weather conditions (having turned wetter after a previous post ice-age warm period) made for soggy ground and less chance of new saplings taking root: e.g here comes the peat (which now around 3 metres deep in places).
This post is entitled Tree Hunting: but that first tree stump was an accidental ‘find’.
I wanted to find it again though and show my two sons, who were back for the bank holiday weekend. So we spent four hours or so on a walk back up to and across Close Moss this weekend.
We didn’t find the same stump but did find another. Here are some photos of the walk .. starting at Millstone Edge before we cut across on to Close Moor.
The stump itself…
Having just come back from the ever excellent Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I think it would be a nice art installation to have a metal tree erected on the site of a found stump and something for people to aim for on a walk (one not far off the Pennine Way, so accessible for as many folk as possible). Or maybe not.. hard to anchor on the peat?!