This article was originally published in The Clearing magazine. The stone it describes is on the cover of my book about Ted Hughes.
Easter. A rainy spring – a babble of larksong in Dartmoor’s long brown grass. I set off on the military track near Okehampton towards the source of the Taw, where something unexpected lies hiding in thick tussocks: a memorial stone to Ted Hughes. The exact locality of the stone was kept secret when it was placed there in 2001, until press reports of 2003 revealed its whereabouts.
The granite slab that bears Hughes’s name was placed in the area where Dartmoor’s rivers rise: the Taw, Dart, East Okement and Teign. This region of high moorland where many of Devon’s major watercourses begin has fascinated several of the county’s writers. Hughes settled in Devon for nearly forty years, farming, fishing and writing. He loved this landscape: Devon was his ‘land of totems’, as he called it in Birthday Letters.[i] The moorland where the rivers have their sources was also a sacred place for Henry Williamson, a Devon author whose nature-writing Hughes read and re-read during his boyhood. ‘There in the fen five rivers began’, wrote Williamson in his 1927 classic Tarka the Otter, noting that these were the Taw, Torridge, Teign, Tavy and Dart.[ii] ‘Taw simply meant water’ wrote Hughes in his poem ‘1984 on ‘The Tarka Trail’’.[iii] The Celtic ta– prefix of so many river-names and place-names here suggests a landscape marked, named and worn by water.
Hughes grew up fascinated by landscape and wild creatures. As a young boy, he hunted, fished and came face to face with animals, often in the company of his older brother. His obsession with animals bordered on the shamanic: early one morning, he and a fox came face to face with each other on the banks of the River Don. Both of them were out hunting rabbits. Each stared at each other for a moment, amazed;[iv] the fox would become the tutelary spirit of poems such as ‘The Thought-Fox’. Yet he also witnessed silage pollution killing fish at Old Denaby, near his West Yorkshire home.[v] In adulthood, he became increasingly concerned about the damage that human beings inflict on the environment. He and his first wife Sylvia Plath were alerted to the perils of nuclear waste in the 1960s, when they lived in the USA. The mackerel that they had caught in Cape Cod Bay were made radioactive by a nearby nuclear waste dump. Hughes’s reading of Silent Spring brought him to a shocked awareness of the dangers of pesticides and insecticides to both wildlife and human beings.[vi] Later in life, Hughes settled permanently in Devon and married Carol Orchard, the daughter of a local farmer. He became rooted in the landscape: farming reconnected him to the wild life of his childhood among the animals, ‘the only world I belong to in any way’, as he called it.[vii] He became determined to protect waterways, woodlands and wildlife. In 1970, he wrote a letter to a national newspaper, outlining a plan for schoolchildren to repopulate Britain’s decimated hardwood forests by planting trees.[viii] The idea was so popular that Devon people started offering to send him their spare saplings. Yet Hughes was also aware of environmental issues on a global scale. In an open letter of 1990, he advised the Prime Minister to treat the ‘Environmental cataclysm’ as a ‘War’ and an ‘Emergency’.[ix] The same year, he wrote to the rockstar Sting to congratulate him on his campaign to defend the Amazon rainforest, and enclosed a book about Hawaii’s imperilled forests.[x] He was concerned about global environmental issues, such as climate change and the exporting of waste to ‘far-off countries, where nobody protested’.[xi] But above all, Hughes’s writing speaks of the Devon landscape, and the trout and salmon rivers where he fished.
I was curious to find out more about the places that meant so much to Hughes, and to which he felt deeply connected. Although he never forgot his Yorkshire origins, he felt earthed by the ‘undateable cob-walled farms’ and ‘inexplicable, Devonshire, high-banked, deep-cut lanes’.[xii] There, in this secluded semi-wilderness, he could go to ground and hide from the prying eyes of journalists and critics hounding him because of Sylvia Plath’s death. My own poems were becoming increasingly haunted by objects and locations associated with Hughes: his notebooks full of astrological symbols; his sculpture of a jaguar; the path that leads from his boyhood home in West Yorkshire, to hanging wood and windy moor. I wanted to see, touch, smell and dwell a while in the moorlands that became so important to him towards the middle and at the end of his life, and see if they would help to shape my own writing.
Beginning in the village of Belstone, I started walking southwards and soon reached the moor. Low-hanging clouds, but no rain. I’ve noticed a strange mirage on overcast days in the Cairngorms and elsewhere: the clouds seem to be dropping downwards, even when it’s not raining and they are moving with the wind overhead. I noticed it here. Perhaps it’s due to drops of water vapour being blown by the wind. The effect is uncanny, and makes you think that you’re about to have to run for cover to shelter from heavy weather. Gorse grew everywhere, its roots in sandy soil, some of it burnt to charcoal scribbles. Strange plastic devices – probably bits of ordnance from Dartmoor’s military live-firing zone – lined the track. I couldn’t see exactly what they were, and didn’t want to get close enough to find out. I wondered what Hughes would have thought of this scattering of military litter.
The track climbed southwards into the high hill-country. The moor was to my east, a ridge with three tors skylined on it. Tor – an old Cornish word for hill, with living relatives in Gaelic and Welsh. Tors are the remains of a granite pluton, a rock that welled up deep below the earth 280 million years ago. It is as though they rose from the realm of Pluto, the Roman god of the dead, as the name pluton suggests. Today these relics from a magma-filled underworld stubbornly hold out against erosion, even though the softer deposits that once overlaid them have long succumbed to weather, rain and scouring ice during the last ice age. They form hilltop beacons of pale grey, deeply fissured. Slowly they crumble to slabs, or clitters as they are locally known, and their granular crystals erode to gravel, or growan. Ice and acid in rainwater are eroding them, drop by drop. Tors dissolve and their minerals are washed away to become part of the rivers, such as the Taw.
On the right, to the west, I passed close by sharp-sided Steeperton Tor, which has a military hut crouched in its lee. I headed south, past the aptly-named Hangingstone Hill, and forded the infant Taw in its loops and windings. It was a slender eel-river, twining in delicate meanders, swiftly hurrying over the stones. Alice Oswald might call it ‘a foal of a river’[xiii] – her description of the nascent River Dart, which, like the Taw, rises near the marshy depression of Cranmere Pool. Ted Hughes loved to fish the Taw, although he witnessed a shocking decline in its fish population. He set out to catch his first Taw trout at 6 a.m. on the 15th of March 1962, at Bondleigh. He was not the only fisher on the river that morning: an otter ‘galloped’ ahead of him, indicating a thriving ecosystem. Many of the trout that lived in bankside hollows and castles of roots were known to him ‘almost by name’. April 1966 saw him catch six trout of a pound each in a hundred-yard stretch of river – although a local fisherman told him that the fish had once been even more plentiful, before the water level had dropped by ten inches. That was only the beginning of the river’s decline. In 1969, he was shocked to catch a Taw trout afflicted by the epidemic of ulcerative dermal necrosis, a fish disease that had arrived from Ireland. By 1973, he reported that the river was polluted with ‘white threads’ of waste from a local cheese factory. A year later, the trout were nearly gone.[xiv]
Hughes’s environmentalism was far more than the greenwashed piety of a successful writer eager to be seen supporting good causes. He was ‘in grief’ for Britain’s damaged watercourses.[xv] An adage that I have read time after time in his published work and in his unpublished manuscripts, is the idea that ‘everything pitched in the ditch | Comes back into the cup’.[xvi] He was haunted by the knowledge that polluting our environment means poisoning ourselves. In 1986, Hughes heard that otters in East Anglia had died of ulcers and tumors, caused by pesticides. He wrote a letter to a national newspaper in which he stated that humans might also be affected. It was some years before farm workers in East Anglia would be hospitalised, ‘poisoned by agricultural chemicals’.[xvii] The sick, dying fish in a filthy pool in the poem ‘October Salmon’ resembles Hughes’s elderly father, who was ailing at the time when Hughes wrote the poem.[xviii] Hughes felt the effects of pollution on aquatic life as keenly as if they had afflicted a loved one. As well he might: for Hughes’s writing presents nature as man’s lover, mother, benevolent creatress and vengeful goddess. He imagined the Earth as a ‘great archaic Goddess’, a ‘half-dark, many-breasted, precarious miracle’.[xix] He is guilty of stereotyping the ‘artificial’ as masculine and the ‘natural’ as feminine – but there is a heartfelt and deeply personal reason for this. Hughes endured terrible criticism from feminists who accused him of driving first Sylvia Plath, then his partner Assia Wevill, to suicide. He spent over thirty years[xx] writing about his private grief for Plath, and these poems would not be published until the year of his death, in Birthday Letters. Yet he had long been writing about man’s crimes against a feminised nature, and taking practical steps to atone for them. As one critic put it, Hughes sought ‘re-establish a right relation with the source, that is, with Nature and the female’.[xxi]
Hughes was determined to mend mankind’s broken relationship with ‘the source’. He founded the South West Rivers Trust, later the Westcountry Rivers Trust, in 1983 and would eventually become its President. He gave evidence at a public inquiry in 1985 about raw sewage contaminating the Torridge and Taw estuary. He wrote about endangered fish populations in national newspapers in the 1980s. In 1990 he called for the local riparian association to ‘get a JCB’ and dig over clogged gravels in the Taw, which had once been a prolific spawning ground.[xxii] The 1990s saw him support a friend’s court case to defend his stretch of river from pollution, and research the link between river pollution in the South West and human cancers. But while the Taw roused Hughes to activism, it also inspired his poetry. He described fishing the Taw in a draft poem called ‘March 9 78 At the hidden long bend on Taw Dimits’.[xxiii] He later removed the reference to the location that inspired this poem, calling it ‘Four March Watercolours’ in its published form. He described the ‘twistings and self-wrestlings’ of the river, its ‘intricate engine’ that it begins to rev ‘full-bore’ in spring.[xxiv] Now, in early April 2012, thirty-four years later, I watched the tiny river gathering its strength, preparing to roar full-throttle as it rushed over the smooth stones, heading towards the coast.
To find Hughes’s memorial stone, I walked over grass-tussocks like hanks of pale hair, dead after months of cold. The ground was full of hummocks and hollows, with occasional scrubby patches of ling. My right ankle, injured years ago in a bouldering accident, began to burn faintly as the tussocked ground made my footing unstable.
The memorial stone was a great oblong of granite. It read simply, ‘Ted Hughes, O.M., 1930-1998’. The grass surrounding the stone was a little shorter and flatter than everywhere else, as though it had been tended. I could see the remains of someone’s picnic. A Tetley teabag had been dumped in the grass on the stone’s eastern side. A couple of pioneer lichens had begun to take root: soon the stone would be colonised and Hughes’s name might even be worn away, if no-one looked after it. This is all part of the weathering and the wearing that happen to everything in this waterworn landscape. I wondered if such a poignant reminder of human mortality ought to make me feel mournful. Instead, I was moved to pensive meditation. The stone made me reflect on the passage of time, and to recall that however much I might mark the land, my traces on it would one day be erased by decay, growth, erosion. Looking southwards into the gentle valley where the Taw rises, I could see the interlocking spurs of the land where the river had carved its path through softer rock than the tough Dartmoor granite.
I turned back, heading north into the rain. On the way back, I stopped for a while at Steeperton Tor, and decided to investigate it more closely. From the ground, it looked like an impenetrable fortress. Nearer to its grey flank, I noticed that it was full of tiny cracks and hidden passages. Runnels crisscrossed its body, dividing it vertically into lobes. Rough crystals of quartz provided a purchase for palms and feet. I could fit comfortably into one of the runnels and heave myself up with both arms. There were plenty of the horizontal cracks for footholds. Stacks of granite were segmented by horizontal fissures. The stacks were grey, hard-crystalled, solid masses. I reflected that the tors would probably look like the feet of hippos from above: a grey, tough hide, with lobed toes. From the side, they looked more like the flanks of elephants or whales. I climbed up onto one of the high points of the tor and looked northeast to a valley fledged with a small dark copse. Pinnacles of granite to the east stood alone like watchtowers.
At the pass between Steeperton Tor and the next hill, I met a couple of wild-looking ponies with tangled manes, the adult with a piebald hide, the foal grey. I tried to approach them, but they were not interested in me, nor in the apple core I offered to them. Dartmoor is famed for its ‘wild’ ponies, all of which in fact have their owners. Sheep dotted the flanks of the hills. They had skull-white heads with thick grey fleeces, or heavy salt-and-pepper fleeces streaked with green dye. One had a brownish-cream fleece and one red horn, probably dyed. An ewe had a grey fleece and white face, and her lamb had a black face and a white fleece: a strange inversion, one of nature’s more harmonious quirks.
The bones of sheep lay scattered all along the path: mostly the limb-bones of very young ones. They fractured on a slant, and the hollow insides were visible. White bone, tainted with algae in the cavity where the marrow once was. I was reminded of Hughes’s descriptions of newborn lambs that died in Moortown Diary: casualties are part of the life of a working farm. I wondered if hungry predators had cracked the bones for their nutritious marrow in a harsh spring.
I headed northwards, back to the gorse with its vivid yellow flowers. A small bird I couldn’t identify was singing on one of the thorns. It sang a frenzied song, like a madman babbling to himself; or perhaps a girl gossiping and talking so fast that you couldn’t get a word in. The birdsong, the path and the slender river began weaving themselves into a poem that was shaping itself my head.
Walking back to Belstone, I reflected that the stone that memorialised Hughes had been placed at one of the sources of his poetry. A simple tribute to him had been inscribed into the land whose waterways he had fought to protect, and that had inspired so much of his writing. I wondered what he would be campaigning about now if he were alive today, and what he would have thought of contemporary nature-writing.
Hughes would probably have shared Mark Cocker’s concern that some forms of ‘new nature writing’ have become ‘tame’.[xxv] He would have sympathised with the idea that the landscape provides a ‘nature cure’ for the individual, but his work suggests that ‘curing’ damaged environments is far more urgent. Nevertheless, wilder strains of anger and grief lurk beneath the pastoral surface of recent nature-writing. Robert Macfarlane has launched a diatribe against 4x4s in The Guardian,[xxvi] while David Harsent has elegised the endangered hen harrier in The New Statesman.[xxvii] George Monbiot is a more radical environmentalist than Hughes, but his impassioned call to ‘re-wild’ Britain shares common ground with Hughes’s campaign to re-wood it. Robert Macfarlane’s stirring assertion that ‘Literature has the ability to change us for good […] Powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world’[xxviii] is anticipated by Hughes’s activities. The Laureate and Prince Philip founded Arts for Nature, whose Sacred Earth Drama competition encouraged young people to write their way into damaged environments and imagine how they could be healed. Hughes would pour scorn on Richard Smyth’s assertion that ‘where there is poetry, there is danger’ in lyrical nature-writing,[xxix] and point to his own poem ‘The Black Rhino’, sold to The Telegraph to raise funds for rhino conservation.
If Hughes were alive today, he would spur Britain’s nature writers on to defend Britain’s persecuted predators and dwindling forests. He would lobby to restore Dartmoor’s extinct black grouse. He would be delighted to hear that the River Dart, which gives its name to the moor, has its estuary protected by a new environmental plan. He would be less pleased to find out that the same project promotes the estuary as a yachting destination too.[xxx]
Hughes’s legacy also lives on in the environmental organisations that he established. He would have been thrilled to hear that the West Country Rivers Trust, which he co-founded, is leading a new conservation project on the Taw. Wetlands are being restored, pollution reduced, and weirs replaced with pools and riffles for fish. The Rivers Trust protects the Taw from its headwaters on Dartmoor to its meanders at North Tawton,[xxxi] where Hughes once lived. There have been ‘record breaking’ salmon and trout catches on one of its tributaries.[xxxii] Over fifty years after Hughes caught his first Taw trout, the river is once again home to otters.[xxxiii] Hughes’s inspiring legacy shows how we can find our ‘nature-cure’ not through personal quests, but by profoundly changing the way we treat ‘the source’.
[i] Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Keegan. London: Faber & Faber 2003 1121. Print.
[ii] Henry Williamson. Tarka the Otter. London: Penguin 2009  95. Print.
[iii] Hughes, Collected Poems 843. Print.
[iv] Ted Hughes. British Library Additional Manuscripts 88918/7/2, manuscript notes 13-14. Manuscript.
[v] Hughes, Collected Poems 1211. Print.
[vi] Terry Gifford. Ted Hughes. Abingdon: Routledge 2009 14. Print.
[vii] Ted Hughes. Letters of Ted Hughes. Ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber & Faber 2009 365. Print.
[viii] Ted Hughes. Letter. ‘Children plant trees for tomorrow’. Times Educational Supplement Leaders/Letters sec., 17th Nov. 1972: 2. Print.
[ix] Ted Hughes. ‘Dear Premier.’ Dear Next Prime Minister: Open Letters to Margaret Thatcher & Neil Kinnock. Ed. Neil Astley. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1990 96. Print.
[x] Ted Hughes. Emory MARBL archive, Collection 644, Box 53, Folder 9, ‘Dear Sting’. Typescript letter.
[xi] Ted Hughes. The Iron Woman. London: Faber & Faber 1993 61. Print.
[xii] Hughes. Collected Poems, 1203. Print.
[xiii] Alice Oswald. Dart. London: Faber & Faber 2002 2. Print.
[xiv] Ted Hughes. ‘Trout on the Upper Taw.’ Taw Fisheries Association News Letter. (Summer 1990): 6. Print.
[xv] Ed Douglas. ‘Portrait of a poet as eco warrior’. Observer 4th Nov. 2007, Features and Reviews sec.: 10. Print.
[xvi] Hughes, Collected Poems 731. Print.
[xvii] Ted Hughes, ‘If’. Observer, 29th Nov. 1992: 31-35 (33). Print.
[xviii] Thomas R. Pero. ‘So Quickly It’s Over’, Wild Steelhead and Salmon (Winter 1999): 50-57 (57). Print.
[xix] Hughes, ‘If’. 35. Print.
[xx] Hughes told the critic Keith Sagar that he had been working on elegies for Plath since 1972, and had finished them in 1997. Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar, Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar. London: British Library Publishing, 2012 260. Print.
[xxi] Keith Sagar. Ted Hughes and Nature: ‘Terror and Exultation.’ Peterborough: Fastprint 2009, xiv.
[xxii] Hughes, ‘Trout on the Upper Taw.’ Taw Fisheries Association News Letter. (Summer 1990): 6.
[xxiii] Ted Hughes. Emory MARBL archive, Collection 644, Box 74, Folder 18 ‘March 9 78 At the hidden long bend on Taw Dimits’.
[xxiv] Hughes, Collected Poems 644.
[xxv] Mark Cocker, ‘Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? New Statesman, 17th June 2015. Web. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/06/death-naturalist-why-new-nature-writing-so-tame. 5th July 2015.
[xxvi] Robert Macfarlane, ‘4x4s are killing my planet’. Guardian Review sec. 4th June 2005. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jun/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview32. 8th July 2015.
[xxvii] David Harsent, ‘ ‘Bowland Beth’: A poem by David Harsent’. New Statesman, 15th August 2013. Web. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/bowland-beth. 8th July 2015.
[xxviii] Robert Macfarlane, ‘Why we need nature writing’. 2nd Sept. 2015. Web. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2015/09/robert-macfarlane-why-we-need-nature-writing. 25th Sept. 2015.
[xxix] Richard Smyth, ‘The limits of nature writing’, 6th May 2015. Web. http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1552700.ece. 25th Sept. 2015.
[xxx] South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. ‘Dart Estuary Environmental Management Plan Periodic Review 2006-2011.’ 2011.Web. http://www.southdevonaonb.org.uk/uploads/files/DartEnv_MP_final.pdf 12, 10. 9th July 2015.
[xxxi] Devon Wildlife Trust, ‘Taw River Improvement Project.’ 2010-2015. Web. http://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/the-taw-river-improvement-project/. 8th July 2015.
[xxxii] Westcountry Rivers Trust, ‘Media Release: Bumper Year for Fish in the River Mole’. 2013. Web. http://www.therrc.co.uk/Bulletin/May2013/WCRT_Head_Weir_PR.pdf. 9th July 2015.
[xxxiii] Devon Mammal Group, ‘Otter’. 2015. Web. http://www.devonmammalgroup.org/devons-mammals/otter/. 9th July 2015.