Oliver Rackham, Trees & Woodlands in the British Landscape

If this is the first time you've stopped by, yes, I am indeed way nerdy. I wish I was able to call myself a "Riot Nrrd," the sobriquet claimed by some of the characters in Douglas Coupland's fine/fun novel Microserfs, but alas I don't have the commitment for that. (Plus I'm not Conrad Sichler.)

Of course, those who've been here more than once will already figured this out. I try to play things a bit cool, imply that any instances of self-deprecating humour are signs of a well-justified self-confidence, but honestly I just read an unhealthy amount and follow my nerdy interests wherever they take me. This time, they've taken me across the Atlantic, and what fun it's been.

Yesterday saw the completion of Oliver Rackham's surprisingly brief (barely 200 pages) masterwork Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britains's Trees, Woods and Hedgerows. He's written quite a lot of stuff, Rackham, and I've dabbled in his work before, but this book came along at just the right time. I've been working on some proposals for academic work on 18th-century trees, agriculture, and declarations of "public virtue," and this book clarified some of my thinking really nicely. I've seen it referenced often enough that I've absorbed quite a bit of his principles indirectly, but what a joy it can be to read -- especially belatedly -- an originary source.

Two key points are starkly put quite late in the book: "Tree-planting has come to usurp the place of conservation," and "Tidy-mindedness can perhaps be overcome by education" (p.201). Others have written sensibly and sensitively about ecological restoration, and really that's what Rackham's talking about (rather than conservation as such), but no one has done a better job of cautiously drawing on vast amounts of data on specific places, in the service of generating transportably site-specific principles and practices.

But there are some details I need, too. Far from crediting John Evelyn with increasing interest in forestry, for example, Rackham straightforwardly declares that "much of the misinformation about trees that is still current today can be tracked back to it" (p.92), meaning Evelyn's enormous book Silva, which itself was meant to be a history of and exhortation toward forestry. The nerds among you still reading will know why this is such a relief. I mean, come on: a dilettante in a dozen fields of "study" gets it completely right on one of the popular/esoteric ones that can't be verified by short-term experimentation?

Nerd factor from finding real pleasure in this book: high.
Amount that this troubles me: none whatsoever.


Anonymous said…
Fascinating review, Richard. I'm going to order this book. I read Richard Mabey's Beechcombings this spring and his conclusions about the tensions between restoration, conservation, and a respect for the natural ecology of forests are much the same, I think.
Theresa K.
richard said…
Glad you liked the review, Theresa -- and everyone interested in trees should read this book, because it gives you such a rich perspective on them. Britain's forests have been so intensely an interplay between humans and nature, and for such a long time, that it could be argued that it's not that applicable here. The thing is, though, the more a person learns about First Nations practices, the less applicable it might be....

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