Rethinking the countryside

David Allen

  • The History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham
    Dent, 445 pp, £16.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 460 04449 4
  • Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of the ‘Natural History of Selborne’ by Richard Mabey
    Century, 239 pp, £14.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7126 1232 7
  • The Journals of Gilbert White 1751-1773: Vol. 1 edited by Francesca Greenoak
    Century, 531 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7126 1294 7
  • An Account of the Foxglove and its Medical Uses 1785-1985 by J.K. Aronson
    Oxford, 399 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 19 261501 7
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Natural History edited by Michael Allaby
    Oxford, 688 pp, £20.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 217720 6

Since the 1950s a loose coalition of scholars has brought about a radical transformation in our understanding of how the countryside of England and Wales came to acquire its salient features, a transformation which, it now seems, may also bring about some fundamental rethinking in rural planning policies which have long passed unquestioned. The front-runner was W.G. Hoskins, an economic historian by training, who since the Second World War has inspired a great new army of local historians with a series of writings which have demonstrated, among much else, how the landscape can be ‘read’, while hammering home the fact that most of it remained unchanged for much longer than has generally been supposed. Later on, a cluster of young historical ecologists based at Monks Wood Experimental Station, outside Huntingdon, deepened and widened some of Hoskins’s pioneer perceptions, adding support to them with biological data. Beginning to overtake all of these in practical effectiveness, however, is the remarkable figure of Oliver Rackham, a throwback to earlier centuries in his solitary, single-minded endeavours made at the expense of an orthodox – and secure – career.

Rackham’s achievement has been the more impressive in that he is a physicist by background and his unrivalled command of the esoteric historical sources on which this newly-emergent interdiscipline substantially depends is, like his botanical expertise, largely self-acquired. In a string of books written since 1975 he has been steadily cutting his way through the dense growth of misconceptions about the nature of our woodlands, and now in this latest one, The History of the Countryside, he has brought his axe to bear on a range of other topics as well.

Myth after myth comes toppling down in his pages. Woods, he points out, do not become ‘exhausted’: rather, they are indefinitely self-renewing – ‘no more destroyed by being cut down than a meadow is destroyed by cutting a crop of hay.’ To be destroyed, a wood has to be removed wholesale – or else grazed into non-existence. Short of such events, peril lies not so much in the hand of man as in the teeth of too numerous deer or, in the case of hazels, grey squirrels. The creeping invasion of the alien sycamores and of the mildew that cripples oaks are greater menaces by far to our ancestral tree-covering than periodic clear felling. The iron-using industries, those favourite targets of writers through the years who have imagined they saw in woodland ‘removal’ irreversible devastation, were in reality quite blameless: they depended on a steady supply of underwood and it was very much in their interest to conserve this. Coal and coke took over from charcoal, not because wood had grown hard to come by, but because of their lower labour costs. The mesmeric effect of the written word has similarly led historians to exaggerate greatly the importance of oak-woods as pannage for pigs. Acorn production in this country can never have been assured enough for this to have been anything more than a bonus: the real value of the trees has been as timber, raw material for crafts, and fuel.

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