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.

The idea that there is something specially English about our hedgerows turns out to be another myth, nor is it true that these all date from only two centuries ago. The latter is a particularly pernicious notion, for it has lulled civil servants into condoning the philistinism of contemporary farmers, the dreary – and perhaps, one day, catastrophic – consequences of which are now all too apparent. In reality, it is only in that half of lowland England which constitutes what Rackham terms the Planned (as opposed to Ancient) Countryside that the mass-produced legacy of the Enclosure Acts predominates. Between 1750 and 1850, he reckons, at least as many new hedges were planted as had been planted in the previous five hundred years: but those labours were heavily concentrated in the zone with a strong open-field tradition which stretches horizontally from Yorkshire south to Dorset, and is now, as a result, a land of ‘wide views, sweeping sameness, and straight lines’. The hedges of this Planned Countryside are made up mainly of hawthorn, very often exclusively so; elsewhere they are mainly mixed, tend to wander about a lot and are, on the whole, demonstrably much more venerable. A great many of our hedges have been standing for up to a thousand years – and on that account are no less deserving of Protection Orders than ancient buildings, not least because of the relic flora and insects that they typically harbour. Quite a few are probably a great deal older even than that. We know from excavations that hedges of thorns go back at least to Roman times and there are earth-and-stone equivalents in Cornwall datable to the Bronze Age.

Yet another mantle of myth is torn off the Romans. Rackham’s picture of Roman Britain is not at all the popular one of a wild frontier province with cultivation confined to occasional clearings in more or less continuous forest: in fact, Roman agriculture was so competent and pervasive that dwellings at that period extended to some places that their Medieval successors dismissed as uncultivable. It was the Romans who first drained and then extensively farmed the Fens. The Normans later repeated their achievements, and it is merely for repairing the subsequent neglect that we have to thank the far-better-remembered efforts of the Dutch engineers.

Though it is essentially England that he is concerned with, Rackham cannot resist correcting a common misapprehension about the Scottish Highlands. The Census returns, he objects, show that these were dangerously overpopulated in the early 19th century, and the numbers continued to grow even during the Clearances, by which time the inhabitants had been living on the brink of famine for half a century. A high proportion would have had to move out in any event, regardless of what the landlords said or did.

It is not just about the major aspects of the landscape that we are so salutarily instructed. The book takes us into the intricacies of the various types of ponds and pits, has much to tell us about the history of roads, and even has a chapter exclusively devoted to the subject of elms, making sense of their baffling variety, speculating about their origins and drawing attention to the repeated epidemics to which they have been prone.

Inevitably, however, there are gaps. As the author is the first to regret, too little documentary research has thus far been done on the countryside of Wales and Scotland for anything like as much to be said about them. Indeed the work as a whole is geographically very lopsided. It is East Anglia, in which he grew up and in which he has carried out the main mass of his scholarly research, Cambridge-based, that bulks largest. Many arresting comparisons with areas farther afield, including various parts of Europe and even North America, protect him from the charge of parochialism. Even so, one is left wishing that means could be found to take him round on circuit, so that more of England at least could be brought under his penetrating gaze.

One area he is evidently unfamiliar with is the western edge of the Weald, that very distinctive belt of abruptly precipitous downland, beech ‘hangers’ and winding lanes of an exceptional deepness. It is in one of the valleys here that the village of Selborne lies, immortalised by the volume of letters about its natural history published in 1788 by its devoted, life-long inhabitant, the Rev. Gilbert White. Editions of that classic have by now become legion. Just as all leading actors have to play Hamlet at some time in their career, so it almost seems that every well-known figure on the natural history scene is cajoled sooner or later into producing a version of Selborne. By contrast, studies of its author have been markedly few. At first sight, this is odd: it is, after all, rare for a figure so celebrated in literature to escape regular recruitment by the biographers. But the explanation for the seeming oversight is simple: White is popularly supposed to have been a quiet bachelor parson who did nothing all his life except patrol a remote rural parish. No sex, no tragedies, no scandals: nothing out of which a literary portrait-painter could create a desirable commodity. Significantly, the only substantial attempt at a biography till now has been by one of his descendants, and that was essentially a work of piety in the standard ‘life and letters’ mode. There has been no recapture in the round of the man himself.

Now Richard Mabey has repaired this deficiency. He has been back to such records as survive (and there are more of these, it appears, than we have been accustomed to suppose); he has read, or read afresh, everything of White’s that has found its way into print; and he has made the requisite pilgrimage back to the parish and soaked himself in its surprisingly little altered scenery. The result is all that we would expect of natural history’s leading contemporary stylist: an admirably well-written study which is full of original insights born of a profound familiarity with country ways and country things. He has done as much as anyone could to bring to life a man of whom we possess no more than one single tiny, sketchy likeness and who gave little of himself away in his diaries or his letters.

That for over forty years White also kept a series of journals might seem to offer the biographer more scope. Unfortunately, though, these were no soul-baring documents but merely day-by-day logs of what was happening in his garden or in the countryside round about as the seasons came and went. Nevertheless, they usefully reinforce the impression from Selborne that White was a superlative observer – one, moreover, who infused the seemingly humdrum with a depth of affection that elevates his note-making to a special kind of genius. Fittingly, therefore, as an accompaniment to Mabey’s biography, the same publishers are bringing out, in two attractive volumes, the first complete transcription of this ‘nether’ work – complete to the point of extending even to the many trivial daily observations on the weather. Francesca Greenoak, the editor, is responsible for twenty pages of helpful notes (including at the start of each year an outline of what took place in White’s ‘outer’ life), together with a glossary-cum-index identifying more particularly the many plants and animals referred to.

Perhaps Mabey’s principal achievement is to correct the image that has obtained up to now of White the anchorite, the marooned scholar who poured his energies into recording the minutiae of the area round his home in compensation for a lasting absence of kindred spirits. In reality, in his earlier years at any rate, White experienced anything but isolation. He was continually journeying up to Oxford, to meet his obligations as a non-resident fellow of his college (of which he nursed vain hopes of being elected provost). He is known to have stayed in London, too, for weeks at a time. And though certainly his friends had no luck in persuading him to make the journey up to North Wales or to Yorkshire, he had the excuse for this of suffering from severe coach-sickness – though Mabey suspects that increasingly employed complaint of being psychosomatic in part.

White was in thrall to his roots. He was a man devoted beyond what is normal to the familiar details of an admittedly very attractive home territory, to the sights and sounds which over the years he had subtly assimilated, to his many friends among the villagers and to his ever-growing network of relations (for he was as family-centred as any married man). He had built himself a kind of mental nest, as tight and cosy as that of the harvest mouse whose distinctiveness he was the first to describe in print. Therein lies a large part of the appeal of Selborne. It is a work which one senses has emerged like some natural growth, inexorably and organically. And indeed it was the product of a decidedly long period of gestation: White took 14 years over its editing and arrangement after deciding on the book, lovingly polishing and polishing it before finally bringing himself to release it for publication. A collection of letters is not everyone’s idea of the right formula for a bestseller, but Mabey sees this as ‘a well-nigh perfect medium for conveying the spirit of the seasonal ebb and flow of natural life in a parish’.

The timing was perfect too. In 1750, when the book was conceived, natural history was in very low water in Britain: by 1788, thanks to incipient Romanticism and the simplification of the subject effected by Linnaeus, that low water had become a flood. We can be confident that White’s procrastination was not in any way due to conscious market attunement, so he can but be admired for his luck. Even so, it was only a modest success at first. Real popularity did not arrive till the 1830s, when the world caught up with his prematurely empathetic approach.

There is an additional explanation for this rather slight initial impact which Mabey, unusually, has failed to perceive. At the time the book came out it was botany that was much the most fashionable of the various branches of the subject and the emphasis in Selborne is heavily zoological. This merely goes to confirm White’s insulation from contemporary taste: he was essentially writing just for himself and for his small network of like-minded friends and correspondents. To the extent that the book was modish, it was a modishness that was accidental. Had White set out with the deliberate intention of ensnaring the largest possible natural history readership, he would surely have given the work a perceptible botanical slant, since it is often overlooked that for one brief period in the past his interest did veer strongly in that direction. Intriguingly, too, that fleeting flare-up of botanising seems to have been the one instance when he was diverted from his normal course by succumbing to an outside fashion: for it was in the summers of 1765 and ’66 that it took place, just when the new Linnaean tide had begun to break upon our shores. If that tide could temporarily divert even a man like White, its current must indeed have been powerful.

Another who was caught up by it, some ten years later and much more lastingly, was the Stafford physician, William Withering. Aronson’s book is published this year in commemoration of the bicentenary of Withering’s historic monograph on the foxglove, which introduced the medical profession to the therapeutic value of digitalis for diseases of the heart – the first text in English to describe in detail the effects of a drug and to discuss its usefulness. As a founding father of clinical pharmacology, Withering has been honoured already with a book-length biography, so it is appropriate that this latest tribute should take a rather different form. Half of it is given over to a facsimile reprint of the original monograph with editorial notes in the margins, half to a historical review of the use of digitalis down to the present day, together with a very brief biographical account and a lengthy list of references. Clearly intended as a collector’s item, the volume has been most handsomely produced – but unfortunately priced accordingly. One minor defect is the jarringly out-of-date plant nomenclature in the editorial notes. Botanists, too, will regret the almost exclusively medical focus, despite Withering’s by no means insubstantial entitlement to fame as a pioneer of popular botanical writing. One would never guess from these pages that the publication of the second edition of his Botanical Arrangement, in 1787 – one year before that of Selborne – opened a new era for field botany in this country: it was the first national Flora which not only combined a text written in English (instead of Latin) with a deliberately simplified terminology, but also included instructions on how to prepare specimens for a herbarium. It was Withering who thereby brought into general use the screw-down plant-press and the metal collecting case which Linnaeus had christened the vasculum.

Oddly, ‘vasculum’ does not feature in Michael Allaby’s Oxford Dictionary of Natural History, impressively comprehensive though it is – over-comprehensive indeed by any normal interpretation of the term ‘natural history’. Ostensibly intended for students and amateur naturalists, it reads more like a volume addressed to professional biologists – who seem unlikely to use it. This is a shame, for it has been very conscientiously done. The editor and most if not all of his many consultants and contributors are professionals and move in a different world, conceptually and terminologically, from that of the vast majority of amateurs. They have either forgotten, or deliberately chosen to ignore, what constitutes the common coin of discussion in those circles more properly described as ‘natural history’. At £20, in any case, a book of this kind is going to be restricted to the shelves of institutions. Librarians will be unable to resist it, but they should not be too surprised if, like all too many of their works of reference, it is consulted rarely if at all.