Wednesday 18 February 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old historical ecologist called Oliver Rackham

Oliver, who began his academic career studying botany at Cambridge University, moved to geography, found his forte in 'historical ecology', opened our eyes to what we took for granted, transformed our understanding of the development of our forests and gave us the scholarly and dramatic concept of the 'Wildwood', has died at the age of seventy-five.  

What you possibly didn't know about Oliver, that he :

* was born in 1939, the only child to Norah, who died when he was a teenager, and Geoffrey, a bank clerk, just after the outbreak of the Second World War in the market town of Bungay, Suffolk before moving to Harleston, where he first became absorbed by landscape of the surrounding countryside.

* received his secondary education in Norfolk, until the age if 16 at the fee-paying, Edward VI Grammar School, a boys' public school of ancient foundation in the close of Norwich Cathedral with the motto 'Praemia Vitrutis Honores', 'Honours are the Rewards of Virtue' and then the state-run Norwich City College, where he studied for his 'A' level exams, before gaining an entrance scholarship as a Parker Exhibitioner attending Corpus Christi College, Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1958, where he specialised in Botany and had his talents recognised as a 'Foundation Scholar'.

* graduated in 1961 with a first-class degree in the 'Natural Sciences Tripos', continued his studies at Corpus Christi, based his 1964 doctoral dissertation on the 'physiology of plant growth and transpiration', became a demonstrator in physiology and ecology in the Department of Botany and in the same year, at the age of twenty-five, was approached and lent his support to the campaign to make the £5,000 purchase of  'Hayley Wood' in Cambridgeshire, in recognition of its importance as a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest as Ancient Woodland' and important habitat for many species.

* researched the history of Hayley Wood, put his Latin to good use, drawing on the 1251 manor book for the Bishopric of Ely and found that the Wood dated back at least seven-hundred years, evidence of management : a hay field, a ridge and furrow system and farm buildings and began to develop his thesis that, contrary to public perception, England had not lost substantial areas of ancient woodland in recent centuries through the building of towns and roads, but rather, the earlier expansion of farmland and forestry.

*  in 1968, transferred to the 'Plant Breeding Institute' in Trumpington, Cambridge as a researcher, where he worked until the age of thirty-three in 1972, then rejoined the Department of Botany as an independent grant-funded researcher and while there in 1975, published 'Hayley Wood : its history and ecology'  followed by 'Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape' in the 'Archaeology in the Field Series' the following year, which, for the first time, brought 'Ancient Woodland' to the attention of conservationists and later foresters.

* published his monumental 'Ancient Woodland : its history, vegetation and uses in England' with its survey of woodland types and histories, populated with his own hand-drawn maps in 1980 and in 1989, 'The Last Forest: the story of Hatfield Forest', before confirming his new direction in 1990, when he became a research worker in the Department of Geography at Cambridge where he concentrated on historical ecology, in particular, the history of woodland and the landscape in England and Wales and where he continued to work to the age of sixty-one in 2000.

* in collaboration with American academic, Jennifer Moody, published 'The making of the Cretan landscape' in 1996, with a chapter devoted to 'History, pseudo-history and the use of evidence', twenty-eight years after being invited to the island in 1968 by archaeologist, Peter Warren, as the 'expeditionary botanist' for his Myrtos excavation and had the book described by one critic as being : 'informed throughout by a professional scientific understanding of environmental history and by a great acuity of methodology' together with a notable 'level of common sense.'

* in 2002, attended the 'Cambridge Conservation Volunteers 40th Anniversary' Bash in Hayley Wood in a great storm, which he later recalled as : "a great stir to rival, indeed surpass, 1987 and 1990 and we had to cut our way through fallen trees to get here at all and I remember we all crowded together and put our heads together and I bellowed my speech to the sound of great oak branches crashing down. It confirmed my opinion that the ability to shed branches is genetically determined and in consequence the distribution of fallen branches, for the oaks in Hayley Wood, was not uniform and an oak that can shed one branch was more likely to shed more than one."

* again in 2002, as 'Senior Fellow' and 'Keeper of the College Records', published 'Treasures of Silver at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge', an account of their provenance and acquisition with some dating from before the foundation of the College in 1352 and inherited from the Gilds which founded the College, with pride of place given to the ancient Drinking Horn, believed to be more than 700 years old.

* was affectionately remembered by one of the British delegates in 2005, in the Greek town of Ioannina at the plenary lecture on 'Mountains and Ecological History' at the  'European Conference on Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in Mountain Areas of Europe''once the conference was underway I still recall the puzzlement of our Greek organising committee who had to root around in the basement for a traditional slide projector for his talk as he simply did not 'do technology' and certainly not PowerPoint! Furthermore, his lecture overran quite significantly, but there was no way anyone was going to interrupt the great man and of course we let him continue with his flow of narrative eloquence until he had exhausted all his slides and had said all he wanted to say.'

* in his seminal work, 'Woodlands', in the 'New Naturalist Series' in 2006, dismissed the notion that medieval Britain was one big forest wilderness of vast, looming oaks and the Industrial Revolution signalled a nationwide orgy of tree-felling and argued that the high point of forestation was sometime in the Bronze Age, industrialisation and urbanisation acted as a catalyst for preservation and since the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919, the proportion of Britain covered in trees had risen from 4% to 12%.

* no stranger to publicly voicing opposition, having, some years before, fought the Forestry Commission over the planting of conifers, lent his weight to the opposition in 2010, to Government plans to sell off publicly owned forests, which might have seen them replaced by holiday resorts, golf courses and adventure playgrounds, with  : "A public body is better able to cope with these matters than random private owners.... it's important that people who have worked for many years in a place and got to know it, shouldn't be summarily thrown out by some stroke of a pen by some distant bureaucrat" and had the satisfaction of seeing the order rescinded in 2013.

 * in 2011 at the age of seventy-two at the 'Galway Garden Festival', armed with a slide projector, delivered : 'Irish Trees and Woods : History and Ecology' and began with : "Ireland in the interval between the end of the last Ice Age, let's say 12,000 years ago and the coming of the Neolithic farmers, let's say about 6,000 years ago, is likely to have been trees and trees and trees and  trees, from sea to sea and even to the tops of the mountains" and the following year, without the aid of a single written note, delivered his : 'Woods Past', to mark 'Woodlands Communication Day' :

* in 2012, in his 'The History of the Countryside' stated :'There are four kinds of loss...there is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of high-ways and open spaces...There is the loss of historic vegetation, most of which once gone is lost forever...I am specially concerned with the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of our civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us'.

* in 2014, unexpectedly holed-up in a hospital in Texas, in the context of the advent of ash dieback disease in Britain, produced in a fortnight, the complete draught of what became 'The Ash Tree', in which he stated : 'Get real. Stop letting the anthropology of commerce overrule the practical world. Stop treating plants (and bees) as mere articles of trade, like cars or tins of paint, to be made and bought in industrial quantities from anywhere. Importing a million cars does not imperil the cars that are already here, but trees are different ‘ and decried ' the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants at their destination have no resistance. This has been subtracting tree after tree from the world’s ecosystems; if it goes on for another hundred years how much will be left?'

* within 'The Ash Tree', lamented the loss and called for a revival in ‘the Science of Pathology’ which ‘has been scandalously neglected in Britain’, saying that when the Botany School at Cambridge became 'Plant Sciences', his generation became the last to be taught properly about tree disease : ‘I am one of the last survivors of a Critically Endagered Species. I belong in a Zoo.’

* in 2010 became a 'Life Fellow' at Corpus Christi and remained a frequent and notable presence around College and was remembered by student of law, Jamie Ranson as "a man of great dedication, exuberant spirit and sincere generosity. He made Corpus proud. From the red socks and sandals to the square atop his head and his particular way of saying "Do please be seated" at formals, he will be sorely missed" and had his passing honoured with the College flag lowered to half-mast, last Friday.

* will be remembered for the power of his poetic evocation of the world we have lost :

'The England of hamlets, medieval farms in hollows of the hills, lonely moats and great barns in the clay-lands, pollards and ancient trees, cavernous holloways and many footpaths, fords. irregularly-shaped groves with thick hedges colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle - an intricate land of mystery and surprise.'


'The seventy eventful years between 1870 and 1945 and even World War II itself, were less destructive than any five years since. Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognisable by Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognised by the Emperor Claudius.'

'To the medieval, a Forest was a place of deer, not a place of trees.'

'To convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors.'

'In popular myth, Forest courts were blood-thirsty courts, cutting off the limbs etc. of even minor offenders against Forest law, but not a single case has been brought forward as evidence of this having been done.'

'Old trees, though uncommon, are a speciality of England. Europe is a continent of young or youngish trees, like a human population with compulsory euthanasia at age thirty; one can go from Boulogne to Athens without seeing a tree more than 200 years old.'

'The simplest conservation measure of all is three strands of barbed wire.'

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this, thank you! Sounds like Oliver was a remarkable man, and outspoken too! His assertion that plant pathology has been "scandalously neglected" is something that was also highlighted in a recent report by the UK Plant Sciences Federation (though perhaps Oliver would have preferred if it had been called the UK Botany Federation?!): Hopefully things are moving in the right direction now, especially with organisations like the British Society for Plant Pathology doing such a stellar job at outreach.