Thursday, April 28, 2011

Oliver Rackham - The History of the Countryside

Oliver Rackham's history of the countryside is a remarkable book. It is also an unusual and slightly odd book. It's oddity stems not from its content, but its style. In essence it boils down to a very detailed and systematic exploration of every feature of the British landscape - from the woodlands, ancient and modern, to the roads, fields and waterways we see around us. It is odd because what we end up with is really a very complicated and detailed list. Don't let this criticism mean you ignore this. Rackham's book is a great scholarly work, it is by turns fascinating, amusing and enlightening and should instruct the keenest historian of the interaction between humans and the natural world.

What we learn, is that very little of the British landscape is natural. At the end of the last ice age, most of the British Isles were rapidly covered with wild wood - trees that spread from what was then the continent. With the arrival of humans, this was almost immediately under attack as our ancestors reduced the trees for agriculture or cultural reasons. The other changes they made - consciously or unconsciously on the flora and fauna are faithfully recorded - the disappearance of larger mammals like the auroch, the wild boar and so on. The introduction of species from outside, in both ancient and modern times have changed the world we look at from our train windows, and the place would be unrecognisable to an ancient Briton, transported in time to the 21st Century.

In particular, Rackham shows how agriculture and industry have changed the countryside - the fields, with ancient walls and hedges, to the strip fields of the medieval age, and then the heavily enclosed farms of modern times. The hedges are fascinating. They're sometimes natural, sometimes not, they can grow spontaneously along a human-made ditch or line and they can help spread plant species.

Even some of the most impressive areas of the landscape we might take for granted - the Norfolk Broads, or some of the large woodlands are very rarely natural. The Broads are the remains of systematic medieval peat extraction. Many age old forests are the remnants of parks and gardens made a few centuries ago.

The style of the book is lovely. Oliver Rackham comes across as a slightly eccentric expert, passionate about his subject, prepared to delve deep into ancient forestry records and dusty books to prove that a local feature is actually only a few years old. "Much as been written on the history of Irish woodland, but in a vague and general way; except in Killarney there is not one wood whose history over the last 400 years is known" he complains at one point.

My disappointment peaked at the end of the book, which finished abruptly with a brief mention of a fish weir on the River Calder. I had hoped for some interesting concluding remarks on perhaps the conservation of "nature" and what that meant. Nevertheless, there is much here to learn from. Rackham's book is often mentioned and referenced. I've followed it up with a reading of Francis Pryor's latest book on "The Making of the British Landscape". Pryor has referenced Rackham's work in the past and I'll be interested to compare the two. Watch this space, as they say.

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