Author of the Month Feb 2017 – Oliver Rackham
For February the Book of the Month becomes the Author of the Month, as the 12th marks the second anniversary of the death of the outstanding and hugely inspirational botanist, historical ecologist and nature writer Oliver Rackham.
Born in 1939 in Bungay in Suffolk, Rackham moved to Norfolk soon after and became interested in the surrounding countryside from an early age. He later studied at Cambridge where he stayed for the rest of his career, finally as a Research Fellow at Corpus Christi.
Determinedly avoiding ‘pseudo-history’ and ‘factoids’, Rackham beautifully combined scholarship with humour and throughout his career he debunked many myths about Britain’s landscape, revising long-held notions and misconceptions about how the land, in particular its woodlands, had come to be shaped.
Rackham’s legacy of published work is extraordinary with several iconic, wonderfully readable books. His History of the Countryside (1986) is an account of the landscape from prehistory to the present day and covers a wide range of themes with quirky humour, insight and clarity – the constant thread weaving through the book being the interaction between human activities and the shaping of the countryside over time.
In his Last Forest (1989), a study of Hatfield Forest, he entertainingly dismantled many widely accepted ideas or ‘factoids’ about the history of woodlands – that forests have to do with trees, medieval England was heavily wooded, Royal hunting privilege was protected by savage laws and so on. Although good stories, Rackham saw that overall it was a false narrative, it had “no connection with the real world; it cannot be sustained from the records of any actual forest or wood.”
Ancient Woodland (2003) is a magisterial survey, full to the brim with original research and ideas covering ecology, botany, history and archaeology and sharp analysis of everything from pollen samples to medieval maps and place names – clues in the land that help us see through the layers of history. It is a book of deep common sense backed up by profound thinking, sound theory and practical experience of working in woodlands over many years.
He had the honour of writing the 100th title in the New Naturalist series and Woodlands is classic Rackham – tracing the history of woodland from wildwood to modern conservation and its effects – encompassing a great variety of topics in a compelling and witty fashion. His final book The Ash Tree (2014) is a monograph on a common and valuable feature of the landscape, now threatened by Chalara; it calls for a paradigm shift in how we think about trees – how we plant them and how we care for them.
Animated and engaged, Oliver Rackham held opinions that were well worth paying attention to: he was invariably right. He was an ardent critic of tree planting in the south-east after the 1987 Great Storm, pointing out that traditionally managed woods were cut regularly and recovered, regenerating without replanting in a process he called the ‘constant spring’. He thought the storm a ‘rare wonderful event’ that had undone much bad planting practice over previous decades.
Heavily involved in the conservation and management of woodland, in particular fighting the Forestry Commission over seemingly endless conifer planting, Rackham saw that threats came not from housing developments (suburban woods often being well looked after) but from the increasing number of browsing deer (his advice – ‘eat Bambi’), farming and the spread of tree pests and diseases brought about by poorly regulated practice – he was a passionate advocate that ‘we must stop treating trees as mere articles of trade’.
In remembering one of the finest naturalists this country has ever seen, perhaps the greatest tribute we could all pay to Oliver Rackham would be to engage with, and respond to, what he wrote…
By John T (Ranger)