Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands is Volume 100 of the New Naturalist series, started by Collins after the Second World War with the aim of making ecology accessible to the increasing numbers of people who visited the countryside and had a serious curiosity about what it contained. It included such early classics as R.S.R. Fitter on the natural history of London, and Frank Fraser Darling on the Scottish Highlands. Rackham has all their verve and learning, the same immediacy in the telling, but an even greater wish to involve the reader in a problem and its solving. It is, he says, a book more about questions than answers. It is certainly full of opinions.
Rackham begins by defining and describing woodlands and the way they behave. They are not mere agglomerations of trees that can be planted: plantations can never in centuries truly replicate woodlands. Woodlands are subtle and varied ecosystems that have evolved over millennia. Did some trees first spring from the coppice stool after being pushed over by mammoths in the last interglacial? How do our woods, and the ways we have used them, compare with woods in other countries, for example in Japan? The largest and oldest wooden buildings in the world are in the complexes of ancient Japanese temples around Nara.
Rackham is fascinating about British woodland history since Saxon times, and about all the different uses to which we have put timber in building, manufacture and shipping. He has a section on the documents and maps we can use to uncover the story of our own local woods. Why does Epping Forest look as it does? Is it true Burnham Beeches is dying of acid rain? Why is the history of the New Forest different from that of the Forest of Dean?
Don’t try to recreate the wildwood, he tells conservationists: we don’t even know what it was like. Concentrate on keeping what we have inherited in the form of the ancient woods that humanity and nature have shaped together, many of which date back to before Domesday. Don’t plant woods when they can be left to regenerate. The hurricane of 1987 was not a disaster for woods: storms are an ‘unmitigated benefit for wildlife’ and create gaps in which trees can regenerate by the million. This is not as universally true as he thinks – in some cases trees were left to regenerate but failed to do so. But as a generalisation, it is clearly true. He is scathing about the ‘locust years’ of the Forestry Commission and the damage inflicted on our woodlands between the mid-1950s and 1980s, supported by bogus objectives and unrealistic accounting in the dash for Sitka spruce. Now the Forestry Commission is reformed, but forestry remains, like much of agriculture, ‘a vested interest in search of a function’. Since the Year of the Tree in 1973 – remember ‘plant a tree in ’73, plant some more in ’74’? – conservationists have become avid tree planters; but, Rackham says, they can’t plant woods, only plantations.
Even under trees grown next to an existing ancient wood, plants such as oxlip spread by only about a metre a year, and then only if the right kind of ant is present to carry the seeds. There is no use thinking you can provide species that don’t like the heat with an escape from climate change by planting up corridors to join existing woods together, because (apart from birds) there is little evidence they can use them. As for planting trees in an attempt to stop climate change, given the size of Britain, ‘exhorting people to plant trees to sequester carbon dioxide is like telling them to drink more to hold down rising sea levels’. And genetically modified trees are just ‘a recipe for future disaster’, because their uniformity leaves them so open to disease.
Pause, Rackham says. Consider all you don’t know as well as all you do know before taking action. And then try to find out more. Plainly, he does not subscribe to the view that the day of the amateur naturalist is past. In a few lucid pages on the ‘anthropology of ecological science’ that should be read in the funding councils, he explains the damage done by the short-termism of modern universities in search of ratings, prodded into mutual competition instead of collaboration, demanding that academics publish quick results in journals instead of making long-term investigations. He sees amateurs as capable of undertaking more measured studies of long-lived organisms and ecosystems that cannot be comprehended in a three-year PhD or captured in a short article.
Many will want to know what Rackham has to say about the theories proposed by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera in Grazing Ecology and Forest History (2000) about the nature of early woodland. The central problem in European environmental history is what the land looked like six thousand years ago, before the first farmers. Was it wall-to-wall forest with a few small gaps, as Arthur Tansley supposed in The British Islands and their Vegetation seventy years ago, or was it a savannah of slowly shifting groves and wide expanses of grass kept open by large herds of big grazing animals, as Vera’s book proposed, igniting an unquenched controversy? If it was the former, the Neolithic settlers had a gargantuan task of clearance. If it was the latter, it was a pushover. Of course, it could be somewhere between the two extremes, depending on soil and climate. But where, and how? As Rackham puts it, ‘the numbers, habits, tastes and effects of wild beasts are the most important unanswered question.’
The problem tends to be discussed only in the context of the ‘oak-hazel province’, which in England and Wales had always dominated the north and west and came to dominate much of the south and east once lime had mysteriously declined after the Bronze Age. Vera believes that oaks reproduced within light thorny thickets where animals could not get at them. Once they had grown up and overtopped the thorn they created an oak grove. They did not reproduce beneath themselves, but grew up in new thickets in the savannah, to which their acorns had been carried by jays. Eventually, a grove would collapse from old age, grazing beasts would get in as it became grass, and the cycle would begin again. The older and simpler explanation is that oaks mainly reproduced within existing woods, but the snag here is that oaks demand light, as does hazel if it is to flower and fruit. Right across Europe today oaks are failing to reproduce in existing woodland, and Vera says that the fault lies with the foresters and conservationists who kept animals out of the woods for fear of browsing damage. This meant that the savannahs could no longer stay open and the dynamic of reproduction was interrupted by spreading canopies of darkness.
Rackham does not buy this. He claims that oaks did successfully reproduce within existing woods until the arrival of American oak mildew at the start of the 20th century, which had the effect of making oaks need more light than they had historically. Vera would counter that oaks had ceased to reproduce long before that, once reserves were declared and animals excluded. He gives as an example the Forêt de Fontainebleau, where no oaks have reproduced since the 17th century. He also cites German literature that records 19th-century foresters puzzling over the failure of oak to regenerate satisfactorily below closed canopies or those with small openings. Furthermore, Daniel Kelly has found that in Ireland young oaks in the open were worse affected by mildew than those under a canopy. Conversely, Rackham cites instances of regeneration in existing woods in the Middle Ages, but perhaps does not allow for the effect on the non-oak ‘underwood’ of coppicing for fuel and small roundwood. Cutting the other trees could allow what German foresters judged essential: oaks to have the sun on their crowns at ten years old.
Possibly no one is taking enough account of the contribution of human activities towards maintaining large, sunny open spaces, even in early prehistory. Twenty years ago, Alan Smith and other archaeologists proposed that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers would have found an advantage in enlarging and manipulating grassy areas where wild grazing animals gathered, and in encouraging nuts and berries to grow on the edge of the wood or in thickets. It is a tempting notion, given that hazel pollen was so plentiful at this period, that it is not produced in shade, and that nuts were such an important food, their abundant shells associated with settlement finds for millennia. Unfortunately, this is an area as rich in hypothesis as it is short on proof.
Beechcombings is a very different book from Woodlands, and rather suffers from the comparison. Richard Mabey’s intention is to use a series of ‘discursive essays’ to build up ‘a brief history of the narratives we’ve constructed about trees over the past thousand years to make them accessible, useful, comprehensible and obedient’, and to use the beech in particular ‘as a kind of lens’ to do this.
He doesn’t really go back a thousand years (except in a few references to the Normans), but about four hundred. He credits Gilbert White, writing in the late 18th century, with being one of the first writers to praise the loveliness of trees. This won’t do. John Evelyn, a century before, had spoken of beeches making ‘spreading trees and noble shades with their well-furnish’d and glistering leaves’, and also of Xerxes’ admiration of the plane: ‘that so beautiful and precious tree’. Timothy Pont, at the time of Shakespeare, wrote of the beauty of the wooded hillsides round Loch Ewe. In the 14th century, the leaves of Southwell Minster were carved as a testimony in stone to the closely observed loveliness of trees. As far back as the 12th century, the Yorkshire monk Walter Daniel described the surroundings of his beloved Rievaulx as ‘a second paradise of wooded delight’ where the ‘branches of lovely trees rustle and sing together’ over the tumbling waters of the river.
Mabey’s essays, which begin from his own experience, are sometimes Schama-like in their self-indulgence, sometimes useful oral history, as in his accounts of managing his own small wood and of the great storm of 1987. He gives a lively if brief account of the economic history of the Chilterns and ecological history of the New Forest, and sets about describing the changing attitude to trees in general and beeches in particular since the days of John Evelyn. He tells how woodmanship, in Rackham’s sense, turned to forestry and landscape gardening, with the improvers’ excessive stress on interference and regularity. He explains the Romantic reaction to this, and is particularly interesting on the resemblances between the aesthetic theory of Uvedale Price and modern ecological ideas, alike in their interest in diversity and niche. He describes Gainsborough’s methods of painting trees, but has surprisingly little to say about Constable. He reveals William Cobbett to be an old curmudgeon who ‘viewed trees much as he did cabbages . . . as utility vegetables’.
Mabey misses a trick, being a very southern South Briton, in not giving an account of the rise of the beech as a tree of choice for gentlemen in the north of England and Scotland, oddly dismissing as a pompous ass the great champion of the tree Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, a Scottish laird who edited and sometimes politely deflated the verbal balloons of William Gilpin, the guru of the Picturesque. The well-grown beech appealed to a northern improver such as Lauder for its combination of orderliness, dominance, comeliness and utility. As well as shelter and noble avenues, grown close-grained in the north it provided splendid timber for shuttles in the textile trade, until it was replaced by American persimmon in the 1880s.
Today, Mabey argues, ideas of managing trees are changing rapidly, and we should leave nature much more to itself, allowing land to scrub over and new trees to plant themselves. This, he says, agreeing with Rackham, is a lesson of the great storm of 1987. He takes it as self-evident that we need millions upon millions of new trees to fight global warming – differing here from Rackham. Disappointingly, he does not argue the case, nor does he properly explain how the trees will leap up spontaneously on farmland that has been subjected to thirty years of nitrogen overdose. The Woodland Trust plants trees on most of the land it acquires because there is no other way to get them through the mat of grass on poisoned, overfertilised ground. In woods like Glen Finglas or Hainault Forest (not as vanished as Mabey makes out), however, it is increasingly able to rely mainly on grazing and natural regeneration to do the job.
Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, edited from a manuscript completed before the author’s death last year, is an idiosyncratic delight. It is meditation and description, nature writing and travel writing, rooted in his Suffolk home but with excursions elsewhere in southern England as well as to Australia, Europe and the lands of the former USSR. The title, though, is a misnomer, since the woods with which he is concerned are often not wild but populated, important because of what they mean to people and culture rather than being untouched and primeval.
Deakin is a master of the happy phrase and unexpected observation. On the vapour trail from a jet: ‘Strange how beautiful such sky-litter can be.’ On badgers in a Somerset village rifling the dustbins: ‘They went their rounds with impatient efficiency, jogging from house to house like council workers on some lucrative bonus scheme.’ On the Pyrenees in autumn: ‘The southern slopes are clothed in the rusty hues of hippy pullovers.’ Skylarks in Kyrgyzstan ‘rose up like messages on kite strings’.
Deakin worked at carpentry and wood-turning, and so he is good on the textures, qualities and colours of woods. He explains how to coppice, how to lay a hedge, what to use to peg a ridge on a thatched roof. He describes different English trees as he encounters them: ash, willow, elm, holly. He recounts his experiences of living in wooden sheds or railway carriages; of waking and sleeping under the canopy of branches and leaves; of oak apple day in a Devon village; of the grimness of the Ukraine-Polish borderlands, where memories of genocides forgotten by the outside world still permeate the forest. He remembers school excursions to the New Forest with his friend George Peterken, and how he was taken by Peterken, now a famous woodland ecologist, to see the small-leaved limes of St Briavel’s Common, which creep along the banks ‘like the walking wood in Macbeth’. He even tells the story of the veneering in Jaguar cars, how the wood is brought from the old walnut orchards of the Sacramento Valley in California and assembled in Coventry with the help of computers and band-saws.
He writes, too, of his visits to the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan and the walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan. Who would have supposed that the twenty thousand varieties of domestic apples in the world are all descended from one species of wild apple in the Tien Shan range of Kazakhstan, which spread when horses became domesticated and began to travel what was later known as the Silk Road, transporting the seeds in their dung? The Babylonians discovered grafting and the Romans brought the tree to Britain, but the wild apple still grows with wild apricots, blackcurrants, raspberries and mulberries in the fruit forests of Kazakhstan. Or who would have supposed that in Kyrgyzstan there is a walnut forest of 1.5 million acres, which is filled with people at harvest time: ‘You would hear a song floating over the forest high up and think of angels, until a fresh shower of nuts came down and keen-eyed children appeared out of the under-shrub to scrabble about for the bright green nuts.’ The Kyrgyz, with their huge and extended families, could not believe that Deakin had only one child: ‘To have a single son would be like keeping a single chicken, or growing a solitary potato.’ This book is a complete charm.
As different from Deakin as Idaho is from Suffolk is Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees, a brisk American account of climbing the tallest trees on earth. It is described as ‘narrative non-fiction’: the events are ‘factual’, the characters ‘real’, and their reported thoughts, feelings and dialogue have been built from interviews and ‘fact-checked’. The goal is to ‘reveal people and realms that nobody had ever imagined’. The focus is on a handful of enthusiasts who set out to climb the highest trees on earth, the redwoods of California, and who incidentally found a peculiar and distinctive ecosystem of epiphytes and mosses in the crown of the trees. One could wish for more detail about the ecosystem and less about the emotions and sex lives of the enthusiasts (even in the tree tops), however fact-checked the latter may be.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating that a college dropout called Michael Taylor, who worked as a knife salesman and grocery clerk, came to figure out which were the world’s tallest trees: everyone knew they were redwoods, but the precise trees had not been identified. Another student called Steve Sillett began to climb them, eventually perfected techniques for doing so, and became a scientist and the world authority on the ecosystems at the top. It is impressive to learn how complex the redwoods are, with their many spires, and interesting to read of the daring and persistence of the men (and some women) who swung from their branches. It was certainly an extremely dangerous pursuit. Those who work for tree surgeons (‘climbing grunts’) have one of the highest fatality rates of any job in North America, and these amateurs were taking their lives in their hands every time. A giant redwood in a storm is not a nice place to be. The enthusiasts also climbed in the great gums of south-eastern Australia, and even (for a relaxing holiday with the kids) in the Caledonian pines of Glen Affric in Scotland, where they also found a distinctive ecological world in the crowns. There is admiration for people and nature in this book, but, as Oliver Rackham once remarked in a review, if a title implies an interest in people and woods, you can be sure there will be more about the people than the woods.