Saturday, 9 October 2010

The strange persistence of "pseudo-history"

Well that break didn't last long. I guess if you're provoked enough, even a high temperature doesn't get in the way...

From a piece on trees in today's Guardian by Colin Tudge, a biologist and the author of The Secret Life of Trees (my emphasis):
But in Britain right now, woods are on the up. According to a survey carried out this week by the Forestry Commission for the UN, we have more trees than at any time since 1750 (after which we cut them down to build a navy to fight the French). In fact, we have 11,200 sq miles of woodland – which is more than twice as much as we had at the low point of the 1920s, after the first world war had taken its toll on timber and charcoal.

There is no evidence for either of the bolded assertions; in fact, the evidence points entirely the other way. The continuing use of woodland to harvest timber or make charcoal helps ensure its survival.

The other point to make is that there's woodland and woodland. Plantations - which ecologically have little interest relative to naturally occuring woodland - may well have increased our wooded acreage. However, ancient woodland has declined.

I came across this Richard Mabey review of the sainted Oliver Rackham's Woodlands. It makes the argument:
I was lucky to be at Rackham’s debut, at a conference 30 years ago. He was a shy young Cambridge botanist then, and was addressing the seemingly uncontroversial subject of The Oak Tree in Historic Times. But his paper turned out to be a bombshell, a clinical demolition of foresters’ paternalism and an awesomely evidenced account of the fact that, for most of human history, trees had been regarded and used as a self- renewing resource. He described how he had measured all the main timbers in the original part of his college, Corpus Christi (there were 1,249, mostly small squared trees about 7ins in diameter), and calculated how frequently such a building could have been created from the renewable oaks of an ordinary Cambridgeshire wood. He blew away the notion that felling trees destroyed woodland.

In the half-dozen books he has written since, he has revolutionised our understanding of historical ecology. In sharp and exquisite English, and with a historical intuition as strong as his scientific rigour, he has laid waste the conventional wisdom of foresters, the ideologies of theoretical naturalists, the “pseudo-histories” of historians. His simple — and to him sacrosanct — precept is that the final arbiter in all arguments about woodland must be the trees and woods themselves, in all their dynamic, mutable, particular detail.

And yet the "pseudo history" persists!

By the way, C Tudge appears to be plagiarising himself. His latest article begins and ends:
My passion for trees began at primary school, well over half a century ago. I was 11 when I started a nursery in our garden in south London, planting sprigs of sycamore, oak and holly salvaged from the bomb-sites that still pockmarked the city. They'd be grown by now, if I hadn't dug them up to make way for a greenhouse.
[...] 
We've been treating trees badly for a long time. At Binsey in Oxford in 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the felling of poplars: "O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew – Hack and rack the growing green!"
We still don't know what we are doing and in the world at large the hacking and racking continue more vigorously than ever. But right now, in Britain, although the leaves are dying the trees with luck are flourishing. I do hope we can keep it up.

Back in 2005 another article, which he must be proud of as he's posted it to his website, begins and ends:
At age 11 I started my own nursery—horse chestnut, sycamore, birch, oak, and holly, pillaged from the World War II bomb-sites that still pock-marked South London: those baby trees would be big by now, if they hadn't succumbed to later whims.
[...]
In Oxford in 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the felling of poplars: “O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew—Hack and rack the growing green!” We still don't know what we are doing, and never can in any detail, but the hacking and racking continue more vigorously than ever. The only half-way sane approach if we want this world to remain habitable, is to approach it humbly. Trees teach humility. We need to take the world far more seriously. It would be a good idea to begin with trees.

Other bits are very similar too. He's a fan of recycling and in many ways it seems. In any event, he could do with some fresh input on 'hacking and racking', a good thing when it's done in the right way.

If I may quote: 'We need to take the world far more seriously. It would be a good idea to begin with trees.'

12 comments:

mahlerman said...

Blimey, that Night Nurse is stronger than I thought!

Gaw said...

Yes, it must be available in capsule, liquid and digital form.

zmkc said...

While on the subject of trees (and do not get me started on pine plantations) would you like to see a few nice healthy elms? If so, watch my blog over the coming days(incidentally, why is Night Nurse better in liquid form? The capsules knock me out cold)

malty said...

At age 11 I started my own nursery—horse chestnut, sycamore, birch, oak, and holly, He should learn the art of silence, someone will sue him for wrecking the local sewage system with his tree roots.
We have about four hundred trees left, already cut down one hundred and fifty, please tell the Tudger that if he doesn't pay up I will chop down one per day until he does.

Sean said...

I think this might have been the culprit.

http://www.eyemead.com/majoroak.htm

"The Major Oak has received special attention throughout this century"

Hey Skipper said...

There is definitely more forest here in the US.

Due to [boring backstory] I was the beneficiary of a Gettysburg battlefield tour by a Very Knowledgeable and Famous Historian. While pointing out the finer points of Pickett's Charge, he said: "First you must imagine this battle without any of the trees."

Which was tough to do, considering there were so many of them.

The other point to make is that there's woodland and woodland. Plantations - which ecologically have little interest ...

Don't most temperate zone woodlands, whether natural or man-planted, have pretty limited diversity?

worm said...

great stuff!!

malty said...

As a footnote, there is no more sterile place than the interior of a Forestry Commission geometrically correct plantation, no birds, animals or plants, when felled the site looks like the Somme. The financial return is minimal, timber being far cheaper when imported from Finland, all in all a typical British bureaucratic balls up.

Gaw said...

Z: I would volunteer for an elm tour. I might have trouble persuading the rest of the family though.

Malty: What sort of wood have you got there?

Re your final comment, I suspects that the report which this piece name-checks is a snow job. The Commission has done enormous harm to our traditional ecologies. Even the reference to 'planting 20,000 native species' makes me shudder - a great deal of heath, moorland, wood pasture and meadow might be sacrificed to accommodate those trees. I hope someone's watching them like a hawk.

Sean: Great tree. Now chopping that down would be a crime.

Skipper: Large parts of the Eastern US have been reforested since the opening up of the Mid-West to farming.

Woodland is very diverse ecologically. But it's a fragile system that may take centuries to recover once it's eradicated. It's to do with the mycorrhizal systems. I urge you to read Rackham's book Woodlands if you're really interested.

Hey Skipper said...

Woodland is very diverse ecologically. But it's a fragile system that may take centuries to recover once it's eradicated. It's to do with the mycorrhizal systems. I urge you to read Rackham's book Woodlands if you're really interested.

I should, it sounds interesting. I hope it is available on the Kindle.

I lived for awhile at the north edge of the Detroit metropolitan area. Just to the east was a reasonably large (at least a couple square miles) expanse of woodland that doesn't show any sign of ever having been disturbed.

In that woodland were perhaps four different kinds of trees, and maybe as many more non-tree plants.

Which, in terms of diversity, wasn't a patch on adjacent suburbia.

Skipper: Large parts of the Eastern US have been reforested since the opening up of the Mid-West to farming.

No doubt; but the historian's point was that during the Civil War, we used trees for all sorts of things; in particular, fuel.

Now, hardly anything. That, combined with farmland productivity far outstripping population growth, means much more land is left to do whatever it will.

Gaw said...

Yes, I should probably have described woodland as 'distinctively diverse'. Old woodland's contribution to diversity comes from its particularity. In any event, it's more diverse than plantation in all ways.

Woods tend not to disappear because they've been used up for fuel and they tend not to reappear because people no longer need them for fuel.

People who had a long term interest in the wood as a fuel source would use techniques such as coppicing, pollarding and thinning to provide fuel. Doing this would also maintain a particular ecological character of the wood. Killing a wood is difficult - just for starters, you'll almost certainly need to grub up the stumps.

What you were probably witnessing on that battlefield was marginal farmland that had returned to an uncultivated state where the indigenous flora get a grip.

Sean said...

chop it down garth? its the scaffolding that keeping the thing up! mind you if i was hiring the scaffold out that would be different.