Sunday 3 August 2008

Can't See the Wood for the Factoids

These are some of the things we all know about British woodland: 'that woods were destroyed by people felling trees to build houses and ships, that medieval England was still very wooded, that forests were preserved for hunting by severe laws and barbarous penalties, that there was a 'timber famine' in the Tudor period, that iron was smelted with coke because there was no wood left, that there was no conservation, that replanting was taken in hand after Evelyn wrote Sylva (1664), and that the last remnants of the old woodland perished when cut down in the First (or was it the Second?) World War...'
None of the above, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is actually true. It is the romantic pseudo-history of our woodland, built on folk history and 'factoids' (propositions which have all the properties of a fact except that they are not true), and it is, as Oliver Rackham points out in his magisterial Trees And Woodland In The British Landscape, quite impossible to eradicate. 'Pseudo-history,' Rackham writes, 'is not killed by publishing real history. In a rational world, this might lead to a controversy in which either the new version was accepted or the old version was shown to be right after all. In our world, the matter is not controversial; either the old version is retold as if nothing had happeened, or authors try to combine the two versions as if both could be true at once. Pseudo-history is not static but alive and growing... new factoids are even now being devised and added to the temple of Unreason.'
Sir Thomas Browne, back in the 1650s, set about demolishing the already vast temple of Unreason with his mighty Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errours. Much good that did. Pseudo-history will always thrive, I suppose, because it offers a simple, coherent narrative that seems to make sense and is often in some way emotionally satisfying. It can be intensely annoying - as when Ring A Ring A Roses is explained as being linked to the Plague, a nasty as well as a fallacious notion - and it is saddening that, in an age when most people seem to know less and less about less and less, the one thing they do know is likely to be wrong. Happily for the most part it doesn't really matter - but there are areas where a proper undersanding is essential, and woodland is one of them, since the conservation of this precious resource depends on a proper knowledge of what it is, how it works and how it can be helped to thrive.


  1. Lets rename it "hi story" Nige, as relayed to us by such luminaries as Snow minor et al. The history wot they wrote.
    Telly people have been re writing it furiously for decades.
    Matters arboreal are of such great importance, on the seventy mile drive from our home to Newcastle we pass the only remaining tree from the old Jedforest. For many years of course the forestry commission was our premier tree planter and a right balls up they have made of it, Larch, Spruce, Scots pine, Sitka r us. All planted in neat rows and even neater rectangles. ruining hundreds of thousands of acres of the British landscape. A good comparison would be with the heavily forested Taunus mountains, Beech, Oak, Maple, Lime, with a small proportion of fir trees.
    Pine trees of course are an easy cash crop but for one small point, much cheaper to import from Finland. Anyone who has ever walked across a plantation two or three years after felling will have noticed the utter barren desolation left behind, no animals or birds. What is probably required is an independent body to oversee the intelligent, pragmatic replanting of trees. We have about 70% hardwood and 30% pine (mainly Scots, Noble and Larch) this seems to be a good mix.
    Having said that, the drive from Oslo to Lillehammer or Goteborg to Boras is an eye opener "not more bloody pine trees"

  2. Thanks Malty - and that is a very fine tree, the Capon.
    And wooden it indeed, Ken...

  3. Please don't tell me "ring around the rosey, pocket full of poseys, ashes, ashes, we all fall dead" is NOT really a ditty from plague times? I've been telling people that for years 'cause it makes so much sense. Buboes are read, poseys make rotting flesh smell less horrible, diseased bodies were burned.

    How do you know that's NOT true, Nigel? How do you divine the facts from the factoids? And, by the way, did you note that the neologism of the year in America (coined by Stephen Colbert) was "truthiness"? Same thing. Sounds true, but ain't. As in, "there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

  4. Sorry about that Susan - see section 2 of this. Truthiness is good.

  5. susan, the maltys use simple algorithms to sort the porkies from the captain believables. Our method..we sort of assimilate like the Borg, after a combined span on the planet of 133 yrs if Frau Malty and I can't tell the difference it's time to go. It was easier when I was in Business, Lawyers, accountants, bankers, PR operatives, sales reps and politicians are weapons grade liars. Engineers, anyone in meaningfull employment will tell harmless fibs but are not blatant liars.
    If that sounds simplistic then so be it, it stands us in good stead.
    PS re your query, the malty name, It's geographical, as in Britten, Fairy obvious really.
    I love the word algorithm, the quickest route to solving a problem, sounds so clever, fools the plebs.

  6. Did you know that all the land between Ken High and the river was used to grow veg for the city. And there was good reason that these veg were exceptional for for years the land was used to dump dry night soil.

  7. Good Lord! No I didn't know that. It must have smelt like rural China...

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