Oliver Rackham OBE (October 17th 1939 – February 12th, 2015): the loss of a giant on the world stage of the study of trees and woods



Oliver Rackham Jon Heuch

Picture from Jon Heuch of the Arboricultural Association

Oliver Rackham OBE (October 17th 1939 – February 12th, 2015): the loss of a giant on the world stage of the study of trees and woods.

Oliver Rackham 1987 (2)

The news came through this week, Professor Oliver Rackham, had died suddenly on 12th February 2015. Oliver was a towering intellect whose influence on the study of landscape but especially of trees and woods, was beyond comparison. Indeed, he was one of the most influential academics of his generation. Known throughout the world, he was truly one of the leading intellectual writers of his generation, and yet crossed the boundaries to popular writing too. The news has been met with considerable sorrow and his passing leaves a void within the extensive network of enthusiasts for trees and for the countryside.

This announcement was made by Corpus Christi College:

It is with great sadness that the College announces the death of Professor Oliver Rackham OBE MA PhD FBA, Botanist, Master of the College 2007 – 8, Fellow of the College 1964 – 2007 and 2008 – 2010, Honorary Fellow 2008 – 2015 and Life Fellow 2010 – 2015, on 12 February 2015, aged 75 years. Professor Rackham collapsed during a dinner at Leckhampton on Tuesday evening (10 February); he was admitted to Addenbrookes Hospital immediately, and died at Papworth Hospital on the evening of Thursday, 12 February. The Dean of Chapel and some of his close friends were with him.’

A little background resume:

Rackham studied the British countryside, especially trees, woodlands and wood pasture, and wrote and lectured on the subject with passion and sharp, critical observation. Oliver wrote many books and articles, including The History of the Countryside (1986) and The Last Forest (1989) on Hatfield Forest. The former volume won the 1986 Angel Literary Award, the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Prize and the Natural World Book of the Year Award, and Oliver suggested to me once that the book had kept his publisher in business for about twenty years!

Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape review: Drawing upon years of research, Oliver Rackham is as highly readable as he is informative and topical, concluding this definitive study with a section on the conservation and future of Britain’s trees, woodlands and hedgerows: ‘He has the gift of presenting solid scholarship in a way that kindles the imagination and stimulates the sense of curiosity …. it is difficult to convey the quality of Dr Rackham’s book on the strength of a few quotations. As an aid to understanding the landscape I haven’t found its equal.’

photo of OR

From Melvyn Jones: Oliver (left) with Prof Charles Watkins at a conference held at the University of Nottingham in 1996 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape.

He also studied and published extensively on the ecology of the Mediterranean, particularly of Crete. In 1998, Rackham was awarded the OBE for ‘services to nature conservation’. A Life Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and he was apparently Keeper of the College Silver. He was Master of Corpus Christi College from 15th October 2007, until 1st October 2008, and in 2006, became Honorary Professor of Historical Ecology in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.

Oliver was passionate about his trees and woods, and still gave lectures and ran regular field courses. A couple of years ago, at our ‘Trees Beyond the Wood’ conference in Sheffield, he was unable to attend because, already into his seventies, he ‘had a once in a lifetime chance to visit Ethiopia’ to cast his expert and discerning eye of the tree landscapes of that region. Previously Oliver attended our 2003 conference on ‘Working and Walking in the Footsteps of Ghosts‘, and contributed to the retrospect book. He presented a paper at the grazing animals conference and again contributed a major chapter on ‘Woodland and wood-pasture’ to the post-conference volume of selected and invited chapters.Ancient Woodland Rackham 2003

That Oliver chose our 2003 conference to launch the new, updated, and considerably expanded version of his seminal Ancient Woodland: its history, vegetation and uses in England, was a great honour for my team and me. With a truly stellar line-up of speakers, the event turned out to be a major landmark conference, but it has to be said, that without Oliver’s writing from the 1970s to the 2000s, none of us would have been there. His talent included a razor-sharp intellect, which could leap from medieval Latin and old English, to field botany and the interpretation of the humps and bumps of the archaeology of an ancient woodland. Above all, however, Oliver was a great communicator, able to speak and write such that his wisdom was sought and understood by academic and non-academic alike. His final book was The Ash Tree, published by Little Toller Books.

An example of Oliver writing for a wider audience was a superb article in The Mail on Sunday, November 4th 2012. Rackham goes on to present his sensible and pragmatic view that the current waves of plant diseases, especially those of trees, are a consequence of globalised international trade and the import of saplings into and around continents and countries. He points out the common-sense observation that with diseases such as sudden Dieback of ash, the tree and the disease have come into evolutionary balance over centuries of co-existence in any one location. However, as humans move both trees and diseases around the planet, the local variants and balances of evolution are disrupted and the results can be catastrophic. The growth strategy of a tree like ash is that it is a ‘weed’ with abundant seedlings and saplings colonising into disturbed sites. Most of these individual plants ultimately die young, and generally of a fungal disease. For maybe every 10,000 saplings, only one mature tree will result; the rest die young. Evolution is a brutal process, and only the strong, and in this case, the disease resistant survive. Within a few generations, local balance is in place and disease and tree coexist, often unnoticed.

However, with EU plant selection regulations resulting in clonal, nursery-grown trees of identical and limited genetic stock, the scene is set for disaster. Furthermore, when we move vast numbers of these cultivated trees between countries, the seal is stamped on long-term declines and serial problems. From an ecological viewpoint, the need to grow, transport, and import saplings of a tree like ash, is an utter nonsense. The plant is a weed, and if you want it, just scatter some seed; nature will do the rest. However, the resulting and growing issues of the spread of this, and indeed of many other plant diseases, are absolutely predictable. As Oliver Rackham stated, in his inimitable fashion, ‘I told you so!’. Oliver and his profound wisdom will be greatly missed by all those who care for trees, woods, history and the landscape, far more widely too.

Finally, a thought for all those who seem to think that planting a few trees can replace an ancient one:

10,000 oaks of 100 years old are not a substitute for one 500 year old oak

Oliver Rackham, conservation author and historian.. .

As always with Oliver, the message is clear, unambiguous and to the point.
My lasting memory of Oliver will be his arrival at our 2003 conference in Sheffield.  Dressed in a striped blazer, shorts (in was hot June weather), and a straw boater, de rigeur dress for a Cambridge Don but less common in Sheffield, he strolled up to the reception desk and announced, ‘I am Oliver Rackham and I have arrived!’ We will all miss him greatly.Oliver Rackham 1987 (1)

Christine Reid, Senior Specialist Woodlands & Forestry,Natural England: I Thought I’d send you this picture taken in November last year when I had the pleasure of a guided walk with him through Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire, where he did much of his studying and thinking. He was in fine form and extremely concerned about the advance of ash dieback in the wood and elsewhere. His excellent book, The Ash Tree, is well worth a read. Kind regards, Chris

Oliver Rackham Christine Reid Natural England Hayley Wood

From Andy Alder – So sad and so many memories will remain.

From Chris Smout – That is such sad and unexpected news: he was a giant among scholars, and very kind to me personally — both in terms of first directing me to environmental history when I read the History of the Countryside and of personal kindness whenever I got in touch, I owe him a great deal. With best wishes Chris.

Dr Margaret Atherden I have lost a very dear friend, with whom I spent many happy hours working in Greece and Crete and who taught me almost everything I know about Mediterranean flora. Oliver is totally irreplaceable and we have lost one of the most original thinkers and leading scientists in his field.

Frans Vera: This is indeed very, very sad news. He was such an inspiring man and such a brilliant scientist. His book Ancient Woodland has been the most inspiring book for me. We will miss him very much in our exchange of thoughts in order to disentangle the riddles of nature and trees in particular.

Peter Szabo: He had such an amazingly sharp and original mind. He was also a very kind person, who was always willing to help. His work inspired me to take up historical ecology – without him, my life would have been very different. Thank you for everything, Oliver!

Alan Simson: An over-quoted phrase, but in this case it’s so very true – it is the end of an era. I salute the man and all that he has done.

Melvyn Jones: Oliver was a brilliantly original researcher and writer who inspired so many people, botanists, landscape and local historians (amateur and professional) , conservationists and countryside managers, to look again with new eyes at the landscape, particularly woods, wooded commons and parkland landscapes, as both a natural ecosystem and as the product of human management.
And he was so generous in supporting those new to researching and writing about woodland history. When I corresponded with him he was honest enough to say he didn’t know the answers to some of the questions I asked him. And when I sent him a copy of the first edition of Sheffield’s Woodland Heritage in 1989 his praise was unbounded, adding that ‘There is much that I have not come across…’. He went on to say that ‘It will be a model to me in my forthcoming book on the Helford River woods in Cornwall’. Praise indeed.
About fifteen years ago I was asked by the editor of a well-known journal to act as a referee for a paper that Oliver had submitted for publication. I agreed but waited in trepidation for the paper to arrive. Would I dare to change a word of it? Of course I didn’t need to: it had been written by Oliver Rackham!
Oliver was an extraordinarily influential communicator; he was inspiring, quirky (often in shorts, red socks and sandals) and opinionated (but his opinions were always worth listening to). He will be very greatly missed. His legacy will be immense.

Ted Green MBE: Fieldman [observer, ecologist]. Scholar [of the historical written word] No doubt as a young man wandering the leafy lanes and woods with their ancient coppice stools and pollards they threw up so many questions for his incredibly enquiring mind. Which in turn led him to the vast archives of our historical and cultural history. Thankfully much of these original observations and research have been passed on to us and have led to a springboard for countless researchers past and present. Many of his ‘Throw away comments‘ are well embedded in Ecological folk law and often quoted to illustrate a point and invariably not challenged. However one ‘Oliver‘ quote that is still ignored is ‘Broad-leaved woodland burns like wet asbestos‘. No doubt with time he will again be recognized for his powers of observation. The debt we owe Oliver cannot be measured but rest assured the references to his works will continue unabated for all time. Oliver will never be forgotten.

Della Hooke: Very sad and shocking news – Oliver was a brilliant scholar who contributed so much to our knowledge of the role of trees and woodland throughout history and he has been an inspiration to us all. The latest edition of his authoritative ‘Ancient Woodland, its History, Vegetation and Uses in England‘ (Dalbeattie, 2003) will remain my ‘tree bible’ for years to come.

Professor David Hey:  This is both sad and unexpected news. I first heard Oliver speak at Leicester in the early 1970s, when he kept dipping into his rucksack saying such things as, ‘This is from the roof of Norwich Cathedral …’. Another memory is of meeting him at Flatford Mill, where we were both teaching on courses. He thrust a twig almost into my face and said, ‘What’s this?‘. ‘A hazel twig‘, I replied, whereupon he pointed to a smudge and said, ‘A medieval lichen!‘. He had got it from a timber-framed house that he just visited.

Keith Kirby and British Ecological Society: https://besfeg.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/fall-of-a-great-oak-oliver-rackham-has-died/

What others are saying: Cultural Landscapes Blog…..http://www.hercules-landscapes.eu/blog.php?dear_oliver_some_thoughts_on_the_loss_of_oliver_rackham&id=24

Article in the Arboricultural Magazine – on the late Professor Oliver Rackham

page 24-Rackham

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8 Responses to Oliver Rackham OBE (October 17th 1939 – February 12th, 2015): the loss of a giant on the world stage of the study of trees and woods

  1. Sally Goldsmith says:

    A giant indeed Ian and I know how much you will mourn him.

  2. One of the greatest inspirations to a whole generation.


  3. So sad and so many memories will remain

  4. Peter Szabo says:

    He had such an amazingly sharp and original mind. He was also a very kind person, who was always willing to help. His work inspired me to take up historical ecology – without him, my life would have been very different. Thank you for everything, Oliver!

  5. Cara Grant says:

    A gentle Christian, who always showed such humility, compassion, kindness and humour… he’s to miss!

  6. leramiles says:

    Lovely photos of Oliver, thank you.

  7. Philip Hawes says:

    A wonderful man with whom to share a walk, lunch or dinner. He was that rare thing, a true original.

  8. Neil Hunter says:

    Oliver’s passing has created a massive void where there was formerly a mountain of wisdom and knowledge – a grievous loss to humanity and the study and conservation of the natural world. He often seemed to me to be a beacon of sanity in a crazy world, a true polymath who used meticulous, evidence-based, scientific observation, reasoning and logic to determine a more realistic version of what the `truth’ might be, with the brilliant ability to communicate this to people from all sorts of backgrounds. He was a real force for goodness (and what often seems to me like `common sense’), inspiring both amateurs and professionals to reach a better understanding of how humans and nature have interacted over time, generally by making sustainable and careful long-term use of the self-renewing powers of wild nature, creating such a rich tapestry of history, continuity and meaning in the process.

    His life and work represented the finest tradition of dedicated scholarship – it seems that a fortuitous set of circumstances meant that such a rare talent could be devoted to the life-long studies he undertook around the world, and he could use his independence of mind and thought to challenge the accepted versions of events and demolish many myths, a task becoming ever more difficult in the monetised and globalised planet we live on today. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, producing a `great leap forward’ in knowledge for which the world should be ever grateful.

    However, it has long been a personal source of real frustration that some of the great themes he espoused have still never been properly understood or accepted by a wider audience – I sincerely hope that we will not now enter a new `Dark Age’ now that this great man who possessed such authority and profound understanding about life on earth has `moved on’.

    One of his greatest legacies must surely be the vast archive of material he collected over his lifetime – detailed notes, photographs and all sorts of other things from thousands of magical, historic and natural places both in Britain and across the world. Hopefully Oliver made provisions for this himself, but I hereby make a plea that this incredible collection must be saved for the Nation.

    This would be one of the greatest tributes to Oliver Rackham – the man who knew so much.

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