Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Dr Oliver Rackham

Oration given on 13 July 2000

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Oliver Rackham.

Deep in the national psyche there is an inchoate belief that the British - or, at any rate, the English - are a people of the woodlands.  Not the dark, brooding, conifer forests of Teutonic and Scandinavian legend, but the broad-leaved woods of oak and ash and elm and alder.  In many respects, it is a myth: in fact, ours is probably the least-forested country in Europe and the pressures on what little remains are intense.

Still, we continue to sing about “spreading chestnut trees”, cherish the tales about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and regale our own children with stories such as The Children of the New Forest.  Examples of our attachment to the notion that we are a woodland people are endless.

One of the most bitter controversies to assail Colchester occurred not long after this University was founded.  It involved a majestic copper-beech tree that stood in the town centre exactly where the main entrance to British Home Stores is now.  And how often do we see on our television screens pictures of mainly young people trying to rescue a strip of woodland from the maw of the bulldozer.  Again, there must be few villages in the land, and not a few towns, too, that do not have at least one tree commemorating this or that event.

There is nothing wrong in any of this.  In fact, such actions symbolise the collective satisfaction of an aesthetic or ritualistic need; but there is a danger that they may mask more serious threats to our physical landscape and emotional well being.

This country is fortunate in that it has in Oliver Rackham someone who has devoted his life to trees and woodlands.  A Suffolk man by birth and Norfolk man by upbringing and early education, he began his academic career by entering Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Botany, graduating in 1961 with a first-class degree in the Natural Sciences Tripos.  He has remained at Corpus Christi, of which he is a Fellow, ever since.

Initially, Oliver Rackham specialised in the physiology of plant growth and transpiration, the subject of his doctoral dissertation; but since 1972 he has concentrated on historical ecology, and, in particular, on the history of woodland and the landscape in England and Wales.

“Historical ecology” - there we have the association of the natural sciences and the humanities, and it is there that Oliver Rackham’s talents flourish.  If we go back to the late nineteenth century, we find that studies of trees and woodlands tended to focus on the aesthetic and the practical (the uses to which various timbers could be put, and so on).  “As long as the Lion holds his fabled place as king of beasts, and the Eagle as king of the birds, the sovereignty of British trees must remain to the Oak” is how the Rev C A  Johns opens his account of The Forest Trees of Britain, published in 1882.  Such publications - erudite in their day - have now been replaced by more precise, scientific investigation, by a multi-disciplinary approach that entails not only the biological sciences, but also chemistry, archaeology, history and increasingly administration and politics.

Oliver Rackham has brought all these aspects of scholarship to bear in his studies of woodlands.  Some have focussed on particular woodlands, such as his Hayley Wood, its history and ecology, published in 1975, his Ancient Woodland of England: the Woods of South-East Essex (1986), and in 1989, The Last Forest: the story of Hatfield Forest.  But there have been wider studies, too, such as Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, his Ancient Woodland: its history, vegetation and uses in England, and his award-winning History of the Countryside, scholarly works all of them, but extremely accessible, too, to the non-specialist.

Nor are Oliver Rackham’s researches concerned exclusively with this country.  His interests have extended to the United States and continental Europe, with Greece and Sardinia receiving particular attention. One scholarly review of the book The Making of the Cretan Landscape (written jointly with the American academic, Dr J A Moody) describes it as being “informed throughout by a professional scientific understanding of environmental history, and by a great acuity of methodology” together with a notable “level of common sense”. It is in this book, incidentally, that Dr Rackham and his colleague offer a chapter entitled “History, pseudo-history and the use of evidence” that would repay reading by students in a wide variety of disciplines, and not just to find out what lies behind the maxim “One should not assert that goats eat everything without having (first) watched goats”.

Oliver Rackham shares his learning generously.  Not only is he an eminent scholar in his field, he also writes and speaks in a lively, accessible fashion.  Much in demand by learned societies, environmental groups, civic organisations and public meetings alike, he is able to put across his material in a direct, entertaining and, in the best sense of the word, opinionated style.  Former students speak of him as being an inspirational teacher.  It occasions no surprise that he was awarded an OBE.

In November, a grove of oak trees will be planted in the University’s grounds, Wivenhoe Park, partly to mark the millennium, but also to underline the contribution made by overseas students to the international standing of the University of Essex, Colchester and the County.  They will join the ancient oaks that still dot the campus; the same oaks, or their progeny, of the trees that feature in John Constable’s splendid painting of Wivenhoe House and park that hangs in the National Gallery in Washington and which, supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, will be on loan to the University in the autumn, where it will be on display.  The brainchild of the Department of Biological Sciences, acorns were collected by former students in their home countries and the resulting seedlings grafted onto native English root stock.  It will scarcely be the ancient woodland that Oliver Rackham has done so much to bring to our attention, but it will nonetheless be a mark of the affection, which we as a nation feel for our arborial roots.  Who better, then, to accord our esteem than that “Man of the Trees” whom we honour today and who honours us by his presence.

Chancellor, I present to you Oliver Rackham.