Late in the summer of 2013 I took an unusual package to the post office in the village where I live. Inside the box, stuffed with newspaper and packing tape, were Oliver Rackham’s walking boots. First class. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He had been visiting us in Dorset to deliver photographs and discuss his fist draft of The Ash Tree, and when the taxi bustled him away to the train after lunch, the boots were left behind in a corner of the office.
Oliver came to west Dorset every year to lead a short course at the Kingcombe Centre, and was doing exactly this in 2007 when I joined him for a day’s walk around the Kingcombe and Toller valleys. We looked for apotropiac markings on the clunch walls of local barns and cottages, we walked up Mary’s Well, a sunken lane in Kingcombe that buoyed with hedge-life. In the afternoon we jumped into a battered mini-bus and drove to Little Toller, where I showed him the iron sluice gates and gulleys of an abandoned water meadow, the extraordinary figures carved into the font at St Basil’s church, and the refectory building with its stone mullion windows, cruck beams, and the small sandstone figure of a bagpipe-player that is said to indicate the celebrations that the Knights of Hospitallers enjoyed under the thatch.
It is no overstatement to say this walk changed my life. It changed the way I experienced the landscape around our home, and landscapes elsewhere that I have passed through ever since. What Oliver saw were stories, in hedgerows, in the soft humps and bumps of fields, in ancient ash stools, in cottages and farm buildings. Clues in the landscape, codes that help us see layers of history. Ever since, whether I am in a town or stomping through a narrow forest gulley, I cannot stop looking for these stories, these clues. He changed the way I looked. He taught me to search-out the narratives written into landscapes. I have no doubt this shift in my way of seeing inspired us to start publishing books the following year.
When, early in 2013, I asked Oliver to write about ash trees for our new monograph series, I did not expect him to say yes – as a small publisher you learn to be plucky, push your luck, turn rough-skinned through rejection. But with the Chalara outbreak heavy in the press and in the mind something had to be written, and he was the obvious person to help us all understand what impact the disease was having for ash trees in Britain. I was dizzy with excitement when he agreed, dizzier still when the first draft arrived. He had been unexpectedly holed-up in a hospital in Texas, he explained by e-mail, and had nothing better to do. Without references, without his Cambridge library to reach into, he had written the entire book in a fortnight while he recuperated, dashed it out from memory. The text was refined, of course, references cross-checked, ideas grew more rooted, but I am still astounded that so much of what the book is today streamed out of him from that hospital bed in Texas.
Parcelling away his boots back in 2013, my thoughts turned to the ground they had covered, the miles of Dorset, Crete, Texas they had trampled. The man and the books they had supported. Today, with news of Oliver’s death still new and sore, those boots have come back to mind. But it is no longer just the ground they walked that I am left wondering about, it is the question of whether anybody will be able to fill them?
In the final pages of The Ash Tree, Oliver asks ‘What can be done?’ about plant disease in general, not just Chalara. His answer is to criticise ‘the anthropology of commerce’ and suggest that we must stop treating trees ‘as mere articles of trade’. He goes on to call for a revival in ‘the science of pathology’ which ‘has been scandalously neglected in Britain’, saying that when the Botany School at Cambridge became Plant Sciences, his generation became the last to be taught properly about tree disease. The book ends thus: ‘I am one of the last survivors of a Critically Endagered Species. I belong in a Zoo.’
The greatest tribute to Oliver Rackham’s life and work would be to respond to what he wrote. Trees do not speak our language. Writers and ecologists, therefore, become interpreters. They harvest knowledge and experience that enables them to speak out on behalf of wildlife. And although there is a vibrancy in nature writing today, a buoyancy that reflects our need in an ever-busying and complex world to bind to nature, to place, the echo of these books, these personal accounts, would not resound so widely if it weren’t for the mulch created by people like Oliver.
For the woods, for the trees, for all the life they contain, I hope a new generation of writers and academics will be given the support and encouragement they need to grow, enabling them to one day fill the boots of a giant.
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Last month, the National Trust magazine got in touch with us: they wanted to know Oliver’s ‘favourite coast’ and ‘favourite coastal experience’ (the same question is being asked of all authors longlisted for The Wainwright Prize). We passed on the questions but didn’t expect a reply. He’ll be too busy, we thought. But just a few days ago an e-mail came through: “Favourite coast: Helford River, Cornwall: one of the very few places where ancient woodland meets the sea. Favourite coastal experience: Many years ago I was with David Coombe on a stormy day at Kynance on the Lizard Peninsula. The Atlantic waves were crashing into the high cliffs, the sea breaking over Asparagus Island. We conferred with our students by all of us lying down in a circle in the meagre shelter of a Bronze Age barrow, with our heads together in the middle, and bellowing at each other. Had we gone too near the edge we would have been snatched into the air like a fairy by a gust, and never seen again.”