by Brian Morton

It Never Rains But It Pours

June 8, 2012 | by Brian Morton

All of us inhabit some nub of ‘environmental history’, whether we are aware of it or not. It has been Christopher Smout’s particular gift to humanise and bring home, in a very literal sense, aspects of what in other hands often seems a dismal science. Environmental history struggles between econometrics at one end of the spectrum and an excessive literariness at the other. To non-specialists, it can seem tangled and remote, or else caught up in a rhetoric of blame that is unanswerable but strangely paralysing and fatalistic.

The first essay in his plainly titled republished collection Exploring Environmental History suggests that Smout’s is a peculiarly Scottish gift. Not only has he knocked confidently on the oak divisions between academic disciplines, and mostly gained entrance, he stands in the same powerful Scottish lineage of syncretistic thinkers that begins even before Hutton and Miller and extends to Patrick Geddes, D’Arcy Thomp-son, James Ritchie and Frank Fraser Darling in the 20th century (the last of these English, but a Scot and then an internationalist by avocation). Smout is by no means a mere follower-on and re-reading these papers suggests that the most important public office bearer in our country, as it debates its future and future allegiances, is our Historiographer Royal.

 Here is how his book arrived: on the first friday of July it rained hard and without pause from just before midnight and through the morning. The burn rose, as it always does, with frightening speed and by breakfast time had the colour and movement of boiling chocolate. By noon, the water was just inches below the central spar of the footbridge, our only access. We felt the vibration through our feet, and watched the water facing upstream, having been told the story of a late farmer further down the glen who’d been swept to his death by a rogue stump tossed around in the stream. We’d seen his bridge. Could the water ever have come so high? It had been a freak fall of rain, apparently, a hundred-year storm, but as the climate shifts similar spates are ever more probable; more important, as forestry is shaved off the hillsides they may become more intense and destructive.  It’s interesting to note that the most solidly argued rebuttal to Smout’s 2002 essay on ‘The Highlands and the Roots of Green Consciousness, 1750-1900’ relates to the relation between tree-cover, run-off, siltation and erosion, all from an African perspective.

 The postman came at two, waved a padded envelope in the air and popped it into the parcel box on the other side of the footbridge. He wasn’t for coming across. I got it eventually. Even ten pages in, it became clear not just how urgently relevant Smout is, but how general the import of his work. Each essay in the book falls like a pebble, with ever-widening circles of significance. Some of this is familiar enough. Climate change has long since ceased to be a topic only for academic seminars or for patronising denials by a weatherman who told us our memories of dry, hot summers were false and wishful ones. The last several rainy years have been crash courses in hydrology, on new housing estates as well as isolated farms: ‘flood plain’ and ‘water table’ entered middle-class speak. Sharper winds have been a reminder that in global terms our climate is not defined as particularly wet, but as notably windy; we chose to reverse the emphasis.

From our own immediate perspective in a remote farmhouse, clear-fell forestry will expose us again to snell north-easterlies which will nip the early spuds that are already this year mushy with excessive rain. Saurian felling machines have been parked up the hill, ready to resume work when the rain eventually slackens to merely torrential.  Further down the glen, closer to where our neighbour was washed away, under hills browed with commercial spruce and larch, fields long cleared of trees and hungry for fertiliser offer no shelter and only seasonal feed for cows that are kept alive on silage through long, cold springs. We’re overrun with deer, roe and what may be Sika/red hybrids, and we check obsessively for ticks.

Draw out the focus on Google Earth and the picture becomes yet more complicated. A few miles up the road stands a small town that once boasted two dozen distilleries and a fishing fleet, but which was recently – and again – cited as an example of stagnation and decay, to the righteous fury of locals who invoke a strong sense of community. These days, the main trade at the quay is in the timber that trundles past the house and in towers for wind farms. Tourism holds out some hope. There is an airfield that brings golfers (and houses the bodies of crashed aliens, or so we tell the tourists peering through the chainlink at ‘Area Fufty-Wan’). On the way to it, one crosses the remains of a commercial canal and railway line, remnants of formerly burgeoning industries. At least the fields are not just unrelieved rape, the colour of mustard or of jaundice, but a mixture of barley, some oats, corners of potatoes and a good deal of black-bag silage, which is the real alien invasion into this economy.

Pass through town and up a long and winding road (in fact, Paul McCartney’s ‘Long and Winding Road’), where the verges are tagged with pink ribbon marking ‘alien’ species to be sprayed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam or that Triffid of Triffids, Rhododendron ponticum, there is a tiny village that was once to have been a great industrial city of the west, with manufacturing, a port and cathedral. It requires a further effort of refocus – Google doesn’t help, though it sometimes picks out the archaeological traces – to understand that the Scottish Highlands were not always considered sylvan and edenic but were believed to be the ideal location for big industry that needed nearby fuel and navigable or harnessable water: there are abandoned smelters and furnaces up and down the coast, and it was the dream of Scotland’s most charismatic Secretary of State, Thomas Johnston, that the country might become a net provider of hydro-electric power to the United Kingdom as a whole. The Cruachan scheme provides some of the background to Alan Warner’s recent ‘Highland’ novel The Deadman’s Pedal.

In a useful opening essay, originally given in Germany in 2005, Smout sets out parameters for environmental history as a discipline and offers some explanation of Scotland’s priority and pre-eminence in the field. Nature of early settlement, population mass, ratio of population to available natural resources all presumably have a role, as do later economic, political, legal and cultural factors. Geographical position and mixed geological identity promoted curiosity about the natural scene. Darwinism had roots in and took root in Scotland quite differently to elsewhere. Everyone understands that Romanticism marked a cusp in the evolution of Scotland’s natural environment but Romantic ideology, and the reinvention of Scotland as a place for sport, replenishment of the spirit and for observation of fragile nature, doesn’t float free of pre-existing economic necessities, which can also be divided into three: subsistence farming, aristocratic shooting and fishing, and a long-term history of industrial development, which goes back long before Johnston, with seventeenth century roots.

Public understanding of ‘environmental history’ leans heavily on boo-words like ‘sheep’ and ‘Clearances’ but lacks a matching understanding of how sheep, or deer, function in a landscape compared to cattle, or how semi-natural woodland was managed in the days before mass forestry planting and Brazilian solutions to felling. Knee-jerk opposition to forestry, hill farming and to hunting (for its opponents, shooting aristocrats means just that) is all done in the presumed and presumptuous interest of ‘the environment’, the biggest scare-word of all. What sets Smout apart is that he replaces an emptily rhetorical question with a highly detailed historical narrative: not ‘does the environment have a future?’, but ‘our environment has a very specific past, or pasts, and if it is to have a future we better damn well understand them’. Anyone who accuses Smout of quietism hasn’t been reading very carefully and certainly hasn’t got to the to the last paragraph of the closing essay on ‘Environmental Consciousness’ which briefly and uncharacteristically imagines a moral apocalypse that leaves the earth as bare and silent as Mars or Neptune.

Smout’s more usual style is unstrident and not always picture-postcard colourful. In this, he is different from someone like Fraser Darling, who could not avoid getting out his water colours and shading in backgrounds even to a quantitative study of birds, deer or seals. Smout acknowledges that Darling’s scientific credentials were sometimes undermined by impressionism or literariness, to say nothing of that damnable vice anthropomorphism, as does Darling’s greatest follower John Morton Boyd. But then Darling was writing in a very different scientific and political climate than ours and it is precisely anthropomorphism or at least some version of the anthropic principle that is at the heart of Smout’s engagement with the landscape, an engagement which cannot at any point, synchronic or diachronic, be divorced from dynamic human impact.

It has always seemed to me that Darling, though a modern in many ways, a scientist and a family man, was closer in spirit to the old Irish/Scottish hermits for whom nature poetry was as much practical and ‘scientific’ as it was aesthetic and spiritual. (Our house, five miles from Columba’s alleged landing place on Kintyre, was briefly occupied by three Black Hermits, whose itinerant mission is now elsewhere.) Another rebuttal to Smout’s opening paper takes task with his tendency to ignore a traditional Celtic philosophy of nature and a long tradition of Gaelic nature poetry like Duncan Ban Macintyre’s, but it’s possible that he almost deliberately overlooks this tradition, or indeed any cultural artefact that might be subject to sentimentalisation. For all Scotland’s preeminence in ‘environmental history’, there is no triumphalism or ‘here’s tae us, wha’s like us’ in his attitude to ‘traditional’ Highland values: ‘Tiree may be a naturalist’s paradise and Suffolk a barley baron’s desert, but that is not because the Gael is more in touch with nature than the Saxon. Given the chance to make money . . . ’ Smout also notes that the ‘traditional’ Celtic love of nature is further holed by Ireland’s appalling record in matters of conservation.  There is a national, but not a nationalistic slant to the work. Ironically, Darling’s principles were perhaps more easily applied in Africa, where the dynamic interdependency of human animal, nonhuman animal and physical environment retained more traditional elements.

It’s by no means news that the north and west of Scotland once supported substantial local populations at modest levels of subsistence that were sustained by what hyper-fed outsiders tended to view as indolence. When food and energy are scarce, ‘laziness’ is a good survival strategy. But some of this recognition goes no further than a vague perception that Scotland, as well as offering affordable manses and superior schools, is also a good place to dabble in ‘the Good Life’, without much understanding of the efforts required, now and historically, to maintain it. In place of the energy-rich communities of the past, we’ve become heavily accessorised and technologically dependent (without much skill in repair and refurbishment). Even a modestly ‘self-sufficient’ smallholder relies on strimmer, rotavator, chainsaw, and quad, not so much energy-poor as energy-overdrawn, and certainly less efficient than a family with a horse, a couple of strong sons, bow-saws and axes. Scaling down on gadgets requires certain compromises as regards time expended, but rapidly repays the extra effort involved. Lime and glyphosate are perhaps the only commodities that can’t be entirely eschewed, or so we argue, pretending that the sprayer hose isn’t part of our serpentless Eden.

It’s no accident that we use ‘landscape’ not just as a synonym for the physical environment, ‘natural’ or altered, but also for an art and photographic form. The latter meaning now predominates, in the sense that we tend to regard landscape as static, an unmoving tableau out of which we airbrush or Photoshop the unwanted elements; pylons, silos, wind farms. The old painters put in human figures for ‘staffage’ and scale, but they put in birds for movement, and nothing more solidly confirms Smout’s belief in landscape as a living dynamic, with man-the-animal in violent, pastoral, scientific, aesthetic or spiritual contact with other animals than his passion for birds. There is little scope for ornithology here, beyond a look at the little owl, once considered both alien and vermin, now rightly protected and working its way into Scotland, though only south of the Forth-Clyde line. The chapter on ‘aliens’ (not the kind housed at Machrihanish) is a good example of Smout’s eminent good sense in dealing with sensitive and controversial issues. Why, for instance, is ‘alien’ algae brought in with commercial ballast or bilge considered pernicious when algae brought in on the feet of migrating geese is not? Again, it isn’t merely a rhetorical question and the crux of it is whether man is accounted part of the animal kingdom, which is logical and necessary, or that he is not, which is illogical. Smout cites Ritchie’s 1920 masterwork The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland as a key text in the evolution of ‘environmental history’ and green consciousness. Like his own work, it isn’t a charge-sheet, but the account of a complex dynamic.

Birds may occupy most of what passes for Smout’s spare time. Trees have largely occupied his working life, often in collaboration with researchers from related fields. There is a special lift to his prose when he discusses native pinewoods – he surprisingly makes no acknowledgement here to Steven’s and Carlisle’s equally classic The Native Pinewoods of Scotland – or the wonderful Atlantic oakwoods of Argyll which have now returned to natural growth. The afforestation of Scotland remains a controversial topic. One still encounters schoolteachers who happily tell their charges that the whole country was once covered in trees. One can’t trust the old map-makers any more securely. Tree symbols were sometimes added later, put in without much reference to actual density of growth, sometimes, one suspects, added for decorative reasons. I have an old Argyll map that seems to show woodland that never existed, or for which there is now no evidence. We might casually assume that such a wood was hacked down by men for naval masts or spokewood or fuel, depending on its composition, but as Smout wisely points out, commercial exploitation of some Western woodlands accounts for only a tiny chronological fraction of their millennial histories. We are part of nature, and we are a guilty part of nature, but we are not the only or the most ruthless movers in the game. On the contrary, Smout seems to suggest that our historical exploitation of wood has always been quite specialised (spokewood, tanbark, domestic fuel and ‘treen’: all different drivers of need), rationally calculated (it was often more satisfactory to import masts from the Baltic, than to produce them even semi-locally) and driven by a clear if unstated commitment to what is now buzzed as ‘sustainability’, a term that still relates to maximising yields rather than protecting ‘the environment’, however one cuts it.

The allure of birds is that they do not observe boundaries, either geographical or political. Deer and cattle can be fenced. Birds can not. Their migratory habits are spectacular and complex. The tern you see in summer may have wintered in Africa or may be on passage from one circumpolar region to another. The blackbird you see in January may not be the same blackbird you see in June. Trees, on the other hand, seem static, monolithic (or monolignic?) and as permanent as we allow them to be. And yet, here is a perfect illustration of not being able to see the wood for the trees, for a forest is always a mobile thing, regenerating outside its boundaries wherever patterns of animal husbandry allow it to, and this is where the difference between cattle on the one hand, deer and sheep on the other, does make another significant difference. Smout emphasises both the exceptional mobility of pinewoods, but also their fragility, particularly in face of climate change. It may be that, left to its own device, Birnam Wood might well have come to Dunsinane, but that is to replace Shakespearean imagery with uncertain dendrology: I have a sense that oaks rather than pines are the issue in ‘great Birnam Wood’ and oaks also have a mythological significance that isn’t any direct part of Smout’s concern.

That isn’t to say that he works a specialism as carefully demarcated as a Victorian planting. On the contrary, Smout’s ‘subject’ draws on everything from literary sources on the ‘arts’ side of the quad (as in quadrangle, not bike) to dendrochronology and palynology on the ‘science’ side, but always with the understanding that both are branches of the ‘humanities’. He writes additionally about biodiversity, nature conservation, about the impact of ‘improvers’ on the Scottish environment, and on comparisons – which might seem obvious at first blush, but more subtly inflected the deeper we go – between the natural fuel economies of Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. We may all three be part of a North Atlantic system that is more than usually susceptible to vagaries in global weather patterns and responsive demographic changes, but the differences, which are historical and human as well as geological, are highly instructive and a brisk summary of how Smout’s constellation of methodologies functions.

This is great scholarship, as direct and mobile as the birds and as weighty and grounded as the trees. He doesn’t tax patience or waste paper with obsessively piled-up evidence but delivers salient points backed with representative detail. Above all, it redefines ‘environment’ not as the altar of nature worship, nor merely as the neutral background on which species plod or blossom and throw seeds, nor as something that can only be perceived from aloft, from the bird’s eye view. It is the matrix in which we live and with which we interact. The sense I get from these essays is that land is an inheritance, whether or not we are of the class that inherits land. Smout is not, like Edmund Blunden, ‘for the woods against the world’, but he is anxious to show that the woods, as symbols of a long and complex contract with nature, are always with us, were here before us and will be here after us.


 

EXPLORING ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY: SELECTED ESSAYS 

T. C. Smout

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, PP256, £70. ISBN: 978 074 863 5139

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