Rackham, Oliver 1939-

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Rackham, Oliver 1939-


Born 1939.


E-mail—[email protected].


Writer, botanist, ecologist, and lecturer. Praelector Rhetoricus and fellow, Cambridge University, Corpus Christi College.


Federation of British Artists.


Angel Literary Award, 1986, Sir Peter Kent Conservation Prize, and the Natural World Book of the Year Award, all for The History of the Countryside; Order of the British Empire (O.B.E).


(Editor, with Richard Bainbridge and G. Clifford Evans) Light as an Ecological Factor: A Symposium of the British Ecological Society, Cambridge, 30th March-1st April 1965, Blackwell Scientific (Oxford, England), 1966, Wiley (New York, NY), 1966.

(Editor, with Richard Bainbridge and G. Clifford Evans) Light as an Ecological Factor, II: The 16th Symposium of the British Ecological Society, 26-28 March, 1974, Blackwell (Oxford, England), 1975, Wiley (New York, NY), 1976.

Hayley Wood: Its History and Ecology, Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists' Trust (Cambridge, England), 1975.

Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, Edward Arnold (London, England), 1980, 2nd revised edition, Castlepoint Press (London, England), 2003.

The History of the Countryside, J.M. Dent (London, England), 1986, published as The History of the Countryside: The Classic History of Britain's Landscape, Flora and Fauna, Phoenix Press (London, England), 2000.

The Ancient Woodland of England: The Woods of South-East Essex, Rochford District Council (Rochford, Essex, England), 1986.

The Last Forest: The Story of Hatfield Forest, Dent (London, England), 1989, new edition, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1998.

Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, revised edition, J.M. Dent (London, England), 1990, revised edition published as Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britain's Trees, Woods, & Hedgerows, Phoenix Press (London, England), 2001.

(With Jennifer Moody) The Making of the Cretan Landscape, Manchester University Press (Manchester, England), 1996.

The Illustrated History of the Countryside, photographs by Tom Mackie, Seven Dials (London, England), 2000.

(With A.T. Grove) The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2001.

Treasures of Silver at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, photographs by John Cleaver, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Woodlands, Collins (London, England), 2006.


Oliver Rackham is a venerable and well-respected figure in the fields of botany and ecology. He is the author of a number of studies of the English countryside and woodlands that are considered definitive. Rackham "has revolutionized our understanding of historical ecology," commented Sunday Times reviewer Richard Mabey. "In sharp and exquisite English, and with a historical intuition as strong as his scientific rigor, he has laid waste the conventional wisdom of foresters, the ideologies of theoretical naturalists, the ‘pseudo-histories’ of historians." Rackham is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he also holds the title of Praelector Rhetoricus.

In The Making of the Cretan Landscape, Rackham and coauthor Jennifer Moody carefully examine the nature of Crete and everything which makes the famous Greek island what it is. The book "attempts to draw a holistic picture incorporating and based on archaeological evidence, field observations, and archival data," commented reviewers Andrew Fleming and Yannis Hamilakis in Antiquity. Fleming and Hamilakis also offer the opinion that the book's "authors are extremely well positioned for that task" of producing such a detailed archaeological and historical overview of Crete. The result of their labors, noted Fleming and Hamilakis, is a "well-written and beautifully illustrated, pioneering work, the first attempt to such a synthesis for Crete, and one of the first for the Aegean as a whole." Rackham and Moody divide the work up into twenty chapters, assembled under five headings covering Crete's landscape, environment, inhabitants, unusual places, and the island's potential future. They provide a timeline of Crete's history and address a number of speculative issues about the island's history. For example, Rackham and Moody do not agree with the popular opinion that Crete was heavily forested in ancient times. The authors delve deeply into the landscape and vegetation history of Crete's more recent times, with some coverage of early landscape history and archaeology. They correct some misconceptions about Crete as a "Ruined Landscape" that was, in the past, an idyllic paradise. "Firstly, there are good reasons to believe that this ‘paradise,’ a northwest European fantasy, never existed in the first place; secondly, many aspects of Cretan agriculture and animal husbandry, rather than being destructive to the landscape, are strategies of a conservation ethic," observed Fleming and Hamilakis. "If you love Crete for all its diversity and majesty this is a must-have book," commented reviewer Stelios Jackson on Explore Crete.

In The Last Forest: The Story of Hatfield Forest, Rackham explores the ancient English woodland known as Hatfield Forest, an area that has seen little change since the medieval period, around 1100. "It is still possible to discern in it the customs and practices of medieval woodsmen," and to learn from the use and conservation practices that provided the forest with enough strength and resiliency to stand for millennia, commented an Economist reviewer. Rackham addresses and dismisses a number of misconceptions about the forest, including the very basic definition of what a forest is (a place of deer rather than a place of trees, the Economist reviewer related). He describes the use that the forest would have seen during medieval times; how the king most likely did not go hunting within the borders of the forest, how poachers rarely experienced the brutal punishments of popular imagination, but were instead considered a steady source of income from fines levied over illegal kills; and how a complicated bureaucracy grew up around the management of the forest. "This is an enjoyable book, instructive and enthusiastic," the Economist critic remarked.

The Illustrated History of the Countryside is a streamlined and illustrated version of Rackham's classic treatise on the nature and characteristics of the English countryside. Rackham provides considerations of woodlands, moors, marshes, grasslands, and other components of the countryside. Copiously illustrated, the book contains a slimmed-down version of an earlier work. Rackham's "brevity of expression, lucidity of argument and eye for the truly interesting means that every page makes a genuine contribution" to the reader's "understanding of the countryside," remarked reviewer Nick Smith in Geographical.

The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History, written with A.T. Grove, contains the authors' in-depth assessment of the many strengths, beauties, and contrasts of the Mediterranean region and its diverse ecology. Rackham and Grove cover a wide-ranging selection of topics and ecological features, including the history of Mediterranean vegetation and savannah; the creation of ruined landscapes and deserts; the role of fire in the region's landscape and ecology; the qualities of deltas and soft coasts; the effects of erosion; the features of current and past Mediterranean climate; water abstraction; and more. "Intensely thought through and crafted, their book takes a notable place in the modern history" of writing and critical thinking on the entire Mediterranean region, commented N. James in an Antiquity review.

With Woodlands, Rackham offers the cumulative wisdom of a lifetime of ecological work. The book is "not about the environment, the solipsistic idea that the world exists to surround man, but ecology, the interaction of organisms in the world. Trees are as much the actors as any woodsman, forester or conservationist," commented Adam Nicolson in the Spectator. Rackham makes it clear that man's use of the environment goes beyond either destruction or conservation of what is around him. In a balanced ecology, every interaction, no matter how large or how small, contributes to the overall condition of the whole. "Every detail counts, every relationship, however hidden, affects every other," Nicolson mused. Rackham proposes a means of ecological management that uses the resources of the woodlands, including the wood and the wildlife. He endorses recognizing when it is correct to be humble in the face of the larger forces embodied in the woodland. He cautions against the indiscriminate application of theories, since a living and dynamic woodland environment means that a theory that is correct at one point in time might not be correct in the future. Rackham provides a counter to incorrect but widely held beliefs, such as the insistence that Britain was heavily wooded during the time of Robin Hood; that ancient British oaks were larger than modern trees; and that the industrial revolution spelled the end of the large forest of England. "All distinguished scientists should take [Woodlands] as their model," Nicolson stated.

In assessing Rackham's work and influence, Mabey concluded: "Rackham is a Renaissance man, an ecological Sherlock Holmes. He is also a national treasure. No other scientific writer has so lucidly demonstrated that humans and woods are ancient partners of linked origins, and could be so again."



American Historical Review, June, 1984, E.L. Jones, review of Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation, and Uses in England, p. 755.

American Journal of Archaeology, April, 1998, Paolo Squatriti, review of The Making of the Cretan Landscape, p. 431.

Antiquity, November, 1987, Peter Fowler, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 475; September, 1997, Andrew Fleming and Yannis Hamilakis, review of The Making of the Cretan Landscape, p. 759; March, 2002, N. James, review of The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History, p. 241.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, October 2001, J.R. Walker, review of The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, p. 339.

Contemporary Review, January, 1999, review of The Last Forest: The Story of Hatfield Forest, p. 52.

Economist, June 14, 1986, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 85; April 8, 1989, review of The Last Forest, p. 104.

Encounter, April, 1989, review of The Last Forest, p. 53.

Geographical, April, 2004, Nick Smith, review of The Illustrated History of the Countryside, p. 91.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, winter, 2002, Brian Fagan, review of The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, p. 454.

Nature, April 20, 1995, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 686; June 8, 1995, review of Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, p. 460.

New Scientist, February 18, 1989, David Duthie, review of The Last Forest, p. 61.

Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 2002, J. Scott Turner, review of The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, p. 85.

Spectator, October 28, 2006, Adam Nicolson, "A Stay of Execution," review of Woodlands.

Sunday Times (London, England), December 17, 2006, Richard Mabey, "Nothing So Lovely as a Tree," review of Woodlands.

Times Educational Supplement, December 25, 1987, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 11; April 28, 1995, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 13.

Times Higher Education Supplement, September 6, 2002, Hamish Forbes, "Shepherds' Ears Burning Again …," review of The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, p. 26.

Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, review of The History of the Countryside, p. 32; January 12, 2007, Mark Crocker, "Tree's Company," review of Woodlands, p. 6.


Cambridge University, Corpus Christi College Web site,http://www.corpus.cam.ac.uk/ (December 5, 2007), curriculum vitae of Oliver Rackham.

Explore Crete,http://www.explorecrete.com/ (December 5, 2007), Stelios Jackson, review of The Making of the Cretan Landscape.

Tree Council Web site,http://www.treenews.org.uk/ (December 5, 2007), Ray Harrington-Vail, review of Woodlands.