Pear tastes a little out of season

Environments and Historical Change
July 27, 2001

Collections of essays based on lecture series almost invariably invoke the tired old image of the curate's egg, at least for this reviewer. But since some of my younger colleagues have never come across the egg, I am tempted to propose instead the supermarket pear, all of which never seems to ripen at the same time, so that some parts of the pear are still hard while other parts are rotting.

That is a rather harsh notion to apply to this book, none of which is rotten, though there is the distinct impression that some contributions were brought out from cold stores where they were waiting for an airing. Anyway, we have eight essays derived from the eighth series of Linacre lectures at Oxford. Five are in the conventional mode of narrative science or history (Andrew Goudie, Claudio Vita-Finzi, M. G. L. Baillie, Tony Wrigley and Oliver Rackham); two deal with a culture-centred approach (Charles Pythian-Adams, William Beinart); and the final essay (Howard Morphy) combines something of both.

In addition, the essays range from the global scale with an extended chronology (Goudie on the Ice Age in the tropics) to the spatially and chronologically restricted account by Beinart of film and literary constructions of African animals in the 1950s and 1960s.

With such a range, it is hard to envisage the book's actual readership. There is too little on any one topic for it to be a text, yet the level of accessibility would make most of it excellent for undergraduates doing an optional course in environmental change. It may be best to see it as a contribution to the unfolding field of environmental history in which the interfacing of scientific data with the materials and approaches of the humanities is sought; and the current small group of UK scholars who are interested in that emergence will want to see it. Herein lies the book's major weakness, which is not in the individual essays, variable though they are, but in the lack of any context provided by an editor. The separate studies are summarised, it is true, but nowhere at the beginning are we told about the intellectual context into which they fit, neither does anybody try to see if any more general lessons or research agendas can be drawn from them at the end. The supermarket pear is usually mostly edible for about a four-hour period. In somewhat similar fashion, this collection shows the evolution of approaches to environmental questions at a particular, inchoate time in the development of the subject. For my taste, the juiciest part of the book is Baillie's essay on "Putting abrupt environmental change back into human history", in which he juxtaposes the now-detailed information coming out of climatic history with an historical event such as the black death. I will not spoil the story by revealing his rather novel interpretation of some of the contemporary evidence, but I will say that the contribution is full of interest, clearly written and open-minded about its likelihood of being right.

In general, my recommendation is that the skin of pears such as this one is toughened up so as to give a better clue to the state of the inside. After all, the skin can be the tastiest part.

Ian Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Environments and Historical Change

Editor - Paul Slack
ISBN - 0 19 823388 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £32.00
Pages - 196

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