The Plot: A biography of an English Acre

This is the title of a book I read in 2013. The author is Madeleine Bunting and it was published by Granta in 2009. It was the 29th book I read that year, finishing on 2 April – I was keeping a list!

The Plot book cover 2

I was reminded of it now due to the Environmental Humanities online course I’m doing – see my previous post ‘Nature and Culture in harmony’. At the end of week 2 learners were invited to add ‘further reading’ resources. This book was my contribution. Many others had already made contributions, including someone who had started a discussion on literature and artworks (I contributed a link to Fiona Pardington’s recent still life photographs that sometimes include objects she’s collected on her local beach).

My comment on the book in 2013 was: “This was fascinating – the plot of land is on the North Yorkshire moors and her father took out a 50 year lease on it in the 1950s. He was Catholic and a sculptor and built a stone chapel on the plot as a war memorial to some of the young men from his school who were killed in World War Two. He was a difficult character, who didn’t particularly like his children especially when they were young and female; but he was complex, and she discusses him respectfully (this is not an ‘I hate my father’ memoir).

As well as the family memoir aspect (the book is in the library Biography section) she tells a lot about the history of that part of the moors – how it was devastated for decades by William the Conqueror (one village still has a saying something like ‘as angry as Billy Norman’); the coming of the Cistercians who introduced sheep farming; hunting (grouse shooting in particular has had an impact on the environment in terms of how the heather is managed to encourage grouse); farming and animal husbandry; planting thousands of acres of conifers after World War Two; tourism, etc. The land would revert to scrub if left long enough to itself, but now of course, tourists and others want to preserve the ‘natural’ heather and meadows.

Near the end she says “The American nature writer and poet Gary Snyder says that ‘the most radical thing you can do is stay home’. In a mobile, impatient culture which promotes ‘moving on’, the hardest task is to go back, to go home… She then talks of her father’s legacy making that difficult for her family (her parents finally separated and all but the youngest child went with their mother – the youngest son stayed with their father). I recently bought another book at an op shop called ‘When wanderers cease to roam’ – on the delights of ‘staying put’ – sometimes this idea has its attractions!

This is a very interesting book– I highly recommend it.”

A Guardian book review adds: “What she sets out to do is to look at the acre of land “in the middle of nowhere”, with scholarly zest, until it becomes no longer a nowhere but a somewhere, known and minutely understood. She is an exemplary guide. She goes back to the Iron Age. She brings Robert Bruce back to bellicose life. She contemplates a nearby Cistercian monastery. She describes sheep and is especially good on the way they graze like “thousands of conscientious park keepers” and even get into our language (“on tenterhooks” is a reference to the stretching of woven wool). Nor does she stop at sheep. The moths around the chapel earn pages to themselves. Her greatest achievement is to work a single acre to produce a more general portrait of England.”

I have a general knowledge of English history, but seeing it through the lens of this area and its impact on the landscape was a relatively new approach for me. The family history aspect also gives her book added poignancy; and she writes well.

I am more familiar with the situation in New Zealand. Before humans arrived, forests covered more than 80% of the land. The only areas without tall forests were the upper slopes of high mountains and the driest regions of Central Otago. When Māori arrived, about 1250–1300 AD, they burnt large tracts of forest, mainly on the coasts and eastern sides of the two main islands. By the time European settlement began, around 1840, some 6.7 million hectares of forest had been destroyed and was replaced by short grassland, shrub land and fern land. Between 1840 and 2000, another 8 million hectares were cleared, mostly lowland or easily accessible conifer–broadleaf forest.[1] This page on Te Ara (New Zealand Encyclopedia) has three maps of New Zealand that show the differences in forest cover from c. 1000, 1840 and 2000: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/interactive/11674/deforestation-of-new-zealand

There are New Zealanders who have written about the ecology of smaller areas of New Zealand; the late Geoff Park (1946-2009) comes to mind first, with his two books: Nga Uruora [The Groves of Life]: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape, Victoria University Press, 1995; and Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua, VUP, 2006. I have read both of these – other relevant books I own (but I’m not always so good at reading!) include:

Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand, eds Eric Pawson & Tom Brooking, Otago UP, 2013

Beyond the Scene: Landscape and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Janet Stephenson, Mick Abbott & Jacinta Ruru, Otago UP, 2010

The Expressive Forest: Essays on the Arts and Ecology in Oceania, Denys Trussell, Brick Row Pubs, 2008

Heartlands: New Zealand historians write about where history happened, eds Kynan Gentry & Gavin McLean, Penguin Books, 2006

Boundary Markers: Land Surveying and the Colonisation of New Zealand, Giselle Byrnes, Bridget Williams Books, 2001

Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 1809-1900, Lydia Wevers, Auckland UP, 2002

And then there’s the fiction and anthologies …

 

I’m sure there are others.

Footnote

[1] John Dawson. ‘Conifer–broadleaf forests – Loss of conifer–broadleaf forests’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 25-Jun-15 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/interactive/11674/deforestation-of-new-zealand

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