Caught by the River

Anticipatory history

Ken Worpole | 29th May 2014

AH cover

Anticipatory history. Edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett
Uniformbooks, 80pp, 234 x 142, sewn paperback with flaps, out now

Review by Ken Worpole.

This unusual book is not only elegantly designed, but despite being a collection of contributions by many hands, is uniformly erudite and well-written. It is a form of gazetteer owing something to Raymond Williams’ pioneering work Keywords, which made it clear how much of our thinking is both illuminated or occluded by the manifold meanings of some of the complex words used in political and cultural discourse. It also builds on that fine 2004 collection, Patterned Ground: Entanglements of Nature and Culture, and to a lesser degree, Common Ground’s enchanting 2006 compendium, England in Particular.

In brief, various authors have been given free rein to elaborate upon a number of critical terms now at work in debates about landscape, ecology, climate change and futurology, ranging from the technical to the poetical, and from the instrumental to the epiphanic. Thus we get wonderful expositions on what is meant by Adaptation, Dream-maps, Entropy, Liminality, Memory, Rewilding, and Presentism, amongst many others—in fact fifty glossaries in all. The initial brief for this research endeavour was “to explore the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support.” The editors rightly caution themselves and their readers against the dangers of instrumentalising the history-writing process, bending a reading of the past to suit the needs of the present and the future.

Not surprisingly forms of land ownership and its management and stewardship loom large. The short essay on ‘Commons’ rehearses Garrett Hardin’s famous essay on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, which suggested that self-interest will always ultimately defeat the social aims of things held in common. However, it doesn’t reprise historian E. P. Thompson’s counter-argument that in particular societies at particular times, a ‘moral economy’ is brought in to play to regulate private behaviour. It was also surprising—though perhaps there wasn’t enough room—that the entry on ‘Rewilding’ focused entirely on vegetative succession with no mention of the fearful ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’, nor of the proposal to re-introduce sea-eagles to the East Anglian shoreline.

Attention also gravitates towards the newer, more problematic landscapes which now require a fuller understanding of how they might be managed in the future: the ‘edgelands’ or ‘drossscapes’ produced by failed urbanisation or de-industrialisation. Are these settings just as valuable and worth conserving as farmed or so-called natural habitat? What was once called the search for authenticity in human existential terms, now applies to concrete and clay. Here the newer discourses of psycho-geography and psycho-biogeography are proving to be invaluable in summoning meaning and history from even the bleakest terrain (on such matters see the excellent entry, ‘Liminal zone’).

There are no settled positions on any of these matters any more, as the entry on ‘Enclosure’ concludes. Once upon a time open common land was hedged in and parcelled up into private lots, which had very bad social consequences. When, a century or so later, the hedgerows were uprooted in the name of industrialised farming, much of the flora and fauna using them as habitat disappeared. Now we are re-instating hedges again. “Perhaps,” the author of this entry concludes, “we might think of enclosure as an example of the human modification of land that slips from its moorings, and accept that each generation makes the enclosure it needs.”

The book contains words, terms and concepts that are completely new to me, including the book’s suggestive title, ‘Anticipatory History’. I had not heard of Rephotography before, nor ‘Shifting baseline syndrome’ let alone ‘Palliative curation’. ‘Presentism’ I knew, but not how to pronounce it—and still don’t. Yet these elucidations are vital resources in the debates ahead about how we handle the transition from the past into the future, and provide a much-needed contribution to the crucial matter of ‘Inter-generational equity’.

A terrific and thought-provoking book.

Ken Worpole.

Anticipatory history is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.00