Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: The Green Road Into the Trees

The Green Road Into the Trees: An Exploration of England
Hugh Thomson
Travel, archaeology

The United Kingdom, like the United States, is essentially an urban and suburban nation. And, also like the United States, there's some kind of deep-seated voice that whispers, irrationally but compellingly: "but the small-town/village is the real America/England."

But one big difference is that the UK has managed its dense population centers much differently. Fly over Britain and you'll see a pattern: cities and towns cluster densely around a center, radiate outward, and then, at a certain point, just ... stop. Here, we get sprawl without end. There, the countryside—the actual, working, non-Disneyfied rural landscape—is within easy reach even of the big cities.

Standing stones in Avebury

That tension, I think, is at the heart of The Green Road Into the Trees. Hugh Thomson traces the path of the ancient Icknield Way across southern England—never far from the madding crowd, yet curiously insulated from it. There's some nice descriptive writing, but the book ultimately isn't about the landscape; it's about the relationship that the English have with the landscape. In some cases that takes the form of correcting old shibboleths: Thomson, in walking this Bronze-age path, does a nice job bringing that ultimately unknowable time into his present picture.

Cotswold Way 

So Thomson divides his book among Bronze- and Iron-Age land use, his own personal reactions, and a series of encounters with people who are on, in, or of the English countryside—farmers, festival-goers, Travelers, pub owners, conservationists, would-be Druids, archaeologists, and just ordinary folks. It's an odd but appealing journey, without any overt direction or focus or message. American readers, at least, will be struck by the extraordinary persistence of English rural mores; many (though not all!) of the people Thomson meets would sound perfectly at home in an Agatha Christie novel.

Chalk path

Rather like The Wind in the Willows (a book Thomson references many times) some of the best passages are not about anything except the experience of being there. For anyone who has walked or biked the English countryside, The Green Road Into the Trees is an exceedingly evocative book. And yet ... even more than his archaeological musings, Thomson's conversations with the locals—something that we Yanks can't carry off in quite the same way—makes me think that there are a lot of layers beneath that beautiful surface.


  1. The sprawl is different in the US, that's for certain. The countryside is also bigger. Go to certain places in the middle of the country and there is really and truly nothing there but corn or wheat and sky. Somehow, it is more countryside-ish (if that's a word). At the same time, it is less so, because it is so damn big and empty.

  2. Yes, that's very acutely observed. The U.S. has vastly more actual wilderness, as such, than the U.K. There's also more ... I don't know exactly what to call it, except by the dismissive "flyover country". It's the section of the continent that is thoroughly settled and yet isolated.

    You've mentioned that Japan is hyper-crowded. Do you have the urban planning there that places precise boundaries on sprawl? I'd have thought something like that would be an absolute necessity to prevent all of the arable land being gobbled up.

    In fact, that's one reason why England is the way it is. After almost being starved out in two world wars, the government made it an official regulatory policy to limit development, in the interest of keeping the island self-sufficient in basic food.

    The result is probably bad in terms of landowner profits, but it's great for tourists. At one point we took an 18-mile hike from Dover to Canterbury, in the most dense quadrant (the south-east) of that densely populated island. We were in fields and small villages virtually the entire way.

  3. Japan has serious food security issues. The country imports ~60% of its food. Other natural resources are similar.

    The urban planning I see doesn't focus on that, but the farming industry is protected. Rice farmers get subsidies, and are even penalized for overproduction. How big the subsidies (and penalties) are, I'm not sure, but it is enough to drive the cost of rice to multiples (2-3x) of what it costs in the US. And there are tariffs (as high as 700%!) to ensure imports are minimal.

    But even that is strange, because the average age of farmers in Japan is ... drum roll please... 65. The farms are small, and the protections are inherited. I'm not clear how it works, but an acquaintance of mine is growing vegetables on a rented plot of land as a hobby. He tells me that he cannot buy the land or sell the produce. I wish I could tell you more.

    And farmers are retiring. Apparently, there is as much unused farmland as one prefecture (there are 47). This is multiplied because only 30% of the land is arable; the rest is mountainous.

    I wish that the government here would establish a clear and helpful policy like the UK. I am not too optimistic, however.

    1. I believe the UK has, or had, a "development points" system. Every municipality gets a certain number of points to spend, and that's it.

      But cultural factors are also in play. Compared to Americans, Britons are less fixated on the much-too-large totally-detached house on the oversized lot with the acres of grass. Smaller homes, often in terraces or as semi-detached duplexes, are the norm--and they tend to cluster densely around the town center. I'd prefer that model, but as the owner of a much-too-large house I shouldn't gripe.