Forests

Among my earliest memories are the beech woods and chalk hills round Whiteleaf, in Buckinghamshire, where we lived during World War II, from when I was about one until I was eight and a half. In those days children were free to roam, so as soon as I could find my way home I was allowed to go up on to White Cross Hill, where all but the summit was covered with beech trees. I loved the tender green of the light in spring and the golden brown of the forest floor in autumn, and I felt my kinship with the animals and birds and insects and the wonderful variety of snails.
 
Then we moved to London, where I hated the grimy streets and the foggy winters. People were still allowed to burn coal fires, and the winter air was so dirty that you could taste it. When I was thirteen, my parents offered me a choice of schools, and I immediately fell in love with the photos of Bryanston in Dorset, surrounded by chalk hills and beech woods. It was a very liberal place and felt almost like a boys' republic with teachers as an incidental extra. I hated organized sport, so volunteered to spend four days a week in various labouring jobs. From the age of sixteen we were allowed to work in the beech woods round the school, under the guidance of the forester, and I enjoyed this a great deal, except when I nearly chopped off my toe. Bryanston had the tallest plane tree in England.
 
After four years as an apprentice Arabist I decided I'd had enough of sitting in libraries. From my visits to Tunisia and Egypt I had concluded that the Arab world needed more trees, so I went back to being an undergraduate and took a degree in Forestry, which Oxford still offered. The big joke is that I never actually got the degree. At Oxford it is one thing to pass the exams and quite another to go through the ceremony of getting a degree. When I applied to take it, the Registrar explained that I already had the degree of B.A., and you can't acquire it twice. So what about an M.A., I asked. He told me that M.A. is just a status, it is not awarded in a subject. I had worked for three years, I had passed the exams and they weren't going to give me a degree?! Seeing my distress he told me to apply for a certificate of my full university record; it would show that I had passed the exams in Arabic, I had passed them in Forestry, I had taken the B.A. and I had taken the M.A. He assured me "Nobody who sees that piece of paper will ever know that you don't have a degree in Forestry!" He was right.
 
It was not a good career move to combine Arabic and Forestry, but I was sent to Algiers to collect forest statistics, so I asked them whether they needed me. "Oh yes they said, just fill in this application form." That was in June. When I still had heard nothing in December I sent a telegram asking for an update. I got the reply "Come immediately!" so I did. They seemed surprised to see me and parked me in an empty office for a month while they decided what to do with me. In the end I realized I had to invent my own jobs. Altogether I spent most of seven years there and learnt a great deal. The French recorded five million hectares of forest in the 1830s, but most of this was left for villages to use for firewood and grazing, and by Independence in 1962 only one million were left. Officially they were reforesting 50,000 hectares a year, but at least that much was being lost in forest fires. In the end I saw that I could achieve nothing.
 
So I came back to Oxford and asked Professor Harley whether he had a vacancy in ecology. After a few minutes of telling me there was nothing like that coming up, I started to leave the room. He called me back and said "There's a lecturership in economics coming up."  "Oh no, I said, I'd never call myself an economist." Six months later he was chairing the selection committee which appointed me. There were three candidates with doctorates in economics, so the only explanation I could think of was that he hated economists. Anyway, I had always thought that economic behaviour was part of human ecology, so I enjoyed my job. I published a few papers that I still think were worth writing, and I shall attach them here when I find time.
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