The advantage of an historian researching the second half of the 20th century is that he or she can interview people involved in the events being studied. Oral history is often used to supplement and confirm the information found in the documentary evidence. Documentary evidence is sometimes missing or inaccessible lacking because of the fact that archives are still closed because of the 30 years rule, like in the UK, or simply because material is lost or does not contain the information one is looking for. Oral history is a tool that can plug gaps in the documentary record or literature and provide new insights into historical developments and events.1

Oral history is certainly not a historical research tool that is exclusive to environmental history. There are however a few characteristics that makes it a challenging technique for environmental historians. It seems that oral environmental history has a unique characteristic that makes it stand out in comparison to other environmental histories.

Oral history aims in most cases to supplement the incomplete written record and helps to reconstruct networks, policy changes, and decisions taken by individuals involved in certain events. There are two compelling reasons for undertaking an oral history. Firstly, there is the eventual loss of people involved in certain events, developments or organisations during a particular period and, related to this, is the richness of personal accounts and interpretations that cannot be reclaimed otherwise. Many important management decisions at different levels were never recorded in official documents, memoranda or correspondence. Secondly, there is the difficulty of retrieving certain important historical data, since many old records have been destroyed or are simply not available.

Oral history has been used in the context of researching the book, Conquering the Highlands. A history of the Afforestation of the Scottish Uplands.2 The book explores the environmental record of the British Forestry Commission in Scotland. For the research of this book a sample of former employees of the forestry commission was selected including individuals from all levels: foresters, foreman, district officers all the way through to the top of the forestry Commission, i.e. Director Generals and Commissioners. In addition people involved with organisations such as the Nature Conservancy were interviewed.

One of the greatest challenges with any oral history project is to get people talking freely and not justifying themselves or attacking others. In the context of a forest history project this proofed to be an illusion but it was also a bonus, something that only became apparent later. Here is an example that will illustrate this point.

One of the people interviewed, a person high up in the Forestry Commission hierarchy, was extremely helpful and sent material in advance of the interview: wonderful leaflets of the 1950s and 1960s explaining the good work of the Forestry Commission. During the interview the person explained in detail and very openly that the Commission had always been green and that the groups attacking the Commission were wrong. He defended the actions of the Forestry Commission, and himself, systematically and convincingly. That was one of the first interviews. It was all very convincing and his opinions highly influenced the subsequent research only to discover that it was not entirely accurate: the documentary evidence did not support the oral evidence.

For this reasons second opinions are always necessary either in the form of additional interviews or unearthing unexpected archival sources. About a year after the first interview these additional views came at a conference where the interviewee gave a talk for a forest history conference. The person told the audience almost exactly the same story. When finished some people in the audience quite savagely attached him. After some inquiries afterwards it turned out that these people had worked for environmental organizations opposing the Forestry Commissions management and planting policies as well as colleagues who clearly disagreed with some of the opinions aired at this meeting. With that knowledge in mind it was time to return to the documentary record and the documents now made more sense than before. What had become visible at the conference was part of past power struggles, political games and personal animosities that are normally not recorded in the official documentary evidence. But with this knowledge one can read between the lines what had happened and explain better the outcomes of certain developments.

This kind of additional evidence from oral history is not unique to oral environmental history. It is just one of the tools available in the toolbox of the environmental historian. As pointed out above, oral history in general helps to supplement the incomplete written record and reconstruct networks, policy changes, and little power games that were never recorded.

The crucial question is to work out where oral environmental history differs from classical oral history. First of all, Environmental history of the latter half of the 20th century is not complete without putting on boots and going out to see what the forests, mountains, industrial landscapes, any environment looks like. What happened in reality does often not match with what a historian may find in his sources. This is tremendously improved when accompanied by a person with knowledge about the landscapes and environments researched to show you around. In the case of forest history this means taking foresters into the forest plantations to show where they had worked, the rational behind their practices and what the result of their work was. In the context of the history of the Forestry Commission it proved more successful in more ways than one. It did not only provide expert opinion of what had happened on the ground in the forests but these foresters also started to talk in ways never possible in an formal indoors oral history interview. One example was striking: interviewing a district officer at his home was very difficult because he did not talk about the issues that were prepared for discussion: forest management practice, objections of conservationists, development of forestry policy and experimentation.

A couple of months later the same forester was taken to one of the forests he had managed and while entering the forest he completely transformed. It turned out that this forester had brought a picture book with photos of locations we were visiting, some documents relating to his work as a district officer and the forest we were visiting. Best of all was that the locations visited brought back memories and opened the floodgates to past stories. The couple of hours in the forest resulted in more information then during an entire afternoon interviewing the same person at home. Again, environmental history cannot be conducted in the seclusion of the archive reading room or with a one on one indoor interview. One has to get out into the woods and other environments and experience it: see the real thing. It is important to take interviewees out to the environments we, environmental historians write about and let them talk and show how it was. Colors, smells and sights bring back memories better then anything else. Maybe that is the case with more conventional oral history as well, however, environmental history is perhaps more then any other historical discipline about the outside world. What better place to interview a person than under a pine tree while talking about a pine forest?


Notes and further reading

1 This post is based on a paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for Environmental History – UK Branch, Open University, Milton Keynes, 21 May 2004.

2 K. Jan Oosthoek, Conquering the Highlands. A History of the Afforestation of the Scottish Uplands (Canberra: ANU Press, 2013)

‘Special issue: “talking green: oral history and environmental history“, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, vol 33, (2013).

Danielle Endres, “Environmental Oral History”, Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 5 (2011) 4: 485-498.

Leona Skelton, “Harvesting Oral Histories: Life, Work and Fog on the Tyne“, The Power and the Water, 22 May 2015.