Researching the environmental history of just one natural system, the River Tyne in North East England, enables me to conduct very deep archival research into a plethora of organisations’ records, but most of the extant archives are heavily engendered by the objectives of the employees who produced them. Moreover, they tend to focus on noteworthy, official events and major changes rather than more prosaic, everyday life experiences and personal, yet deep and important, relationships between Tynesiders and their beloved Tyne. Some records were written by seventeenth-century scribes working for the oligarchic Newcastle Corporation; others were written by the successive secretaries of the profit-driven Tyne Improvement Commission (1850-1968) or by those working for the national government’s Standing Committee on River Pollution which was appointed to test the river water in the 1920s and 30s. The minutes of the Tyne Salmon Conservancy (1866-1950), based upriver in Hexham, provides yet another very different perspective, transporting the researcher to a world of tweed-wearing anglers who worked hard to install fish passes, to protect the Tyne’s fish from pollutants and to restock rivers to ensure the continuance of their sport. But in all of these important records there is something missing: the gritty, the mundane, the real life experiences which demonstrate how the river’s meaning has changed as it wove its way through the lives and livelihoods of individuals, communities and the whole Tyneside region, from day to day, year to year and decade to decade, as the river underwent unprecedented and dramatic change both environmentally and in terms of how it looked, sounded and smelled to the people who sensed and experienced it directly.
Unfortunately, there is no scratch and sniff on the pages of seventeenth-century manuscripts or Victorian committee minute books, but you can sit down and talk to someone who worked on the Tyne in the 1950s and ask them to describe their sensory experiences of the river, how it made them feel and when, how and why that changed over the course of their lives. Cue the Dictaphone and an enormous pack of AA batteries! I don’t need to argue the case for the enormous benefits of oral history, but I believe that its unique benefits to environmental historians are yet to be fully appreciated. Environmental history pushes historians, perhaps more so than those working in any other sub-categories of our discipline, to incorporate into our research absolutely every aspect of a particular environment, landscape or natural system, which leads us necessarily to consider all of the senses, including sound, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Although it is limited to living memory, oral history has an enormous potential to reconstruct past environments, to answer questions which simply cannot be answered as a result of a long stint in the archives. Even a personal diary is limited by the parameters of what has already been committed to paper; it is a finite resource. Whereas in an oral history interview, the researcher designs and then asks the questions and can chase up answers to those questions with further specific and penetrating questions in a responsive, exciting and fluid conversation, responding to the interviewees’ body language, tone and emphasis. It’s not quite creating history, but it certainly allows the researcher to harvest the particular information they need in order to answer particular research questions.
Intimate anecdotes revealed in oral history interviews have illuminated the official histories I have tracked and they have imparted colour into the detailed framework which I have carefully constructed from river legislation, the coming and going of local and national governmental bodies and other organisations, world wars and major engineering projects. In short, they bring the river’s history to life and provide insightful meaning to the environmental development of the river. How else could I have learnt about the ‘chiming’ of hollow ‘ice baubles’ which hung one morning on the overturned tips of grass blades as they swung gently over the water on the river banks between Fourstones and Haydon Bridge on the South Tyne? And how else could I have heard tales of children living in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne estuary in the 1950s who called the river their ‘playground’ and spent entire days building rafts, sailing down the river and shooting at the ubiquitous rats with air rifles? Or the woman who moved from Dundee to North Shields specifically because the Tyne’s riverscape reminded her of the Firth of Tay and her native home. I could list a thousand stories from only twenty-six interviews lasting between twenty and thirty minutes. Some are poignant, some make me laugh and some even make me cry, but they’re all part of the Tyne’s history and I couldn’t have completed this project without them. The experiences of Tynesiders like my Grandad, who clocked on and off throughout their lives, worked innumerable shifts around the river, who literally contributed to the enormous volumes of domestic and industrial waste which poured into the estuary via over 270 sewers and who now use the much cleaner river for leisure, sport and for therapeutic reasons at the most difficult times of their lives, are central to understanding what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us.
Of course, oral history itself is a form of public engagement in its own right and the interviewees are as interested in my research as I am in their experiences of the Tyne. It has been a wonderfully symbiotic process and very worthwhile in terms of the admittedly large amount of time spent on locating interviewees, organising interviews, finding appropriate locations in which to conduct them and then transcribing and analysing the recordings. The environmental historian cannot travel back in time to experience past landscapes and environments themselves, but they can talk to the people who did experience them and to people who witnessed gradual and dramatic changes day by day over decades. If the right questions are asked, the interviewee can take the environmental historian to the heart of highly complex issues such as change over time, conflict and meaning as they perceived it. Previously, I conducted an oral history research project in Kielder in Northumberland, between 2012 and 2013, as part of another AHRC-funded project, ‘The Places that Speak to us and the Publics we Talk with’. This also took me to the heart of how the successive and dramatic changes in Kielder’s twentieth-century environment, from sheep farming to commercial forestry to the flooding of the valley which is now Kielder Reservoir, have impacted on social, cultural and economic lives in the local area [see Oral History Journal, vol. 42 (2014), pp. 81-93] . Although other insightful projects have been conducted, notably Ruth Tittensor’s work on Whitelee Forest near Glasgow, An Oral History of Whitelee Forest (2009) and Peter Friererici’s oral history project in the American South West, What has Passed and What Remains: Oral Histories of Northern Arizona’s Changing Landscapes (2010), I am surprised by how little environmental historians have used this exceptionally useful method of understanding environmental change, experience and meaning. I think there is substantial scope for environmental historians to utilise oral history to a far greater extent, perhaps eventually working towards the formation of an environmental oral history society…? Where do I sign up?!
Ecological Oral Histories, Navigating the Green Road: A Guide to Northern Arizona University’s Environmental Resources [webpage]. Accessed online at www.greenguide.nau.edu/oral_history.html.
‘Special issue: talking green: oral history and environmental history’, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, vol 33, (2013).
David Todd and David Weisman, The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage and Conservation, College Station: Texas A and M University Press, (2010); Texas Legacy Project, www.texaslegacy.org.