To start with, there was something immensely sweet and heartwarming about the nature of the event as an inaugural named lecture. It was timed to coincide with Professor Smout's 80th birthday and, as he himself commented, such an honour is usually only bestowed upon an academic once they have shuffled off the mortal coil. However, having both Professors Smout and Jonsson in the same room gave (me, at least) a real sense of the familial, collaborative side of academia; if any torch within the field of environmental history was passed, it was done so with genuine pleasure on the part of Professor Smout, and with real respect and gratitude on the part of Professor Jonsson.
The entire evening, indeed, proved to be one of the friendliest and most open lectures I have attended thus far in my (relatively brief!) time within academia. I felt a twinge of concern when I realised the correlation between Jonsson's book and his lecture title - 'the lecture of the book' can, I knew from experience, easily devolve into little more than a condensed and slightly dry reading of said book - but such concern was unnecessary. Jonsson's lecture - charting the shift (or, perhaps, overlap) between a 'cornucopian' attitude to the Highlands and a more pessimistic, Malthusian one - was given with flair and with frequent reference to just the type of fascinating and eccentric historical figures designed to keep a post-5pm audience amused and alert, from the 4th Duke of Atholl, John Murray, who sought to make Britain self-sufficient in naval timber by planting virtually every inch of his land, to James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, who in trying to emulate the ancients followed a strict vegetarian diet, and rode naked around his estates.
The 'cornucopians', according to Jonsson, believed and argued that the Highlands contained hitherto untapped and virtually unlimited riches - that the north of Scotland was an 'empty world' only awaiting the arrival of energetic improvers (the Highlanders themselves, of course, according to the cornucopians, had always been too lazy to see the potential of their own land) to fill it with new crops and draw new products from its soil. By contrast, the more pessimistic (many of whom were persuaded by the Malthusian model of finite population growth) became increasingly concerned over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the environment had very real limits to the economic growth it could provide to humans. Unsurprisingly, Jonsson concluded his lecture with a brief reference to the limits of environment currently facing humanity, with fossil fuels slowly but surely running out, and the effects of global warming looming around the corner. Most interestingly, he reflected that humans could now be considered a 'geological agent', in that the cumulative effects of our existence upon the environment will last for thousands of years - longer, even, than the count of years in all recorded human history.*
The lecture was followed by a question and answer session of a friendly enough tone that I succeeded in screwing up my courage to ask a question (something I would probably not have felt comfortable in doing had the tone been more combative, as I have observed at other large lectures). I was trying to ask about whether or not the early cornucopians saw themselves as having a specifically new approach to the environment, as this was something I'd observed in early mountaineers of the same period, but which in fact obfuscates the real historical story of pre-existing mountain (or perhaps environmental, in this case) appreciation. I was a bit worried that I hadn't phrased my question well and that it ended up sounding like the typical 'how does this relate to my research?' question, but nevertheless I was pleased by the discussion which ensued, and delighted when at the drinks reception afterwards several people approached me with suggestions for primary sources to look at or new areas to pursue (one historian from Edinburgh said he would send me a reference to a late seventeenth-century ascent of Ben Nevis, and Professor Jonsson suggested I think about clouds as a corollary to mountains). It more or less summed up my platonic ideal of what academic discussion in such situations should be like - questioning and challenging, but willing to support and advise others in their work.
I must confess that before the lecture I had read neither Jonsson's book nor any of TC Smout's many works upon the issue of the environment, but this is an omission which I hope soon to correct. Once again, the lecture fulfilled another ideal, in making me think about my own research in new and different ways. There is a gap between 'landscape history' and 'environmental history', but during the course of Jonsson's remarks I began to see a little more clearly how that gap might be bridged. After the lecture, Jonsson asked me whether landscape appreciation (probably one of the main things I'm looking for in my own research) was necessarily the same thing as the beginning of environmentalism. It's a big question, and one I'm glad to have added to the steadily-growing list of analytical issues behind the PhD. All in all, as my first foray into the seminar / lecture scene at St Andrews, it proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually rewarding evening.
*Used, I believe, in the sense of 'recorded history' equating to bounds of written history; there was of course a human past before that point, but such pre-history is more in the hands of the archaeologist than the academic historian.