This is a much needed biography of one of the chief architects, and arguably the founder, of modern ecology, it is also incredibly tedious, annoying, and barely readable.
Basically a sponsored volume, it is co published by the British Ecological Society and the academic journal, the New Phytologist, it is almost a self parody of the genre. There is much quoting of mission statements, detailed chronolgies of the founding of organizations, and endless discussions of the formation and reports of endless, mostly forgotten study committees, and it quotes formal encomiums and almost utterly useless verbiage of of official statements and after dinner speeches at length. It proclaims itself a critical biography, while finding its subjects chief faults to be prickliness and lack of familiarity with failure. If you have ever read an official departmental history or the book a century old corporation issues about its founding, you will know what reading this book is like.
Tansley is a fascinating figure, a product of the incredible efflorescence of Victorian self improvement, his was father a self educated, if very wealthy tradesman, and associate of both John Lubbock and Ruskin, and he himself was a schoolfriend of Bertrand Russell. His wife's wedding party was a constellation in itself. Not only did he coordinate the creation of an entire scientific discipline, ecology, he also was one of the very first British members of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and was analyzed, unsuccessfully, by Freud himself. He coined the term "ecosystem" and much of the modern language of ecology. In other words he was a fascinating man, and the subject of a terribly dull book.
As an example, the author, Peter Ayres, repeatedly refers to an extramarital affair, even quoting a portion of Taney's diary about his agony in ending it, and yet never actually discusses it, much later in a tedious and repetitious section on domestic routines it is casually mentioned that he announced the existence of this affair to his entire family during dinner, and that this was traumatic. That is the sum total of the discussion.
As to the scientific portions, they are written on a middling level, as is typical of much of environmental history. Actual knowledge of the topic by the reader is much rewarded, but it must appear quite opaque to the uninitiated, but even these sections are rather brief, and a times seem utterly swamped in endless lists of names, all of them actually important in their fields, but still... And as referred to earlier, endless discussions of bureaucratic maneuvers, the creation of societies, and wangling over jobs. All of this should be horrifyingly familiar to anyone in academia or the administrative ends of non profits.
So who is this book actually for. Who could possibly want to read every turgid word? Other than connoisseurs of organizational minutiae, of course. Well it will be very useful to those interested in the British side of the origin of Ecology as a discipline, and to environmental historians, and those curious about the personnel involved in founding nature reserves in the UK. It also may have some interest for those dedicated experts on Freudiana have run across Tansley in their reading, and wonder who exactly he was.
I give it four stars for these parties since it will serve their needs, for anyone else, avoid it.