Harold Chilingworth Brookfield


Winner of the 1997 Robert McC. Netting Award

Harold Brookfield is a magnificent loner whose writings strike at the very heart of the discipline of geography. They are concerned with matters of common sense, of ordinary people and of reality. Their roots run deep. For those with a soft spot for geographical memorabilia, for the discipline’s much cherished classics, his name first surfaces almost half a century ago in the Indian Geographical Society Silver Jubilee Souvenir and N. Subrahmanyam Memorial Volume, Madras 1952. It is this collection which contains W. Kirk’s classic article on “Historical Geography and the Concept of the Behavioural Environment” which was compulsory reading for all geographers of a certain generation! Harold’s article was not such a grand cru. It is about surburban growth in such distant European cities as Worthing, Amsterdam and Utrecht – and I have never known him make any reference to it! But even in this distant professional life Harold Brookfield had already made what was to become an unswerving intellectual commitment, to work on the borderlands between disciplines. In this initial, metropolitan phase of his personal and professional life, the borderlands stood between geography and sociology. But they were soon to swing to the no man’s land between geography and anthropology, subsequently moving on to a broad but reasoned array of other disciplines: agronomy, ethnobotany, paleobotany and prehistory.

Like so many of his kindred spirits, Harold’s professional and personal life is an itinerary where experience continually nourishes the intellect: his discovery of western Ireland in the early 1950s, followed by a brief stint teaching in South Africa and doing fieldwork in Mauritius. Then it was on toAustralia and, in 1957, to a position at the Australian National University and an initial foray into the New Guinea Highlands. His destiny was sealed. He had arrived in Papua New Guinea at the dawn of a golden age, born, on the one hand, of the frequenting of a myriad of vibrant subsistence peoples and, on the other, of integration into a remarkably vigorous intellectual community that expressed little concern for defending the territories of individual academic disciplines.

Henceforth Harold was to dedicate himself to the study of rural societies in the Third World and, more specifically, to the dynamic relationships between land and people, all considered through that singular window of local study. Only the geographical focus has changed through time. First it was the New Guinea Highlands, followed, in the mid-’60s, by a broadening of interests to all of Melanesia. In the 1970s he made a brief detour into the West Indies, only to return, in the middle of the decade, to Fiji. And this was followed by a more crucial shift, in 1984, to Southeast Asia and to the study of more complex rural societies subject to profound and rapid change. The commitment was now clearly to Development Studies.

The wealth of scholarship that this itinerary has generated is quite remarkable: Struggle for Land (with Paula Brown, 1963); Melanesia: A Geographical Interpretation of an Island World (with Doreen Hart, 1971); Colonialism, Development and Independence: The Case of the Melanesian Islands in the South Pacific (1972); The Pacific in Transition (edited collection, 1973); Interdependent Development (1975); Population, Resources and Development in the Eastern Islands of Fiji (with R.D. Bedford et al., 1977); Land Degradation and Society (with Piers Blaikie, 1987);Islands, Islanders and the World: the Colonial and Post-colonial Experience of Eastern Fiji (with T.P. Bayliss-Smith et al., 1988); The City in the Village: the in situ Urbanisation of Villages, Villagers and their Land around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (with A. Samad Hadi et al., 1991); South-East Asiaís Environmental Future: the Search for Sustainability (edited collection with Y. Byron, 1993); Transformation with Industrialization in Peninsular Malaysia (edited collection, 1994); In Place of the Forest: Environmental and Social Transformation in Borneo and the eastern Malay Peninsula(with L. Potter et al., 1995), and so forth. And those are only some of the books!

Harold has always been a source of intellectual inspiration, to what are now at least two if not three generations of students and colleagues living on several continents. He was the architect of what Marvin Mikesell once called “the New Guinea syndrome”, an unpretentious but remarkably solid intellectual tsunami whose effects where felt in a distant and inward-looking North American geography then largely obsessed with quantifying. Subsequently he was to propose a more grounded perspective on development studies, explore issues of land degradation and make a significant contribution to the debate on environmental change.

In his contribution to academic scholarship Harold Brookfield has successfully negotiated a number of “revolutions” and maintained a healthy distance with respect to them all. The only one which almost seduced him was the quantitative revolution which “led him away from the truth” and resulted in his writing what he now believes to be a largely nonsense contribution to his collection The Pacific in Transition.

What was it that has kept him on course and made his work so important to us all in cultural ecology and, indeed elsewhere in and beyond geography? Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is Harold’s fundamental sanity, a sanity which is grounded in the real world that lies beyond academia. This is expressed in his commitment to fieldwork – and the sincere regret that the last time he was able to do any was in Malaysia back in 1986. Fieldwork, he affirms, keeps the scholar in contact with people who derive their daily sustenance from productive activities, in his case rural peasants. Fieldwork is also rooted in specific places. Such scholarship, put simply, is for Harold a “satisfactory way of doing things”. It is more personally rewarding and it makes more sense. Further, in allying “local study with comparative method” (the title of one of his articles and, in his view, one of his best publications, from the Annals of the AAG, 1962) it is possible to “see the wood for the trees” and generate theoretical discussion out of practical work.

This is scholarship which is constructed out of the virtues of sanity and common sense.

Harold is now well past his 70th birthday but he is as busy as ever. His office is just down the corridor from the Department of Human Geography at the Australian National University where he worked for some 20 years. Now a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anthropology he still doesn’t feel the need to call himself anything – a geographer, a cultural ecologist, or whatever – but he still professes an unquestionable faith in a geography which is about environmental relations rather than spatial organization. And in this age when we are in the throes of being swept up in yet another disembodied intellectual revolution he unashamedly affirms that he is “an unrepentant premodern.”

Harold Brookfield is a magnificent outsider and cultural ecology is much the richer for it.
— Eric Waddell   9 December 1997


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s