The Wood for the Trees

The Wood for the Trees – Richard Fortey

Shortly after retiring from his role as senior palaeontologist and trilobite specialist at the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey bought four acres of beech and bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills.  Grim’s Dyke Wood near his home in Henley was to be a place where Fortey could immerse himself in the ecology of a woodland. He began to study the soil, insects, plants and animals in this small slice of the Oxfordshire countryside, building up an image of an interconnected patchwork of species-rich habitats. He starts by investigating the substrate and ends up in a cherry-picker high in the canopy.

He also explores the human and geological histories that are inextricably linked to the natural history of the area and thereby illuminates the story of the wider English landscape through shining a light on one small fragment. He writes of nobles and craftsmen and considers the existence of Pleistocene rivers. Fortey also has an eye on the future as well as the past – he knows his wood survived because it was a working wood. He warns that without a return to hands-on management and more public understanding and engagement, our woods could be doomed to become ‘rural decoration’ reduced to senility – “new light needs to flood in”.

The book is effectively a diary, recording the look and feel of the wood as the seasons pass and reflects Richard Fortey’s infectious enthusiasm and curiosity combined with deep scientific knowledge.  He is also fortunate to be able to call on a variety of experts in subjects as diverse as furniture making, liverworts and crane fly taxonomy (it turns out that there are more species of crane fly than of birds). With an eye for detail he records that the wood holds up to 200 species of beetle, 150 kinds of moth, 30 different spiders, 6 or 7 species of bat and 300 species of fungi. Fortey loses himself in this world of trees, sedges, snails and truffles; he looks for Ghost Orchids and makes beech leaf liqueur; he ponders the lives of tiny parasites and extraordinary beetles and relates all things to the wood as a living entity – a multi-layered web of life of myriad things.

What resonates throughout this wonderful book is the idea of how much can be gained from simply letting yourself sink into one particular place – exploring, observing and just being.