On retirement from the Natural History Museum, where he was senior palaeontologist, Richard Fortey used the proceeds of a television series to purchase a small beech wood in the Chilterns. It’s clearly kept him busy since then, for in The Wood For the Trees he presents not only an account of the wood’s long history but a year-long study of its biodiversity. For this he has called on the expertise of a lifetime’s-worth of friends and colleagues, who arrive with pooters, cherry-pickers and high-tech gear to help him understand absolutely everything about it. The wood may only be four acres, but it’s quite an undertaking.
Fortey is an award-winning science writer whose previous books include Trilobite! (2000), The Earth: An Intimate History (2004) and The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past (1993). He’s a regular on TV, too, recently exploring Hawaii, Madagascar and Madeira in stripy braces and Panama hat for Nature’s Wonderlands: Islands of Evolution on BBC4. His style on the page mirrors that on the small screen: deeply knowledgeable, enthusiastic, avuncular and a little bit old-fashioned. Words such as “thrice”, “pace” and even “fain” dot his prose like relict trees among the newer growth — and are just as pleasing.
The Wood for the Trees opens in April as the bluebells are coming out and concludes at the end of March, taking in a year’s cycle in the wood. Fortey’s nature notes form the basis of each chapter, the larger story of the wood — its geological past and human history — told piecemeal as the book unfolds. A third strand, a little under-developed, is his quest to assemble a collection of items from the wood to create his own wunderkammer, to be housed in a cabinet made from his own cherry tree by a local Chilterns furniture maker (of course).
Until 1922 Lambridge Wood, of which Fortey’s four acres are a part, was part of the manor of Greys. It was coppiced and felled on a regular cycle, provided charcoal, brushwood and pannage, and was managed as a valuable natural resource. As in many woods, some fast-growing conifers have been planted since then and are now nearing the end of their natural lives, but these days, dog-owners and leisure walkers are its most frequent bipedal visitors. It’s heaving with non-human life, though, and Fortey tots up the trees, examines spurge, sedge and stinkhorns, hunts ghost orchids, spots grey squirrels and muntjac deer, considers tiny parasitoid wasps and rove beetles and relates all these things to the wood as a living ecosystem, a true “web of life”.
“Some contemporary nature writing is rich in the details of the author sympathising in some fuzzy way with the totality of nature and the interconnectedness of things, but engagement with the nitty-gritty details of living animals and plants is not on the literary agenda,” Fortey writes, brusquely. “I prefer the eloquence of detail.” Unsurprising, then, that he exists in the book largely as an observant and curious eye, his interest always outward. Objectivity, rather than subjectivity, is his goal — although whether that is possible is another matter. He does allow a few diversions from the purely empirical, musing on the work of HJ Massingham and Cecil Roberts, trying ground elder soup, wild cherry jam and beech-leaf liqueur, making charcoal and inviting an artist to create tiles from the wood’s clay, but he doesn’t seem especially interested in these diversions from his larger goal.
It’s rare to be in the company of someone who cannot only call in a world expert in cranefly taxonomy but can also pick up a pebble and posit a theory (later proved true) that it is an interloper deposited by a long-gone Pleistocene river. So it’s strange that the picture of Grim’s Dyke Wood that emerges from Fortey’s fascinating and thorough book is not as pin-sharp as it might have been, the sense of it as a real place somehow just out of reach. Fortey illuminates its flora and fauna, history and geology with indisputable expertise; but perhaps, in focusing so closely on the trees and their inhabitants, the lay reader is denied a clear enough view of the wood.
The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood, by Richard Fortey, William Collins, RRP£22, 304 pages
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather’ (Faber)
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