The Wood for the Trees -- One Man’s Long View of Nature
By Richard Fortey
304 pages, $28.95
Had I seen this book earlier in 2016, I should have recommended it as my ‘best read’ of the year. It’s for everyone who ever had dirt under their fingernails.
“The Wood for the Trees” author, Richard Fortey, has been the winner of the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, served as the senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and named Fellow of the Royal Academy.
What’s left for him to do?
He purchased four acres of woodland in the Chiltern Hills of Oxfordshire, England a few years ago with a plan. What was he thinking? He’s made “The Wood for the Trees” an incredible Baedeker of what he found in the wood over the course of a year.
His idea -- carried off to perfection -- was to write a chapter for each month of the year, “beginning in April with the bluebells pop out, and finishing in March, when “the wood again wakes from its winter sleep.”
“I needed, he writes, “to explore the development of the English countryside, all the way from the Iron Age to the recent exploitation of woodland for beech furniture or tent pegs.”
Just in case you think this was something to be done in one’s part time, Fortey makes it clear that his scientific reawakening included sampling everything:
“…mosses, lichens, grasses, insects and fungi. I investigated the natural history of beech, oak, ash, yew and all the other trees. I spent moonlit evenings trapping moths; daytime frolicking with nets to catch crane flies or lifting up rotten logs to understand decay. I poked and prodded and snuffled under brambles. I wanted to turn the appropriate bits of geology into tiles and glass. The wood became a route to understand how the landscape is forever in a state of transition, for all that we think is unchanging. In short, the wood became a project.”
One could write extensively on each of the month’s charms, they’re so beautifully described. But the sum of all the author’s observations shouldn’t be missed: the variety of animals, plants and fungi shows that biodiversity doesn’t just belong to far- away places with strange sounding names, like tropical rainforests or coral reefs. Biodiversity is everywhere. Organisms compete, collaborate and connect, Fortey explains. And what is found today, he says, “is the result of climate, habitat, pollution or lack of it, history and husbandry.”
Beyond this there is a poetry to the wood, he explains, that cannot be explained by description alone. Anyone thinking about taking in the beauty of the wood requires something more.
Load up on capacities of close examination and synthesis as well. Fortey has these qualities in abundance. He also has an enthusiasm for his project that is infectious as one reads.
Fortey’s intent: “I am trying to reason how the natural world came to be so varied, and my understanding is refracted through the lens of my own small patch. I am trying to see the wood for the trees.”
You’ll be tempted by two other books that might be read in tandem with Fortey’s classic: David Hey’s “The Grass Roots of English History,” about life in pre-modern England, and Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” -- about what they feel, how they communicate discoveries from a hidden world.
But, with 43 illustrations in text, 16 pages of illustrations and 1 map, “The Wood’ becomes unforgettable to the reader. This is a book for everyone who ever stepped into a garden for the first time in wonderment. It’s an evocation of the Garden of Eden.
Michael D. Langan is a longtime book reviewer for The Buffalo News.