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The Wood for the Trees

fguklSomeone should perhaps write a book about the things distinguished scientists get up to when they retire.  Thomas Huxley withdrew from greater scientific affairs to take up alpine flowers, and it is perhaps a shame that he never wrote a book about them.  Richard Fortey FRS (former President of the Society and Senior Palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum), finding the proceeds from a TV series burning a hole in his pocket, decided that he would buy Grim’s Dyke Wood, four acres of Chiltern woodland not far from his native Henley.  He made it a project, and proceeded to study the wood’s every aspect: geological, archaeological, historical, botanical, mycological and zoological.  The result is this delightful amalgam of natural and human history - Geoscientist’s recommended summer read – which underlines a point dear to my own heart, which is that you can tell the history of the world from any locality on its surface – like William Blake, seeing the world in a grain of sand.

Using a ‘country diary’ approach to describe life on the edge (of a Chalk escarpment), each chapter covers a different month.  Fortey then draws in his many themes in due season – his beloved fungi in November, moths in June, and so on, dragooning a dazzling array of experts to help him lend weight and detail to his observations.  Finally, true museum man that he is, he harvests some cherry wood, cuts it into planks which he seasons himself, and commissions a beautiful bespoke ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in which to keep his notebook and all the interesting bits and bobs he accumulates during the year.

Fortey is one of those lucky writers who makes his readers wish they knew him better, that they could spend time with him in tweedy pursuits, bumbling about in Grim’s Dyke, getting their knees wet from leaf mould, sitting on fallen logs and making natural historical notes in leather-bound books.  Never has the author’s whimsical, woollyjumpery, Brysonesque, and (now and then) donnishly testy personality come over quite as faithfully as it does in The Wood for the Trees

He says in the introduction, that it is a book ‘both romantic and forensic, if such a combination is possible’.  What follows surely proves that it is; that the status of beech tree and liverwort are indeed compatible with the play of the light; the passage of the seasons and people with the ‘incomparable pleasures of discovery’.

Indeed, as his focus widens to include local and international history, Fortey’s confidence as a writer seems to grow – to the point of including culinary suggestions and recipes (a hallmark of his TV appearances), and even to using the word ‘questing’ far more often than any other nature writer might have dared.  After Evelyn Waugh’s ridicule of the genre through the inept pen of his hapless journalist character William Boot (author of the deathless line: ‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’) this also constitutes life on the edge.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

THE WOOD FOR THE TREES – THE LONG VIEW OF NATURE FROM A SMALL WOOD by RICHARD FORTEY. William Collins 2016 ISBN 978-0-00-810466-5 306pp Hbk List Price: £22.00 W: