From one of our greatest science writers, this biography of a beech-and-bluebell wood through diverse moods and changing seasons combines stunning natural history with the ancient history of the countryside to tell the full story of the British landscape.
‘The woods are the great beauty of this country… A fine forest-like beech wood far more beautiful than anything else which we have seen in its vicinity’ is how John Stuart Mill described a small patch of beech-and bluebell woodland, buried deeply in the Chiltern Hills and now owned by Richard Fortey. Drawing upon a lifetime of scientific expertise and abiding love of nature, Fortey uses his small wood to tell a wider story of the ever-changing British landscape, human influence on the countryside over many centuries and the vital interactions between flora, fauna and fungi.
The trees provide a majestic stage for woodland animals and plants to reveal their own stories. Fortey presents his wood as an interwoven collection of different habitats rich in species. His attention ranges from the beech and cherry trees that dominate the wood to the flints underfoot; the red kites and woodpeckers that soar overhead; the lichens, mosses and liverworts decorating the branches as well as the myriad species of spiders, moths, beetles and crane-flies. The 300 species of fungi identified in the wood capture his attention as much as familiar deer, shrews and dormice.
Fortey is a naturalist who believes that all organisms are as interesting as human beings – and certainly more important than the observer. So this book is a close examination of nature and human history. He proves that poetic writing is compatible with scientific precision. The book is filled with details of living animals and plants, charting the passage of the seasons, visits by fellow enthusiasts; the play of light between branches; the influence of geology; and how woodland influences history, architecture and industry. On every page he shows how an intimate study of one small wood can reveal so much about the natural world and demonstrates his relish for the incomparable pleasures of discovery.
About the author
Richard Fortey spent his working life in palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, specialising in trilobites and becoming a world expert. He was elected President of the Geological Society of London for its bicentennial year of 2007 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Literature. He has received the Frink Medal, the Michael Faraday Prize and the Lewis Thomas Prize for science writing, as well as the silver medal of the Zoological Society for science communication. He is the writer of eight previous science and nature books, including two Sunday Times bestsellers, all of which are still in print. He has presented many television programmes across the BBC and other channels.
In this intriguing volume, British paleontologist Fortey (Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms) charts the discoveries he made over the course of a year on the four acres of Oxfordshire land that he purchased in 2011. Fortey's "inner naturalist needed to touch living animals and plants," and he recounts those experiences by devoting a chapter to each month. He begins in April, following the changing seasons and collecting "the wood's serendipitous treasures." Fortey gives further structure to his narrative and his treasure collection through the construction of a cabinet of curiosities that he and his wife, Jackie, commissioned a woodworking neighbor to build out of one of their cherry trees. It would be different from the "systematic collection" he worked with for years at the Natural History Museum in London: each item would be a memento of encounters in their small patch of woods. As Fortey spends time observing and pondering, he becomes enraptured by the forest floor draped with bluebells. Imagining a continuum of individual and collective relationships that stretches back centuries, he duly charts his historical explorations of the land in parallel with his naturalistic ones. Focusing on his small world, Fortey effectively compiles "a biography of the wood" and reminds readers that stories can be found anywhere. Illus.