“After a working life spent in a great museum, the time had come for me to escape into the open air. I spent years handling fossils of extinct animals; now, the inner naturalist needed to touch living animals and plants.”
~ from The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature by Richard Fortey, November 2017
Richard Fortey has spent his life working with the bones and imprints of long-dead animals and plants. When he finally retires to the countryside, he finds his inner naturalist and starts exploring the woods around his new home. This book is the result of that exploration.
Each chapter follows one month of the year and works as a compilation of his observations. It’s like a year in the life of trees (and everything else that lives under the trees). I love the format of this book, how it follows the changes in Fortey’s home in the woods, how he pays attention to the tiny details of nature. There’s also lots of black-and-white images to back up his descriptions, making this feel like a scrapbook of sorts, documenting this corner of the world in both text and pictures.
In England, in Oxfordshire, in the Chiltern Hills, in Lambridge Wood, is the little part of forest called Grim’s Dyke Wood. Think Walden, only British. Fortey talks about the trees almost as if they are people:
“Some trees stand close together, like a pair of friends huddling in mutual support. Others are almost solitary, rearing away from their fellows in the midst of a clearing” (7).
It is descriptions like this that make The Wood for the Trees a cozy read, the kind of book you take with you on an early autumn day to the riverside (perhaps the Thames?) with a blanket and a carafe of hot cider.
My favorite part is the description of the “sea of bluebells. The whole forest floor beyond is coloured by thousands upon thousands of flowers . . . like the yachted water in a Dufy painting” (8).
Fortey lives in the woods which has now been divided among different people; they call themselves the woodies, people who care for the woods. And this is what I find most interesting in Fortey’s project: understandingthe intersection of people and nature in this particular plot of land. Most of the time he stands in the background observing the plants and animals he notices, but interspersed are his observations of people, especially how they have changed the local environment over the years.
In a way, this book is a kind of chronicle of people changing the woods, or perhaps in Forety’s case, being changed by the woods. This takes the book from being a simple nature journal to a big picture exploration of the environment and how people influence the world they live in.
Ultimately though, this is an upbeat read if you enjoy imagining the flora and fauna of the British countryside, if like me, you’re sitting under a gloomy Midwestern sky at the beginning of winter. Perhaps not necessarily a speedy book, but if you like to take it slow and meditate on the simple things, this might be the book for you.
Thank you to Vintage Books for providing a copy of The Wood for the Trees for review. If you would like to purchase a copy, visit Penguin Random House.