When Richard Fortey, a paleontologist, popular writer and television presenter, retired a few years ago after a long career at the Natural History Museum in London, he took it as a chance to “escape into the open air.” No more specimen rooms, no more staff meetings. The proceeds from a TV series proved just enough to purchase 4 acres of “ancient beech-and-bluebell woodland” in the Chiltern Hills, near his home in the London suburb of Henley-on-Thames.
In the past, Mr. Fortey had undertaken ambitious schemes, like a sprint across four billion years of evolution for his 1997 book, “Life: An Unauthorized Biography.” Now he set out to explore “a tiny morsel of a historic land.” The previous owner had divided off pieces of Lambridge Wood, part of an old estate, and the buyers—including a retired virologist, a professional harpsichordist and a founding member of the band Genesis—each separately purchased a piece “to prevent the wood from being felled or turned into housing.”
For Mr. Fortey, his patch, dubbed “Grim’s Dyke Wood,” became a place to sit on a log, eat a bacon sandwich and contemplate mosses, a predatory fungus, crane flies, springtails, an “almost elephantine” weevil and whatever else passed by, or just stood still, through each season. In “The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature,” he tells the story from April of one year through March of the next.
This sort of thing—the microcosmic exploration of one farm, forest or village—is almost a genre in the British Isles, dating back at least to Gilbert White’s 1789 “Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.” Thankfully, Mr. Fortey doesn’t pretend to be treading virgin territory either in literature or in his forest. But he makes the genre a fine playground for his characteristic blend of wide-ranging curiosity, deft observation and deep research.
His heart is in the intimate examination of nature, but he pursues this passion without sentimentality. “The wood,” he writes, “is not eternal—it is a construct, a human product. It was made by
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