The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature, by Richard Fortey


Three and a half stars, read in the spring of 2017 (February to April).

This is just a solid, interesting, enjoyable read about a scientist exploring the forest he lives in. I skimmed many sections, realizing that if I tried to read each page in full, I would never finish (I’d already renewed it twice from the library, returned it, checked it out again, and renewed it twice more).

The level of descriptive detail is astonishing, and also makes it easy to decide about which topics you can be satisfied knowing only the basics. I loved the sections about trees, birds, and even fungi; scanned the geological history of clay and flints quickly; and skipped beetles entirely. The book is organized chronologically, a chapter for each month of the year-long study, rather than by subject—the perfect system for a book that’s all about the interconnectedness of things.

“Biodiversity” as a word sounds rather dull and a bit abstract. Played out on the ground it is something else: the difference between the numbered title of a symphony and its glorious complexity unwrapped in a concert hall.

Fortey writes about local human history as well as natural, because, as he points out, it’s all tied up together inextricably. For centuries, his woodland has been shaped by human activity as well as by the incredibly complex ecosystem of plants and animals that live there together. I was reading Thomas Hardy at the same time that I read this, and the scenes of history and landscape are perfect matches.

I believe that curiosity is a most important human instinct. Curiosity is the enemy of certainty, and certainty—particularly conviction that other people are different, or sinful, or irreligious—lies behind much of the conflict and genocide that disfigure human history. If I could issue one injunction to humankind it would be: “Be curious!”

I believe strongly in this exact sentiment, and though it might sound off-topic for a book about the natural sciences, the idea fits in perfectly.

Fortey has a beautiful gift for describing scenes in nature, and his research takes us into a variety of super-specialized fields exploring the natural history of rural England. This is a lovely book to read if you’re interested in any of those things.


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