March 14 @ 2:30 PM£3.00
For most of my working life, I occupied an office in London’s great Natural History Museum, tucked away from the gaze of the crowds, hidden away among the vast backroom collections. I am a paleontologist by trade, a researcher into ancient life, and an expert on a marvelous group of long-extinct animals: trilobites. When the museum stopped paying me, I wrote about life behind the scenes — where research science was paramount. Dry Storeroom No. 1 was my plea for sustaining study of the world’s fauna, flora, and fungi, and a celebration of the eccentric and extraordinary people working in the museum who made that knowledge possible.
However, a deeper itch needed to be scratched. Collections were all very well, but I wanted to revive the naturalist I had been when I was a boy entranced by just about everything alive. I wanted another way to celebrate the richness of life, that wasn’t housed in cabinets and filed away in systematic order. What I needed was a wood.
My wife spotted a piece of forest for sale quite near our house in southern England, and not just any wood, but an ancient one full of bluebells. When we went to see it, it was like coming home. Thanks to some TV work, our bank account had money in it. There was really no question about what we should do with it: within days, Grim’s Dyke Wood was ours.
At first there was pleasure to be had in just pottering among the stately beech and cherry trees. I started to keep notes about the feel of the wood in a red, leather-bound notebook. Perhaps inevitably, the scientist in me began to reawaken. I started to identify all the species I could. I turned over rotting logs and watched black beetles scuttle away. I collected tiny toadstools. I studied mosses under a hand lens. I picked up interesting stones, and made soup from herbs.
At the same time I started to realize that my early notions of woodland as eternal and unchanging were naïve. I delved into the history of my patch of forest and discovered that it had been owned by the same manor of Greys Court for nearly 1,000 years. It had earned its keep for generation after generation. Even Iron Age prehistory had left its mark in the ancient trench known as Grim’s Dyke that ran along one side of the wood.
I couldn’t detach natural history from human history, for the hand of our own species was everywhere. If I wished to understand the diversity of life today, I must engage with the long history of woodland use. The wood survived because it was profitable: at first for timber, fuel, and a dozen other medieval employments. Later, in Tudor times, it supplied London with beechwood for warming that great city and for firing bread ovens. The task of transporting mighty loads of firewood along the River Thames nearby inevitably became part of the story. When coal took over in the 19th century, the beech crop reinvented itself to become the stuff of everyday furniture, turned while still “green” on primitive lathes set up under the trees by “bodgers” to make millions of chair legs and stretchers. In the two World Wars, tent pegs used up prodigious quantities of our versatile tree. The wood was worked and worked again, and that employment favored biodiversity. Our wood was indeed ancient — but also continually renewed. Only in the last few decades has it been left to its own devices: today it is not much more than a pleasant backdrop for joggers and dog walkers. The saws are silent.
Now I could see how woodland ecology worked, for even at this small scale there were connections to a far wider world. The wood was anything but unchanging. I began to understand the forest as a kind of symphony in which the separate melodies of the innumerable living things of which it was made combined together in a complex whole. There were themes and variations; there were recapitulations as the seasons turned, and the odd jarring note made by invading species that were not meant to be there. The wood became my way of understanding how nature worked.
The question now became how to structure a book around these insights. My notebook was useful — it yielded flashes of poetry, and portrayed the wood in its changing moods and seasons. I decided to write a chapter for every month of the year, starting in April with the wood in full bluebell glory. I would weave together observation, science, natural history, and human history as intricately as that imagined symphony. I would call in a few favors. My colleagues at the Natural History Museum gave freely of their expertise on liverworts or beetles or parasitic wasps — living things I knew little about. I paid for a bat survey, and for a cherry picker to lift me up into the canopy. Tiles were made from the clay underlying the wood and glass from its enduring flints. The research would take us into the archives of local newspapers, and into the hills to meet old woodsmen who recalled former days. I would discover a ghost story, and the story of the ghost orchid.
The whole added up more than the sum of the parts, even though much of the pleasure lay in unraveling the details. I tried to see “the wood for the trees.” As always for writers, a final challenge lay in how to finish the book. I was pleased with the solution. We felled one of our fine cherry trees, planked it, and brought it back to the wood to season. Then we commissioned a famous local craftsman to make a collectors cabinet to house all manner of small things collected from the wood: a fallen bird’s egg, nibbled nuts, a strange-shaped flint: the kind of collection I might have made as a small boy. Finally, I added the red notebook that had been my companion throughout the whole project. The closure of the last drawer brought both the woodland year and the book to a close.
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Richard Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London until his retirement in 2006. He is the author of several books, including Fossils: The Key to the Past; The Hidden Landscape, which won the Natural World Book of the Year in 1993; Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth; Trilobite!, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Earth: An Intimate History; Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum; and The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature. He has won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science from Rockefeller University and the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society. He was president of the Geological Society of London during its bicentennial year in 2007 and is a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Oxfordshire.