Armchair Birding: The Wood for the Trees, by Richard Fortey

Armchair Birding: The Wood for the Trees, by Richard Fortey

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(by Anne Kilgannon) –

Sometimes things really do come in threes, if you just look for the connections. This winter I gaped in awe as we tramped an emerald green—and every other color of green imaginable—feathery-cushioned landscape of moss covering every surface of tree and rock on the wooded acres we had just purchased. The local conservancy biologist exploring with us hushed and stooped to separate a few tiny leaves from the general “moss” and revealed a wild orchid pushing up through the carpet. I was entranced by the tiny world, the pulse of life seen close up, the stunning richness of dozens of kinds of moss and the treasures hidden within their tangle.

And soon after that experience, E. O. Wilson published a searing essay in the New York Times, “The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know.” He was not writing about the charismatic tigers, bears and wolves, whales and redwood trees, vital as all these beings are, but about the small uncounted, unstudied life forms that nonetheless are the warp and woof of life on earth. He noted, “The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated.” If we are going to save them, first we have to know them. Wilson admonished, “Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They, too, are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.”

I found an excellent book on moss, Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and began to study. Those acres are a responsibility and an opportunity, a classroom and laboratory. But I was soon at sea. I needed more grounding for my new project, more guidance on how to go about learning this piece of the world and how to think about and care for it.

As luck would have it, the third thing came to hand, the right book whose title engaged my curiosity: The Wood for the Trees, One Man’s Long View of Nature, by Richard Fortey. Fortey, like us, had just purchased a few acres of woodland, in his case in the Chiltern Hills near Oxford, and had conceived the notion to document his land from the ground up, and through time, as only a paleontologist can contemplate it. Admittedly he had some excellent help not available to us, as he could call up colleagues from the Natural History Museum of London, but he is generous with their advice and insights. We are introduced to charming and dedicated specialists of crane fly study, fungi, myriad beetles, and shy woodland mammals, to name a few.

To give you an idea of his approach and ambition, here is a sample: “Charles finds one example of his own favourite (British spelling!) group of miniature organisms: a rotifer. We are now at the edge of visibility, which I set as the boundary for the Grim’s Dyke Wood project. And there are many smaller creatures in this living soup.” He goes on to describe a one-celled creature, while “other protists whizz by under the microscope like tiny self-propelled machines, too fast to identify. All these organisms feed on others still smaller, and far too minute to be readily observed beneath Charles’s binocular microscope.” Which means that Charles takes the specimens back to his lab for further study. E. O. Wilson would be beaming!

At the other end of the scale, Fortey concentrates on the predominant life form in his woods: beech trees. Not only does this book look backward to the formation of the rocks under the skin of life, it proceeds seasonally over a year, so we begin our study of the woods when the bluebells are spreading lakes of blue under the trees, fueled by sunshine not yet blocked by unfurled leaves. We then follow the trees as they stretch and flourish through spring and summer, only to slow and drop their leaves and hunker down through fall and winter. Just as the trees do not exist alone but harbor whole worlds of birds, mice, beetles, moss and everything imaginable, the beeches live embedded in human history.

Fortey includes humans, their economy and ecology, as not separate but joined and vital in his natural history of this place. Humans have used, shaped and been shaped by the beeches since the beginning of their shared existence. He finds traces of ancient practices and follows woodcraft through the ages as people coppiced, harvested, saved and lived with these trees from Anglo- Saxon, Norman, Tudor and more recent eras. The woods have survived because people lived so closely and with great dependence on them, as fuel, as wood for buildings and furniture, as bungs for barrels and uses so various as to “always” have a use. I am encouraged to include in my study the shell middens hidden by the moss and the old stumps, relics of pioneer logging efforts on our own land. We too will leave our trace.

I am barely giving you a hint of the richness of this work. The trees are the foundation of the woods, obvious to say, but the tiny creatures munching the leaves and helping create the soil, the moss snugging the surfaces and holding water, the red kites flying over the canopy are integral to the health of the place. Fortey brings them all into the picture, a living, breathing whole world, intricate, interdependent, delightful and though seemingly timeless, existing in season and century. We are a part of it all. And it all matters.

The Friends of LBA Woods is offering opportunities for a holistic study of a “place” through a series of guided nature walks and a citizen-science project to catalogue the biodiversity of life forms in the upland forest of the LBA Woods. Watch their website for details. (by Anne Kilgannon, Beech Trees photo by Callum Black, Wikimedia)