The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature

Richard Fortey

December 19, 2016 
The following is from Richard Fortey’s book, The Wood for the Trees: One Man's Long View of Nature. Fortey is the author of several books, including Fossils: The Key to the Past, The Hidden Landscape, Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, among others. He has won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science from Rockefeller University and the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society.


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It is completely still in the wood, sharply cold and invigorating, so that every sense tingles with a special anticipation. All the puddles along the tracks are topped with fresh ice, which has crystallised as blades. When I tread on it, the ice breaks with a crunch like broken ginger snaps, but there is still a little damp mud beneath it. A mist envelops the trees: not a dense fog, but rather a pallid thickening of the atmosphere that increases with distance, turning the more distant tree trunks into wan spectres. The bare winter branches above are a mesh of black struts, but they too fade away in the deepening mist, and where the sky should be there is only an airy nothingness. The whole wood is cocooned in ethereal condensations that fence it off from the rest of the world: there is the wood and only the wood. Nor is there any sound, not even the hesitant cooing of a pigeon, or the distant scream of a red kite. The absolute hush only increases my sensitivity to any chirrup or the least rustle in the leaf litter, but apart from the crisp trudge of my wellington boots there is nothing to disturb this enclosed world.

Every twig is decked with ice. From a distance it looks as if the branches of each beech tree were spun sugar, making white arabesques and swirls of impossible delicacy. Close examination reveals thousands of ice crystals sprouting from the thinner twigs in bunches, making an attempt at icy replicas of the bundles of stamens that erupt from them in springtime. Whole trees are clothed in white finery more fragile than gossamer; the merest touch dislodges many little bouquets of frozen rods that shatter into sparkling dust. Individual crystals are up to half an inch long, and every one is made from even smaller crystals stacked in line, so they have a fuzzy and complex profile. They have grown in the night, little by little, encouraged by the breathless stillness to become temporary stalactites built from dozens of minute motes of ice. Holly leaves have not escaped the attention of the invisible ice artist. Crystals fringe each leaf like a thin white ruff, and are spaced close together, but with surprising precision. The tips of the holly spines carry a single, tiny icy rod. Dry grasses dangle with diamonds that were made hours ago from thin air. Spider threads make necklaces for wood sprites. Even dry fallen beech leaves are dusted with tiny crystals like icing sugar.

I wonder if this morning is unique, or whether such brilliant decoration happens every few years if exactly the same atmospheric conditions are replicated. Maybe a woodward or a villein briefly paused here seven hundred years ago to admire similarly embellished trees, momentarily distracted from his hard life. Perhaps a Tudor politician was charmed for a moment or two from thoughts of intrigue at Court. Ice condenses from the mist, crystal by crystal, building on top of previous constructions. The miniature ice sculptures are breathed into existence from a haze that is as insubstantial as it is short-lived. A slight breeze would quickly undo all nature’s delicate handiwork. If it breaks through, the sun will take an hour or two to destroy all the fine decorations. I will probably not enjoy such a privileged world again during my lifetime. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Holly and the Ivy

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“. . . When they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.” As Christmas approaches, holly is the only tree in Grim’s Dyke Wood that remains evergreen, other than the hardy yew. Whether ivy is counted as a tree depends on personal taste. It certainly makes wood, and can stand alone for a while if its support dies or is removed; the writer of the English Christmas carol evidently considered it tree material.

Holly (Ilex aquifolia) is the dominant understory tree in the wood. There might be too much of it. John Hill lives on the edge of Lambridge Wood, as he has for forty years. He cleared the holly in his part of the forest, and relates how it only came to be so common since management of the whole area was neglected in recent decades. Holly is a survivor. It flourishes even under beech canopy that captures almost all the summer sun. Its almost impenetrable interlocking growth provides us with privacy in the middle of the wood. The Dell around the King Tree is more or less encircled with hollies. Even in midwinter it is possible to sit there on makeshift stools of felled wood without being disturbed, to consume a sandwich or to make notes. On many overcast days old holly foliage looks almost black, and can appear forbidding. It is possible to push through it in spite of it bearing “a prickle as sharp as any thorn,” but going around is usually a more attractive option. Wood mice feel safe from owls under its close protection.

Holly does not grow as rapidly as beech, nor usually as high. One tree in the wood is comparatively huge, and has taken part in the race to the sky; it must be more than sixty feet tall. I assume that it germinated from seed immediately after the last big felling, and was able to compete with beech on equal terms within a generous clearing. Another substantial holly tree is “twinned” with a big beech tree; that is to say, they are now growing side by side, and virtually married together, though they would have started as seedlings perhaps two feet apart. The beech has a girth of about eight feet, while the holly is a little over two feet around. I suppose that holly grows at very roughly one-quarter the rate of beech. Its evergreen habit means that a single holly leaf can photosynthesise for a long time, utilising low levels of light. The surfaces of the leaves are waxy and reflective, which is why they flash like silver jewels in bright sunlight.

Holly is a dogged kind of tree, not to be easily discouraged. Most of the trunks in the wood can be encircled by the fingertips of my two hands, and must be about twenty to thirty years old. They often form clusters of two or three trunks together, and shoot again from the base; and they sucker freely. I have pulled up suckers and found that they extend several paces from the parent tree—this is how holly extends its territory by stealth. I have been rooting out such rogue hollies where they might engulf my favourite areas, on the principle of never giving a sucker an even break. If a holly branch touches the ground, it layers readily—it puts down roots and makes another plant. So this tough tree has a menu of strategies to outwit the tyro forester. The bark of holly differs from that of all the other trees in the wood: at least on younger individuals, it is irregularly striped green along its length. Maybe it can even squeeze in a little extra photosynthesis from this unexpected quarter.

As might be expected from such a slow-growing tree, holly timber is unusually hard, which accounts for its use in turnery, marquetry and printing blocks—“sturdy uses,” as John Evelyn put it. Traditional craftsmen still appreciate its virtues. Once the bark has been stripped, the wood beneath is remarkably pale—almost white. Clipped holly has long had employment as a hedge to deter pilferers and housebreakers. It does not frighten birds, which love to hop in and out of its generous cover. Holly suffers from few diseases, although I do not relish the thought of its gloomy forests taking over if other, more vulnerable trees die out. It only hosts one insect, whose larva makes a meal of a leaf by getting under its tough cuticle—the holly leaf miner fly (Phytomyza ilicis). Its presence in the wood is betrayed by vivid yellow and red patches that stain some holly leaves while they still hang on the tree.

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Although its spikes render adult holly foliage intimidating, freshly emerged leaves are soft and afford nutritious fodder; before their protection hardens up I have crumpled them in my hand and felt no pain. Young branches were once cut as feed for stock by cowherds; if a deer discovers an emerging shoot it is nibbled at once. Erasmus Darwin noticed in Phytologia (1800) that prickles only develop on the lower leaves where they will afford the tree some protection: holly foliage on the tops of trees is completely without spines—it could be mistaken as belonging to a different species. Ilex provides a rather blatant example of adaptation, and who can say whether it was one of many ingredients in the intellectual potpourri that encouraged Erasmus’s grandson, the young Charles Darwin, towards evolutionary theory. Holly flowers are small and white with four petals, discreet but pretty enough, tucked among the leaves at the end of the shoots in May, with separate sexes on different trees. Although both flowers look superficially similar, males are readily recognisable when they shed masses of yellow pollen on to the leaves below them. The glory of holly, and the reason for its incorporation in the Christian tradition, is the berries that develop on the mother trees, “as red as any blood” when they colour up late in the year. I had kept an eye on the green, unripe berries, waiting eagerly for this transformation. At this point I must confess to one of my failures in the Grim’s Dyke Wood project.

* * * *

The  millennium  seed  bank  is   a  bright,  modern  construction in the grounds of Wakehurst Place, Sussex, which is the “country seat” of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Walking around the perimeter of the new building, I glance through glass panels at white- coated scientists in spotless laboratories. Like any other bank, this one protects capital, but the wealth here is the currency of the future of the home planet: a huge collection of plant seeds, carefully dried and then stored at minus 22 degrees Celsius in rank after rank of specially designed “safes.” This capital will last for years: it is a Fort Knox of biodiversity. Many of the plants whose genetic blueprints are safe- guarded in these frigid cabinets are rare in the wild, so the Wakehurst building is also a kind of Ark.

I was there to be instructed in how to contribute to a different project. In order to assess the genetic diversity of our woodlands, collections of tree seeds are being made by naturalists throughout Britain, then processed by the staff at the Bank. Quite apart from long-term conservation, the ability of trees to defend themselves against new diseases relies on having a pool of genetic variation to draw upon, and the Seed Bank archive might prove crucial in decades to come. Most of the trees described in this book are wind-pollinated, and that means their genomes can readily spread: these collections will reveal patterns in genetic distribution that will help predict what will happen as climate changes.

The protocols for collecting seeds are quite strict: they have to be fully mature to freeze successfully. For holly, the ripe berry has to develop what is called an “abscission layer” from the parent plant—a natural seal—so that it breaks off easily. Even though each berry yields four seeds, I am supposed to gather thousands of seeds per sample, so I know it will be hard work. The birds in the wood, however, had other ideas. When holly berries are ready for picking for science they are also on the menu in the wild. During a cold winter like this one they will be sought out enthusiastically. Our own blackbirds are greedy enough, but when redwings arrive on migration from Scandinavia the berry crop is doomed.* By the time I realise what is happening, it is already too late. I begin to appreciate how so many holly seedlings come to be dotted around the wood. They were the end products of excretion from a fully sated member of the appropriately named Family Turdidae (blackbirds, thrushes, redwings, field- fares, etc.). Next year, beechnuts will make a simpler target.

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* * * *

As for ivy (Hedera helix), its purple-black berries are not quite ripe for Christmas. They are held in bunches away from the foliage, like small bouquets of plump black peppercorns. They are more conspicuous than the clusters of green flowers in October that preceded them, although their modest blooms attracted many wild bees. In the wood ivy flowers and berries are only produced high off the ground, but in a nearby hedgerow I have heard an ivy bush humming from the attention of its enthusiastic pollinators. Ivy grows to the height of the tree up which it climbs, sticking to its host by means of adhesive brownish “rootlets” that emerge from the underside of the fast-growing shoots. I find the young, arrow-shaped leaves rather beautiful as they alternate left and right up the plant, each leaf decorated with a scaffold of a few pale veins. Mature, five-pointed, dark-green leaves borne on slender stalks are efficient photosynthesisers like those of holly, which is why ivy can spread over the darkest ground seeking out new hosts to climb. Leaves carried high on a growing vine also change their shape in a similar fashion to holly: those on the flowering shoots are often no more than simple ovals with a terminal point. In woods where every tree is choked with ivy, the effect can be oppressive, as the poor trees struggle to cope with their evergreen burdens, but in Grim’s Dyke Wood only two beeches carry enough ivy to obscure their trunks, and I welcome them as the only wild vine I have. Jenny wrens like to build their nests in the security of the thick cover. Wood pigeons will eat the berries when winter really begins to bite. In the spirit of experiment I nibble a berry, but do not swallow it. It is extraordinarily bitter. I suspect that avian tastebuds work differently from mine.

Holly and hazel make the best walking sticks. I was given a book all about the craft of making sticks, full of magnificent examples way above my whittling skills, featuring handles carved into foxes’ heads and silver trimmings. However, it is perfectly possible to make a serviceable walking stick even with my impoverished DIY talent. It is a question of choosing the right standing stick in the wood. Women’s sticks can be more delicate than ones intended for men, but both should be as straight as possible. This is easy with hazel poles. Very straight holly sticks are harder to find, and usually require several little branches to be trimmed off close. I detected the work of a “phantom stick-cutter” taking a few of my holly sticks in the wood, betrayed by the neat cut made by a collapsible pruning saw. Good luck to him. The cunning plan for the easiest product is to cut a stick with a handle made by nature. Hollies often have a crook in them, which is a handle waiting to happen. Hazels cut near the base can thicken into a usable club-handle.

I dried a few holly sticks for a year before using them. My first attempt was rather thickset. Jackie described it as a “cudgel,” which I thought was cruel. A second attempt removed the green bark with a knife except around the natural handle. Much polishing with sandpaper was probably an inefficient way to produce a smooth white stick—a coarse rasp had to help eliminate the“knots” where branches attached—but the end product was quite handsome. The same rasp and sandpaper finished off any sticky-out bits around the handle.

When polished up, a straight holly stick looks very much as if it were intended for the use of a blind person. For those who are not blind, it is probably wise to stain the stick using a strong solution of instant coffee, which turns the wood a lovely golden colour and highlights the grain. The addition of a rubber ferrule bought from one of those hardware shops that are not DIY superstores completes this rustic, though efficient walking stick. The stick has to squeeze really tightly into the ferrule, otherwise you will lose it on your first strenuous walk.

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From THE WOOD FOR TREES: ONE MAN’S LONG VIEW OF NATURE.  Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Fortey.

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