The Forest Unseen

forest unseenDavid George Haskell begins his book with an unexpected image: Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala at Sewanee’s University of the South as students look on.

The mandala has significance at many levels: the concentration required for its creation, the balance between complexity and coherence, the symbols embedded in its design, and its impermanence. None of these qualities, however, define the ultimate purpose of the mandala’s construction. The mandala is a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.

For this reason, Haskell calls his own circle — a single square meter of old-growth forest in Tennessee — a mandala, one translation of which is “community.” In this book about the forest, he manages to convey all those qualities he just mentioned — balance, complexity, coherence, symbolism, design, and impermanence — in prose that is simultaneously quiet, matter-of-fact, and poetic.

For The Forest Unseen, Haskell decided to visit his mandala as often as he could — several times a week, if possible — during the course of one year. There are about three or four short chapters for each month (though an unprecedented seven chapters in April — that’s spring for you!), and each chapter addresses something different about the mandala. There are chapters on beings as small as the mitochondria inside bacteria, and events as large as an earthquake: nothing is too tiny or too huge to escape Haskell’s attention, and everything gets woven into the impossibly complex life of the forest. Haskell scaffolds his information, building on what he mentioned earlier, so what you learned about birds in January makes the chapters on sunrise birds in April, migrant warblers in October, and sharp-shinned hawks in November all the more fascinating.

And I mean fascinating. This is the kind of science writing I love: a book I had to force my husband to listen to pieces of. I won’t burden you with the chapter on snail sex, although that’s probably the one I read with the greatest interest (not to say shock), but what about this:

Unfortunately for the richness of our experience, we live in a strange and extreme corner of the world’s available habitat. The animals that we encounter are those few that also inhabit this unusual niche. The first cause of our estrangement is our size. We are tens of thousands of times larger than most living creatures, therefore our senses are too dull to detect the citizens of Lilliput that crawl around and over us. Bacteria, protists, mites, and nematodes make their homes on the mountains of our bodies, hidden from us by the dislocation of scale. We live in the empiricist’s nightmare: there is a reality far beyond our perception. Our senses have failed us for millennia. Only when we mastered glass and were able to produce clear, polished lenses were we able to gaze through a microscope and finally realize the enormity of our former ignorance.

Our living on land further distances us from the rest of the animal kingdom, augmenting the handicap of gigantism. Nine-tenths of the animal kingdom’s main branches are found in water — in the sea, in freshwater streams and lakes, in watery crevices within the soil, or in the moist interiors of other animals. The desiccated exceptions include the terrestrial arthropods (mostly insects) and the minority of vertebrates that have hauled themselves onto land (most vertebrate species are fish, so terrestrial life is unusual, even for a vertebrate.)

I know that’s a long quotation, but it gives you a good sense of how encompassing, but how interesting, his prose is. I felt I had peripheral vision in a new way after reading it.

One thing I especially loved about this book is that Haskell takes human beings as part of nature, and many chapters show the effect of the forest on human beings, and vice versa. A lot of science writing is intended to alert the reader to problems humans have caused — with good reason! — and this leaves the reader with the impression that humans are invariably at odds with nature. Haskell doesn’t think so. When he finds a golf ball in his mandala, his first instinct is to remove it and leave the mandala pristine. Then he rethinks:

To love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole. To truly love the world is also to love human ingenuity and playfulness. Nature does not need to be cleansed of human artifacts to be beautiful or coherent. Yes, we should be less greedy, untidy, wasteful, and shortsighted. But let us not turn responsibility into self-hatred. Our biggest failing is, after all, lack of compassion for the world. Including ourselves.

After the final chapter — December 31, a chapter on watching, and on how “nature” is not a separate place, how you don’t need a patch of old-growth forest of your own to see it around you — I felt as if my vision had been expanded. I’ve been watching the leaves turn colors and drop recently, and I know more about the birds, bacteria, caterpillars, flowers, lichen (yes, and even snails) involved in that process than I ever thought I would. But mostly, I know that there is more to know, if I bring my presence and attention to it.

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8 Responses to The Forest Unseen

  1. Jeane says:

    I think I would like this book. Definitely putting it on the list. You reminded me strongly of yesterday- I took my kids on a walk in the woods and my toddler always says “let’s go look for animals!” she hopes to see big ones like deer, but most often it’s the little things we find. On that particular walk we found: a big fuzzy caterpillar, a daddy longlegs, a beetle, several ants, a centipede, a wolf spider, and a pale green insect I think was lacewing. She was thrilled! and I though there must be mammals in the woods- raccoons, foxes perhaps, squirrels surely, but it was the more numerous small things we found, and there are so many even more numerous I never ever see…

    excuse my blathering

    • Jenny says:

      That’s not blathering! I love that story — and this book is such a great gateway into “seeing” some of the things we never see. He uses a hand-lens to look at some of the world beneath the world, and your kids might really enjoy that if they are of the age to have the focus.

  2. Oo, snail sex! I am actually really intrigued by authors who can bring up something you don’t think you’ll be interested in (like the sexual life of snails) and then explain why, actually, you should be interested in it after all. That is a good talent to have. I think there are few things in this world I couldn’t be made interested in by having them explained to me by someone who finds them fascinating.

    • Jenny says:

      This book is so good at that! He titles each chapter something that sounds boring (“Xylem,” “Snails,” “Leaf Litter,”) and then opens it up like it’s Wonderland, and it really is to him. It was fantastic.

  3. Stop adding to my stacks! OK, not really. Don’t stop at all.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I think I would like this book very much! I’ve been slowly expanding my garden and have had great pleasure and fascination in all the changes it has brought to my yard.

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