I am not, in general, a big fan of nature writing. It’s not that I haven’t read and enjoyed any nature writing. I loved, for example, David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo and Monster of God. It’s just that nature writing doesn’t always hold my interest, even when it’s very good. So I would not have been inclined to pick up this book by David George Haskell if Jenny had not put it on my book swap list for this year.
The book chronicles a year in a small piece of an old growth forest in Tennessee. This area, a circle a little over a meter across, becomes Haskell’s version of a mandala. Throughout the year, Haskell comes to sit by the mandala, watching and contemplating what he sees. He watches the plants, the animals, the weather, and even the microorganisms, and he considers what they reveal about the life of the forest and the natural world. The result is a series of short chronological essays, usually no more than 3 or 4 pages, about some aspect of forest life.
Each essay tends to begin with Haskell’s observations at the mandala that day. He then builds on those observations, spiraling out beyond the mandala and into the wider world. For example, the May 18th entry, titled “Herbivory” begins with the observation that the leaves in the mandala are looking ragged from being chewed by insects. He then goes on to discuss herbivorous insects and how they draw nourishment from plants and how plants fight back by developing toxins. This leads to the fascinating fact that insects don’t survive in container lined with the New York Times, but they do survive in containers lined with the London Times. “The quality of the insects’ reading material is not the culprit,” Haskell notes. It has to do with the trees used to make the paper. The balsam fir used to make the New York Times produces a chemical that stunts insect growth.
Many of the essays concern this kind of interplay between elements of the ecosystem, both within the forest and across the world. And Haskell shares lots of fascinating facts along the way. Did you know that the presence of bird feeders has affected migration patterns? The stable food source for songbirds also “gather songbirds into clusters that make convenient feeding stations for hawks.” If songbirds stay in place because of the feeders, so do the hawks. Haskell goes on,
The expression of our yearning for the beauty of birds sets off waves that circle outward, washing over prairies and forests, lapping onto the mandala. Fewer migrant hawks from the north make life a little easier for the hawk in the mandala. Winter becomes less dangerous for songbirds also, perhaps edging up winter wren populations. More abundant wrens may nudge down ant or spider populations, sending an eddy out into the plant community when the spring ephemeral flowers offer their seeds to be dispersed by ants, or into the fungus community when a dip in spider numbers increases fungus gnat populations.
We cannot move without vibrating the waters, sending into the world the consequences of our actions.
Haskell is clear about the complexity of this interplay and how we can’t always be sure whether the consequences of our actions are entirely good or bad. Sometimes, as in the case of deer populations, our vision of how things should be is based on a short view. Haskell rarely gets specific about environmental policy, although he does raise various issues that arise from his observations in the mandala. His main interest seems to be in developing a respect and appreciation of nature. He’s so respectful, in fact, that at one point, he allows a mosquito to sting him so he can observe it more closely and contemplate its feeding routine. (He does not do the same when it comes to a tick as his body reacts very badly to tick bites, and he’s more worried about tick-borne disease. But he lets the tick move on to find other prey.)
This was a good book for me. Each essay was so short that if I happened to lose the thread in one, it was easy enough to backtrack and pick it up again—or just decide to move on without feeling I’d lost a key argument of the book. It’s pleasing writing, and I learned a lot. (Did you know that dichromatism—colorblindess—offers an evolutionary advantage by making it easier to detect certain patterns and thus find food? This book is full of information like that.) If you enjoy nature writing—and maybe even if you don’t—this is worth checking out.