Where backyards are concerned, size really doesn’t matter. Even a square meter can yield a world of insight.
David Haskell’s wonderful award-winning book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Penguin Books, 2012), begins its preface with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a “mandala” of colored sand, carefully observed by a group of college undergraduates as part of their first laboratory session in an ecology course. The wonderfully intricate mandala (a word we become very familiar with in the course of this book) is constructed with infinite skill and patience by the monks over days, even weeks, only to be swept away upon completion.
Why go to all the trouble? And why would this traditional and esoteric practice be fodder for a course in environmental ecology? Ah, therein lies the tale.
Dr. Haskell has used the metaphor of the mandala, a spatially small construct which is representative of the Whole, the universe, as the philosophical underpinning of this gem of a read. Creating his own “mandala” by selecting a site from a square meter of old growth Tennessee forest with convenient seating, he has used his year of observations to extract an intricate web of connections from the microscopic to the galactic and beyond. No small thinking here. Bacteria, ants, fungi all have their stories and connections to, well, everything, and he observes them all with his hand lens and mind, finding lessons well beyond the obvious.
He does not, like many observers of nature, exclude human beings from the scheme. In fact, some of the most memorable portions of the book stem from human interactions with the “natural” world, including his own antics. Picture a middle-aged college professor standing naked in a windy forest in the subfreezing temperatures of January because he wants to “experience the cold as the forest’s animals do.” The musings that follow, about Bergmann’s Rule of body sizes and climate, chickadee insulation and more, are highlighted by his very rapid realization that he’s not cut out for this, followed by a panicked retreat into his clothing. I doubt if he experienced the cold “as the animals do”, but he certainly experienced his own lack of adaptation to it.
Less dramatically, he finds himself in a conundrum when confronted with, of all things, two golf balls which have intruded into his mandala. The puzzle was not how the balls came to be there, because this is when I realized with a slight jolt that the mandala was not an isolated site miles out into the wilds, but actually located beneath a bluff bordering a golf course. After pondering whether he should “purify” his mandala by removing the intruders or leave them, he settles upon the latter course, reasoning that “…to love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole.” His imagining of the eventual fate of the golf balls displays his ability to visualize immense processes taking place in vast sweeps of time, as they inevitably succumb to the entropy that humans are so gifted at temporarily reversing.
One of my favorite images from the book also involves human interaction in nature, in the essay in which the author describes nature’s warning networks, mechanisms that we are largely unaware of on our outings: birds’ alarm cries, squirrels chittering, deer flashing white tails and chuffing at being disturbed, all creating an expanding circle of heightened alert and caution. He writes, “Hikers, for example, are preceded by bow waves that arrive minutes before their chatter and laughter.” And you wondered why you never see anything in the woods? The author also describes the remedy—sit down, hold still and shut up until things calm down. Nature doesn’t expect that of us.
Dr. Haskell’s view on humans in the network could be described as cautiously benign. He is certainly aware of problems in humans interacting with the rest of the natural world, but he refuses to isolate them from it. He is kinder than I might be much of the time. But he, too, can reach his limit of toleration, as on one occasion when he ventures out on a beautiful morning to find that part of the forest had been ransacked of salamanders to use as fishing bait. “The stream was gutted. The forest’s salamanders would die on hooks or in stinking bait buckets. I felt disgust and visceral anger. I walked on, my ire surging and coiling into itself.” The event triggered an episode of heart fibrillation that required a hospital visit after a hard trip back to town.
I suspect that in private, the author might express a few more pointed and perhaps harsher opinions of humankind’s treatment of the planet, but in The Forest Unseen he maintains a cautious and even-handed approach. We are seen as part and unruly parcel of the rest of existence. But I would not like to be discovered by him in the act of poaching.
By far, the largest part of the book is taken up with finding greater meaning in the minutiae of the mandala and its surroundings, unraveling the threads that make up the fabric of the forest and greater world. From the “dung pats” of grazing springtails, minute insect-like creatures that have an outsized influence on the soil and litter, to a 4.9 Richter scale earth-tremor that apparently had no effect on the mandala at all, Haskell uses his observations to elicit a karmic framework of cause and effect extending though space and time.
This book will not appeal to everyone. It’s not a gripping, suspenseful thriller, but rather a book of quiet, personal science, of spiritual biology. It should be read, I think, in small doses, in quiet moments, with time to let the ideas and images absorb and percolate. A basic knowledge of life sciences will help, but anyone with a genuine love for and curiosity about the natural world can appreciate The Forest Unseen. It is above all, perhaps, a textbook on the fine art of observation, how to see, rather than merely look.
It is difficult to read it and see the world in quite the same way afterwards. I mean that in the best way. If one can truly find infinity in the workings of the natural world, as Dr. Haskell does, it doesn’t much matter whether one’s pondering take place in a square meter, an urban backyard, or a national park. Any part of infinity is still, well, infinity.
(Dr. Haskell maintains a blog called Ramble where he continues his observations and musings. If you like the book, I think you will like the blog as well.)