Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Quiet and Close Observation: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

The Forest Unseen is a 2012 book by David George Haskell which I have only now gotten around to reading. This blog is your place to go for reviews of old books. Of course, maybe it is new to you, in which case I hope this review encourages you to read the book.

Haskell chose a square meter of area on the floor of an old growth forest in Tennessee. It was not out in the middle of a wilderness; there is no such place in the eastern United States. In fact, it was just downhill from a golf course. But it was as close to undisturbed nature as one could expect to find. Having chosen his spot, Haskell watched it for a year and wrote a book about what he saw.

Anybody could have done what Haskell did. It is true that he used his immense knowledge of nature to not only identify the organisms that he saw, but to draw the numerous connections between these organisms and the larger world of science. But anybody could have seen these things and figured out at least a little about what they were doing. That is the main impact of The Forest Unseen: wonders await us if we just sit quietly and look closely at the natural world. You don’t need a Ph.D. to do this.

The tiny world of fungi and arthropods and wildflowers is an exciting place. Haskell captures the immediacy of this excitement by usually writing in the present tense. You are there with him, seeing what he sees. You can’t just quickly glance at the world of nature. There is a photo on the cover of Haskell looking through a hand lens at the forest floor. Much of the excitement is on a tiny scale. At one point, he had to watch the soil for a half hour before he realized that what he was seeing was a horsehair worm rather than a bit of leaf litter.

Haskell used poetic language masterfully. As numerous reviewers have remarked, his descriptions are some of the most beautiful that have been written. For example, he described chickadees on a cold day as “four pennyweight furnaces” because of the immense amount of heat, relative to their size, that they produce. He referred to the “pheromone love poems” of invertebrates. Tiny mushrooms and other fungi are a “regatta” (he also says “flotilla”) of colors in a decomposing sea of leaf litter. He is the only writer I know, other than Edgar Allan Poe, to use the word tintinnabulation. This poetic language is exactly what his readers, amateur naturalists, need. Scientists would strongly object to some of his terms, for example when he called a fern gametophyte a little lily pad. It looks like one, but the description is misleading—but only misleading if you are taking a botany course. Maybe the university publishers rejected it for this reason. But the major commercial publisher that released it knew that this book was perfect for nature-lovers.

Haskell draws many fascinating connections between what he sees and the larger world of scientific (and other) knowledge. For example, when he describes a snowflake, he explains how the six-sided shape follows inevitably from the chemical characteristics of the water molecules, but also that each snowflake is different because its shape is determined by so many microscale processes, the little tiny differences in temperature, humidity, and wind as each snowflake forms. Thus each snowflake is the product of natural law and historical accident. This is a major scientific concept, but you can see it in a snowflake. He also explained that Johannes Kepler, in his study of snowflakes, drew some incorrect conclusions, but his observations laid the groundwork for scientists a few decades later to discover that everything was made of atoms—something Kepler did not believe.

Haskell even discusses theology when he describes ichneumon wasps, which he saw following a sunfleck on the forest floor. These wasps lay eggs in caterpillars. The eggs hatch, and the grubs eat the caterpillars from the inside. In the nineteenth century, scientists, philosophers, and theologians argued about whether this constituted cruelty that was contrary to the character of the creator God. I’ll bet that very few of Haskell’s readers knew anything about this controversy that directly involved Charles Darwin and his religious friend, the botanist Asa Gray. Wonderful!

I hope that this book continues to inspire all of us, even after we have finished reading it. I sat outside, reading it, and my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter saw the picture on the cover. I told her what Haskell was doing, and right away we got out a magnifying glass and started looking closely at the soil of our backyard. It is possible that this little act, especially if we continue to do it, will have changed by granddaughter’s life.

Richard Louv’s books encourage parents to let kids play in the wild—climb trees and all that. Such undirected play is extremely important. But it is also important for people of all ages to stop and watch the immediate environment carefully and quietly, as Haskell did. It may be hard to get kids to do this for very long, but even for the few moments that they will slow down and look will prove very important to their mental development.

Alas, I cannot do what Haskell did. I cannot go and find an undisturbed place and listen to nature. I don’t believe there is any such place in Oklahoma. Every square meter of Oklahoma is filled with human noise, as well as human garbage. One “natural area” near Tulsa is right near an airport where hundreds of amateur pilots fill the sky; you can usually see and hear three at a time. Another is near a quarry which has constant explosions. There is no place where one does not continually hear loud, fast pickup trucks. Down by the Arkansas River in Tulsa, and Lake Texoma on the state’s southern border, there are hundreds of pieces of garbage everywhere. Or, perhaps there is a quiet place without trash. That is what Black Mesa is like, out in the Panhandle, very near New Mexico. But to get there I have to drive almost nine hours (one way). Not only is silent watching of nature a rare gift that Haskell has, and the rest of us could have, but places to do it are even rarer.

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