Book Review: The Forest Unseen
by David George Haskell
Viking Books, 2012
Tibetan monks, we’re told by those who profess to understand them, use beautiful sand-sculpted mandalas as aides to meditation, vessels into which a cleansing focus can be poured. That great insights can be gleaned from painstakingly small observations is a thing well known to poets, programmers, and particle physicists, and since the days of Gilbert White (if not Aristotle), it’s been one of the favorite methods of naturalists. In 2003, Chet Raymo used this method in his charming book The Path, in which he studied the natural world found only along the one-mile path from his house to his job, and before him many other such writers endeavored to discover what they could about just one pond, or just one meadow, or just one brook.
Environmental biologist David George Haskell has chosen to narrow his focus even further. In his entirely captivating new book The Forest Unseen, he devotes a year of his attention to a one-square-meter patch of old growth forest in Tennessee, sifting through its dirt and loam, probing its nooks and crannies, pouring over its rocks with a magnifying glass and a good deal of unassuming wisdom.
As in the best natural histories, there’s a good deal of highly detailed learning as well, adroitly distilled by our author in little asides seemingly designed to make every reader wish they were lucky enough to be students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of the South. Take this elaboration on the digestion of the leafhopper, an aphid relative:
Even with a sophisticated filtering system in their guts, the diet of leafhoppers is inadequate, or it would be if they did not receive help from bacteria. Not only is plant sap watery but it contains an unbalanced mixture of amino acids; some of the amino acids necessary for insect growth are present, but some are not. Insects cannot make the missing amino acids from scratch. Instead, leafhopper guts have cells specially designed to hold bacteria that make amino acids. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement: the bacteria gets a place to live an a continual supply of food, and the insects get their missing nutrients.
Of course, a book that actually was entirely devoted to one square meter of ground might get a trifle dull even with the most congenial of guides, and it’s lucky for his readers Haskell doesn’t really attempt such a thing – his book’s focus widens whenever he likes it to, especially into contemplation of the changes taking place in the broader ecosystem around his little mandala, as, for example, the complex effects on Eastern United States wilderness and semi-wilderness areas of the return of a new, bigger, more daring version of Canis latrans:
The coyote’s colonization of the East has been a dance with the forest. The coyote’s diet and behavior have turned and swayed, following the rhythm of the East. The dance partner, the forest, has added new steps and recovered some older, almost forgotten moves. Deer now have a wild predator, another lay of danger to add to disease, feral dogs, automobiles, and firearms. The catholic diet of coyotes means that their effect on the forest’s choreography spreads beyond predation on deer. Fruiting plants now have an additional disperser, one that carries seeds many miles. Smaller mammals now live in fear of the wild canid. Coyotes also reduce populations of raccoons, opossums, and, to the consternation of pet owners, domestic cats. The suppression of these small omnivores has an unexpected silver lining for birds. Areas with coyotes are safe places for songbirds to build nests and raise young.
The lovely prose there is evident throughout this book, which is one of the finest works of natural history yet to appear in 2012. Haskell is a gentle, inquisitive presence on every page, always alive to the mundane wonders around him. Indeed, his book is marred by only one persistent failing on his part: his stubborn refusal to admit at any point in The Forest Unseen that the spot he’s chosen for his mandala – the old growth forests of Tennessee – could also do convincing stand-in duty for the blackest pit of Hell. Haskell is so blasted even-keeled that unwary readers who’ve never suffered their way through those very same old growth forests might not guess at the rampant heat, the suffocating humidity, the black, gyrating swarms of biting, stinging insects, the omnipresent face-draping spider webs, etc. Haskell’s calm ripples only a couple of times – including once when he contemplates yet another signature feature of the Tennessee old growth, a super-fast and incredibly temperamental creature called Agkistrodon contortrix – the copperhead:
My fear of predators was likely imprinted on my psyche by millions of years of natural selection. Tropical primates with poor night vision seldom live long if they have cocky attitudes toward the dark. Like all other living creatures, I am the descendant of survivors, so the fear in my head is the voice of my ancestors whispering their accumulated wisdom. My conscious mind chimes in with zoological fear-mongering: long-hinged fangs, painful blood-destroying venom, a pit near the eye that catches minute changes in temperature, a strike that lashes out in a tenth of a second. I reach the mandala, and its familiarity eases my tension. Another whisper from the family tree: what is known is safe.
What is known is safe indeed – until one of those wrist-thick and bullishly aggressive copperheads curls itself up at the bottom of one of your known, therefore safe, boots while you’re sleeping; since in Haskell’s one-square-meter plot there were probably roughly 25 copperheads, it’s a bit amazing he didn’t experience that particular tension, of the many hours of sweating, heart-racing, goggle-eyed wracking agony that follow a bite from such an evil creature.
Still, in his defense, Haskell isn’t advocating that others pack their bags and head to his mandala – quite the opposite. His point is that all such humble plots are equally valuable, equally places of wonder and surprise; his call is for his readers to find their own mandala and invest it with the same humble concentration he’s given to his – with the hoped-for end result that all those millions of mandalas will fuse into one world badly in need of humble, concentrated attention. And if lethal, poisonous Southern reptiles aren’t absolutely required for that, so much the better.