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CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

By David George Haskell
2012, Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143122944
Paperback; 288 pages; $17.00

I recommend this earlier book even more. As mentioned above and stated in the cover quote from E.O. Wilson, Haskell’s writing “is located between science and poetry.” Although this is an apt description for both books, the writing in The Forest Unseen is a bit less toward the poetry end of the spectrum than that in The Songs of Trees and was, although not at all dry sciencey, more to my liking, as were the topics of his essays.

The idea for this book was similarly imaginative to the dozen-trees approach Haskell used in Songs. This time, however, the repeat visits were made to a single specific spot, in a patch of old forest very near his home and university campus, rather than to more than 12 locations on three continents. The setting is explained in the Preface, which opens with a description of students (apparently on one heck of an ecology field trip) observing Tibetan monks using colored sand to create a mandala. “[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.” And so Haskell hopes to understand the forest through a 1-meter circular mandala of his own. “I believe that the forest’s ecological stories are all present in a mandala-sized area. Indeed, the truth of the forest may be more clearly and vividly revealed by the contemplation of a small area than it could be by donning ten-league boots, covering a continent but uncovering little.” Hence he walked haphazardly into the forest and stopped when he found a suitable rock on which to sit. The area in front of the rock became his forest mandala.

The mandala is located on a slope in steep rocky terrain, which likely explains why very old trees remain there — oaks, maples, basswoods, hickories, tuliptrees, and a dozen more species — too hard to reach to have been logged. Or perhaps they were just lucky. Having selected the mandala’s site, Haskell visited it repeatedly over the course of a year. Not daily, but often enough that the book contains accounts from 40 different dates, beginning with New Year’s Day and ending with New Year’s Eve, and these accounts represent the book’s “chapters.” They range in length from 3 to 10 pages, making the book an easy one to pick up and put down. Their titles are very simple — “January 1st— Partnerships,” “April 14th—Moth,” “July 2nd—Fungi,” and so on.

Each account includes not just Haskell’s direct observations, but an essay whose subject was triggered by his observations. For instance, after listening to the songs of birds at sunrise, he explains how the birds are able to sing and why their songs can only be heard at close range. On an unusually cold day in mid-January (temperatures in the low teens), he decided to experience the cold as the animals do and stripped off his clothes (apparently not quite all of them, however). His experiment lasted only a minute before he quickly re-dressed, rightly fearing that he was in serious danger of hypothermia. Fortunately, he survived to explain to us why the Carolina chickadees that serenaded his striptease are able to function in conditions that likely would have killed him had he not gotten back into his warm clothes when he did.

Besides being an interesting and informative read, Haskell’s descriptions of his observations set an example that should be part of every person’s education. We all too often fail to get kids to learn how to look at something closely and carefully, make sense of those observations, and then connect them to their existing body of knowledge. Mimicking Haskell’s approach as an educational exercise (minus the freezing weather strip-down) would be valuable for students of all ages, and a useful adjunct to strategies such as having kids prepare maps of the areas in which they live.

Very highly recommended. (Not just by me — Maggie Rogers also loves it.)

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi