2016-10-15: The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012)

by David George Haskell (? – )

This is an excellent book for those interested in nature, in the tradition of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Haskell spends a year closely observing a very small patch of old-growth forest, and reporting what he sees, hears, smells, and feels. The book has around 40 chapters, each tagged with a date and a particular slice of the forest he sees: February 28th – Salamander; July 2nd – Fungi; November 21st – Twigs.

I found something interesting in every chapter, and in the theme running through them all: the interconnectedness of the web of life. A couple of passages I want to remember come from December 3rd – Litter, and from the Epilogue.

As he explores the forest’s leaf litter, dominated by fungi, and the interdependence among fungi, trees, and other species, he says:

… it is clear that the old “red in tooth and claw” view of the natural economy has to be updated. We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes, fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work, thus propelling their intellectual “competitors” onward. Our minds are like trees – they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.

After acknowledging Linnaeus and Leopold as his forebears he says this about the attraction of his close observation of his square meter “mandala”, and how many others in other environments might be observed:

We all differ in our ways of learning, so it is perhaps presumptuous of me to make suggestions for how to observe these mandalas But two insights from my experience seem worth sharing with those who would like to try. The first is to leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.

The second suggestion is to borrow from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly return the mind’s attention to the present moment. Our attention wanders, relentlessly. Bring it gently back. Over and over, seek out the sensory details: the particularities of sound, the feel and smell of the place, the visual complexities. This practice is not arduous, but it does take deliberate acts of the will.

The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We to are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time: our keen interest in fruits, meats, sugar, and salt; our obsession with social hierarchies, clans, and networks; our fascination with the aesthetics of human skin, hair, and bodily shapes; our incessant intellectual curiosity and ambition. Each one of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity and depth as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, Have come to see myself more clearly.

part of what we discover by observing ourselves is an affinity for the world around us. The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance.

Haskell has posted a gallery of photos from the site: https://theforestunseen.com/gallery/

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