Monday, March 17, 2014

#21 The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in NatureThe Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maybe I'm the only one that feared that great nature writing was a thing of the past. Haskell proves that fear unfounded. The premise of The Forest Unseen is that Haskell watches a tiny patch of old-growth forest over the course of a year and writes about his observations. But Haskell is a biologist and so we watch him elaborate these forest scenes into rich and intricate microcosms. It's the knowledge brought from his profession--but more importantly the ability to ask deep questions--that allows this expansion and articulation of the tiny universes before him.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: Haskell sees some twigs showing signs of deer browsing. This leads into a discussion of deer digestion: how they have a special stomach (called a rumen) that has it's own complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, protists, and other tiny creatures; how the deer are not born with this inner ecology in place, but have to build it while young. Next the attention turns from the deer's ecological interior to it's ecological exterior and we see how the deer shapes and is shaped by the forest. All from observing a few snipped twigs.

Haskell almost lost me in the very beginning of the book. He conducts a little experiential experiment. In the middle of a windy winter deep freeze he strips naked there in the forest to experience the cold as the birds are experiencing it. I almost wrote him off as a nut case. I'm glad I didn't.

Haskell doesn't just play the role of a cool and impartial scientist. I mean…he does his best to be objective about the facts before him. However, in one scene it becomes abundantly clear that he cares deeply about the forest and it's inhabitants. On one visit to the forest he sees that a stream running through it has been ransacked by fishermen who flipped every stone searching for salamanders to use as bait (and probably finding some). Haskell was so physically upset at this wonton destruction of salamanders and their stream that heart palpitations landed him in the hospital!

This book was a delight to read because it was so well written and it is packed with interesting scientific and philosophical insights.

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