It is that time of year again, dear readers, where I have finished a couple of books on my summer reading list and pass along thoughts and recommendations.
First up is the best natural history/science book I’ve read in years. Now that’s a low bar, because I don’t usually read natural history/science books. But in this case, with the reviews in, my reading habits don’t really matter as others use the same accolades.
A colleague, who also happens to be an alumnus of The University of the South, recommended Sewanee professor David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Ever since I finished the book I’ve been meaning to thank George for the suggestion. This is a gem of a little book.
Haskell’s work is a meditation of a year’s worth of observation on a small patch of old growth forest near Sewanee in Tennessee. Several reviewers commented that the book is both very modern and very old-fashioned, and I had the same reactions. As a modern-trained biologist, Haskell’s knowledge of science touches on all the current themes. Yet he also sounds like the naturalists from the 19th century who were explaining the vast American continent to a new nation.
Haskell’s frame is to visit the same patch of forest throughout the course of one year and to write essays about his observations on specific days. On May 25th a mosquito lands on his hand and he lets her probe his skin. He describes what the mosquito does as she hits a blood vessel, what happens to the mosquito as she flies away, and heads into an explanation of malaria that includes the tidbit that the forest is here for the mosquito because it has been protected by the university, which was established – in part – because of malaria.
Like many of the older universities in the East, the school is located on a plateau, away from the swamps the breed malaria and yellow fever. The cool temperatures and relative freedom of the Tennessee hills from mosquitoes made them an ideal place to send the offspring of the southern gentry. The school year ran through the summer, allowing students to escape the heat and disease of the cities.
This little excerpt is just a small sample of the way Haskell looks at one part of nature and expands its reach throughout nature and humanity. But it doesn’t really give a taste of the poetic nature of this book. How many biologists would write, “When laughing children chase after fireflies, they are not pursuing beetles but catching wonder….” and make you believe that they believe it. Haskell does, and he goes on to add,
When wonder matures, it peels back experience to seek deeper layers of marvel below. This is science’s highest purpose. And the firefly’s story is rich in hidden wonder. The beetle’s flash invites admiration for evolution’s ability to cobble together a masterpiece from unremarkable raw materials: the lantern at the tip of the firefly’s abdomen is made from standard-issue insect materials but assembled in such a way that the insect become a glowing forest sprite.
Haskell loves nature, but not at the expense of humanity. Finding golf balls that have been misplayed from a nearby course into the woods leads to a longer meditation on man’s place in the world. Instead of removing the golf balls and “tidying” up nature, he decides to leave them.
The impulse to purify might fail on a second, deeper level. Human artifacts are not stains imposed on nature. Such a view drives a wedge between humanity and the rest of the community of life. A golf ball is the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate. This primate loves to invent games to test its physical and mental skill. Generally, these games are played on carefully reconstructed replicas of the savanna from which the ape came and for which its subconscious still hankers. The clever primate belongs in this world. Maybe the primate’s productions do also….To love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole. To truly love the world is also to love human ingenuity and playfulness. Nature does not need to be cleansed of human artifacts to be beautiful or coherent. Yes, we should be less greedy, untidy, wasteful, and shortsighted. But let us not turn responsibility into self-hatred. Our biggest failing is, after all, lack of compassion for the world. Including ourselves.
On Christmas Eve, as his year in the forest is nearing an end, Haskell explains what he has done and why. As is expected by this time, it is thoughtful, lucid, and respectful prose.
This year I have tried to put down scientific tools and to listen: to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, with a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes. I have glimpsed how rich science is but simultaneously how limited in scope and in spirit. It is unfortunate that the practice of listening generally has no place in the formal training of scientists. In this absence, science needlessly fails. We are poorer for this, and possibly more hurtful. What Christmas Eve gifts might a listening culture give its forests?
…My experience of animals is richer for knowing their stories, and science is a powerful way to deepen this understanding….all stories are partly wrapped in fiction – the fiction of simplifying assumptions, of cultural myopia and of storytellers’ pride. I learn to revel in the stories but not to mistake them for the bright, ineffable nature of the world.
This is a wonderful book. Read it yourself. Give it to someone you love. You’ll both be thankful.
More to come…