On a wooded slope in Shakerag Hollow in Sewanee, David George Haskell spent a year observing what he calls a “forest mandala.” Inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist practice of creating a circular sand painting that symbolizes all creation, Haskell chose a small piece of ever changing forest as his mandala. The University of the South biology professor visited frequently during the next 12 months and documented the experience in “The Forest Unseen,” published this spring.
“I’m trying to use this one square meter as area of contemplation but also as a way of seeing the whole functioning of our ecology,” he says.
Biologist E.O. Wilson has praised the book as “a new genre of nature writing, located between science and poetry, in which the invisible appear, the small grow large, and the immense complexity and beauty of life are more clearly revealed.”
Haskell’s blending of science and poetry comes through in passages like this one: “The sun is origin of both the dawn’s light and the birds’ morning songs. The glow on the horizon is light filtered through our atmosphere; the music in the air is the sun’s energy filtered through the plants and animals that powered the singing birds. The enchantment of an April sunrise is a web of flowing energy. The web is anchored at one end by matter turned to energy in the sun and at the other end by energy turned to beauty in our consciousness.”
It’s not all beauty of course. One meditation begins with a cringe-inducing sequence in which Haskell watches through a magnifying lens as a pregnant mosquito—they’re the only ones that bite humans—lands on his hand, feeds and flies away. I had to fight the urge to swat his literary mosquito, but Haskell resists and moves smoothly from the mosquito’s life cycle and the West Nile Virus—“Perhaps I should not have been so sanguine about my exsanguination,” he deadpans—to how the need to avoid mosquito-borne malaria brought the University of the South (and thus him) to the Cumberland Plateau. He segues from blood flowing through mosquitoes to calcium flowing from snail shells to birds’ eggs and sulfur flowing from fossil coal to acid rain. Back in the soil, sulfur from coal “tips the chemical balance against the snails,” which might mean fewer birds to eat the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile Virus.
“This ripple in the cloth floats across the forest,” he writes, “perhaps finding a hem at which to end, perhaps floating on forever, drifting through the mosquitoes, viruses, humans, ever outward.”
Small ripples become big waves. In northern Europe, where acid rain has washed out the calcium from the soil, snail populations have crashed and birds are having trouble breeding, says Haskell. There are similar places on the Cumberland Plateau where the soils are so old and acidic that birds have a hard time finding enough calcium to breed.
“All forests are embedded in other landscapes,” he says. “Every time it rains or dust lands in the forest mandala there are pieces of other places, like the mercury that comes out of coal burning power plant, raining down on it continually. That’s changing it in subtle ways. That mercury becomes formed, embodied. That changes how the world is, how the forest is, even though that patch of forest is not being mined for coal. Just sitting there, it’s affected by what’s happening elsewhere.”
Much of the time, though, he’s writing about very small things—a tick perched on the tip of a viburnum branch, the architecture of mosses, how plant cells change in winter so they can freeze without being shredded from inside by ice crystals.
“That small scale is a scale at which a lot of ecology happens. We think about big questions like global warming, but all is rooted down in details of how twigs grow, how ants carry the seeds of wildflowers. All those things happen at very small scale. That doesn’t mean that global patterns aren’t important. They are, but ultimately they’re rooted in the little details of millions of small places.”
Human economies depend on both local events and national control, but “In the natural economy there is no federal government. It’s all coming literally from the grass roots. To understand it you have to get down into those roots and really pay attention to details.”
“We create wonderful places by giving them our attention,” Haskell writes.
His year of essays ends with a musing on the separateness of human and natural worlds. Apparently reassured, Haskell writes, “The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us.”
But humanity and nature can’t quite be separate either: “As my eyes adjust to the night, I see my shadow in the moonlight, resting across the circle of leaves.”
More information on “The Forest Unseen,” including the author’s photos of the forest mandala, can be found at theforestunseen.com.