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The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
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message 1: by Becky (new)

Becky Norman | 652 comments Mod
Please add your comments about The Forest Unseen here.


message 2: by Ray (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ray Zimmerman | 629 comments I have read this book twice already, but it is a great read, and I look forward to reading it again.


message 3: by Chrissy (last edited Dec 01, 2015 11:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chrissy (wildreturn) Yes, I've read it twice as well. And will be reading it again, all week. There is something so piercingly marvelous about reading Haskell's accounts of his exquisite love affair with the wild and being drawn deeper into that love affair myself in the process.

At times I found myself on the brink of overwhelm as I read some of the scientific descriptions, even rendered so tenderly, but as I kept reading I would find myself calming down and having these epiphanies after which I found myself as much in love with the fine details that led to these epiphanies as Haskell.

This is his genius, his gift to those who invite his attentiveness in. He revels in the wild's sumptuous, sensuous, erotic and fierce nature, ever deepening his readers' intimacy with the unexpected. Whether lichen, fungi, vulture, coyote, snail, soil or springtail, Haskell gives himself over to their seduction - and invites us to dive in with him.

I am forever grateful for this - and changed. My own lifelong affair with the wild is much more expansive and richer for reading Haskell. As Oscar Wilde is quoted, "To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence."


message 4: by Sharman (new)

Sharman Russell (sharmanaptrussell) | 27 comments A wonderful book. I learned a lot. And I have gone back to consult some of this for my own work. I did smile sometimes at the metaphors and similes, sometimes a bit of a froth, sometimes a bit of a pink and white wedding cake over the top! I mention this caveat only briefly in my review of this book (posted below) for OnEarth Magazine, the publication for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Really, his love affair with figurative language only made me a little more fond of the author.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
David George Haskell

Viking, 288 pp., $25.95

Like all sword swallowers, plants in cold climates must prepare carefully to absorb sharp edges. Weeks before the first hard freeze, plants move delicate structures like DNA to the center of their cells. The cells also fill with sugar molecules, which lower the freezing point of liquid. Outside the cell, unsweetened water turning to ice releases heat (a law of physics), which will warm the cell slightly. The plant cell is now a protected ball of syrup surrounded by deadly ice shards. As the biologist David George Haskell writes in his engaging new book, The Forest Unseen, "Plants in winter must swallow tens of thousands of blades, keeping each one away from their fragile hearts."

Vivid imagery is at the heart of this book, which mixes science with lushly figurative language -- similes, hyperbole, personification! The hickory tree is a sports car "kept off the road by ice until late in the spring" and then leafing out quickly in summer when the water-carrying pipelines of its long, wide xylem tubes are "thrown open" to outstrip all rivals. Describing the honey locust’s thorny stems, once a defense against the now-extinct mastodon and still twice as high as any deer can reach, Haskell observes, "These widowed plants wear history on their sleeves." Later he mourns, "A forest without large herbivores is an orchestra without violins." Although the metaphors extend sometimes farther than you want, biochemistry has never had a more enthusiastic storyteller.

Our Scheherazade begins with the scene of two Tibetan monks funneling streams of colored sand in the creation of a mandala, a circle filled with symbols that reflect the cosmos. Mandala can be translated to mean "community." For his exploration of community, Haskell chose a circle of old-growth forest in hilly Tennessee, a little more than a yard across, which he visits every week for a year. He sits next to his "mandala" on a slab of sandstone, quiet, observant, with no scientific agenda, nothing to prove, and no instrument but a hand lens.

From this perch, we watch how plants and animals adapt to the changing seasons, from spring storms to oppressive summer brightness, when a fleck of sun can be so intense that unprepared leaves are in danger of being "zapped" by the light’s energized electrons. We become intimate with bees and chickadees and the short, violent lives of shrews. We gain a new spatial perspective probing beneath leaf litter for pink hemipteran bugs and white springtails. Looking at the partnerships of lichen (fungus and algae) or of a tree’s root system (plant and fungus), we become aware of our own interdependencies, the microbes in our gut and the mitochondria in our cells. "We are Russian dolls," Haskell writes, "our lives made possible by other lives within us."

Occasionally our study is interrupted. Walking to the mandala one morning, the author is outraged at the sight of a stream ransacked by poachers looking for salamanders to use as fish bait. His heart begins to fibrillate, and he spends the afternoon in the hospital. Another visit reveals two glossy-white domes within the mandala -- the balls have been sent over like alien spaceships from a nearby golf course. The biologist deliberates and then leaves them alone, reasoning that the golf balls belong here too, "the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate."

In the end, we can’t love nature and hate humanity both, for we are one and the same. As the book comes full circle, January 1 to December 31, so Haskell’s richly wrought creation nicely reflects the Tibetan mandala he first describes, a symbol for a much larger community.


message 5: by Ray (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ray Zimmerman | 629 comments The cold weather experiment was fascinating but dangerous.


message 6: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan Feathers (susanfeathers) | 6 comments It is fun to see the world through the mind of a biologist who "sees" with a broad perspective.

The meditation on a meter circle of forest floor as a mandala of life brings together many "ways of knowing." I am still reading (Audible) and will comment again when I complete the book.

He is akin to Edward O. Wilson. Don't you think?


message 7: by Sharman (new)

Sharman Russell (sharmanaptrussell) | 27 comments I especially like a passage where he wonders if snails don't have their own kind of consciousness and where he complains that modern medicine sees snails (and other animals, perhaps) just as hollow lumbering theaters where images play on the screen and no one is watching. I think he has the ability to transcend the scientist's "objectivity" while still staying true to science.


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