I’m in Sewanee, Tennessee helping take care of my father in what must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. If you look down the forested hill upon which my parents’ house is perched, you can catch glimpses of a shimmering lake. Walk a little past the lake and you can look over the edge of the mountain and down into the heavily wooded Lost Cove, which has patches of old growth forest. Recently Sewanee College bought much of that forest and has reserved it for research use.
The forest has its own poet as well. Actually, David Haskell is a member of the biology department but he sees the forest with a poet’s eye. Recently he wrote an extraordinary book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012), which is a combination of scientific observation and Zen meditation.
Drawing inspiration from Tibetan Buddhist monks who visited Sewanee and created a sand mandala, Haskell found a small patch of forest, a circle a meter across, and monitored it for a year. Here are the rules that he set for himself:
I sit next to the mandala on a flat slab of sandstone. My rules at the mandala are simple: visit often, watching a year circle past; be quiet, keep disturbance to a minimum; no killing, no removal of creatures, no digging in or crawling over the mandala. The occasional thoughtful touch is enough. I have no set schedule for visits, but I watch here many times each week. This book relates the events in the mandala as they happen.
The science of the book is a joy to read as Haskell talks about everything from the complicated dance of algae and fungus that make up lichen to early spring flowers competing for sunlight before the thickening forest canopy to birds fluttering to stay warm on a snowy day to coyotes howling in the distance. When he describes how lichen works, he invokes what the Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi has to say about acquiescence. He quotes William Blake and refers to various Christian mystics in his introduction:
The search for the universal within the infinitesimally small is a quiet theme playing through most cultures. The Tibetan mandala is our guiding metaphor, but we also find context for this work in Western culture. Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” raises the stakes by shrinking the mandala to a speck of earth of a flower: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Blake’s desire builds on the tradition of Western mysticism most notably demonstrated by the Christian contemplatives. For Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis of Assisi, or lady Julian of Norwich, a dungeon, a cave, or a tiny hazelnut could all serve as lenses through which to experience the ultimate reality.
This book is a biologist’s respone to the challenge of the Tibetan mandala, of Blake’s poems, of Lady Julian’s hazelnut. Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water.
At one point, when describing how trees “see” color, Haskell invokes Ralph Waldo’s Emerson’s notion of the “transparent eyeball.” (“I yielded myself to the perfect whole,” Emerson writes in “Each and All,” a poem that helps us locate Haskell within the American transcendental tradition.) At another, Haskell notes that the wild turkey gobbling he hears was described by Henry David Thoreau as “the voice of the wood nymph.”
The book begins on January 1, and by the time Haskell has reached December 31, he acknowledges that he has barely made a dent in the forest. He has learned much about himself, however:
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, I have come to see myself more clearly.
Although Haskell doesn’t mention Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” it certainly applies to his project:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Haskell is careful not to do any plucking. But he is certainly on a quest that manages to transcend the divide between the scientific and the spiritual.