“The search for the universal within the infinitesimally small is a quiet theme playing through most cultures, ” writes biologist David George Haskell. Tibetan monks represent the universe in a table-top mandala of colored sand. English mystic poet William Blake asked whether it was possible to see an entire world in just one of those grains.
Haskell poses another challenge: “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks and water?”
His window is a mandala of earth — “a circle a little over a meter across” — found in old-growth forest in the hills of Tennessee. Seated on a flat boulder and armed with a magnifying glass, Haskell studies what goes on at his feet from January to December.
His rules are simple: Be quiet, do no harm, visit often.
The results, collected in his book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking) take the homely splotch of forest floor pictured on the cover — dead leaves, vines, moss and ferns lit by a ray of sunlight — and transform it into a series of lessons taught by a master instructor with the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet.
Haskell, a biology professor at the University of the South, is known for trading abstract lectures and reading assignments for classes structured around on-site or hands-on lessons. The square meter in The Forest Unseen was part of a “first laboratory class in ecology” that included students who created “their own mandala by throwing a hoop onto the ground.”
But Haskell is no ordinary biology teacher, as we discover in our very first class, when he observes that the radiance of nearby rocks “comes not from stone but from mantles of lichen that blush emerald, jade, and pearl in the humid air.”
His scientific approach is drenched in metaphor and anthropomorphism: Lichens, he writes, discovered a Taoist philosophy of “acquiescence” millions of years before the Taoists. Their “quietude and outer simplicity … hides the complexity of their inner lives, ” hinted at by their vibrant colors: turquoise to purple, lime green to silver — evidence of a billion-year-old arrangement of “bacterial tenants.”
Well before Haskell has finished teasing out the Russian doll complexities of their existence, we are lichen fans for life.
Under Haskell’s magnifying glass, what to us looks like an unremarkable forest floor takes on the exquisite, layered intricacy of a Faberge egg, its color and texture more vivid than photographs. Mosses “lie in fat ropes, each rope wrapped in closely spaced leaflets. From a distance, the stems look like living dreadlocks; a closer view shows the leaflets are arranged in repeating spirals, like green petals repeating over and over.”
A red eft has “eyes like droplets of gold” and skin like “crimson velvet.” “Iridescent wasps and flies shine like metal shavings scattered across the mandala” when a fleck of sun illuminates Haskell’s territory in late July.
Brimming with sensual details, when Haskell’s modest patch of turf removes its glasses, it’s as sexy as Marian the Librarian. Take the origins of a juvenile salamander he sees emerge from a leaf pile: “Its parents courted last spring with delicate footwork and tender cheek rubbing. Salamander skin is a patchwork of scent glands, so the cheek rubs convey chemical whispers and pheromone love poems.”
Even a passage about photons verges on the erotic: “An air molecule that absorbs a photon jiggles with the excitement of the energy, then pops out a new photon … the ejected photon is shot out in a new direction, so the tidy stream of blue photons is scattered into a ricochet of light.”
“Science, done well, ” Haskell writes, “deepens our intimacy with the world.”
His outdoor salon accomplishes just that through chapters that use simple elements of the mandala — a snowflake, a leaf miner, a fungi known as a “shaggy scarlet cup” — as jumping-off points for eloquent, insightful meditations on ecology, biology and evolution.
From the “animated jellybean” of a subterranean springtail to the tallest maple trees, every character in The Forest Unseen plays a vital role — not just in the healthy balance of Haskell’s mandala but in that of the planet, our well-being included.
Mosses clean our water supply; vultures prevent the spread of infectious disease; and, hidden beneath the drab leaf litter, “the brightest jewels, the actinomycetes, strange semicolonial bacteria” yield “many of our most successful antibiotics.”
By laying bare the intelligence and precision of this smoothly running clockwork, Haskell hints at what can happen when humans interfere with the snails’ pace of evolution: Destroy one part, however small, and another will eventually pay the price.
It could be us, he suggests, given the pace of overdevelopment, unless we begin to restore “a semblance of clarity to our moral vision” — perhaps by observing our own “oasis of contemplation, ” much like his square meter in Tennessee.
“Nature, ” Haskell reminds us at the end of his marvelous course, “is not a separate place.” Humans, too, are part of this Russian doll chain of life: “We are lichens on a grand scale. … our lives made possible by other lives within us” — and all around us, seen and unseen.
For more on The Forest Unseen, go here.