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Book Name : The Forest Unseen (A Year’s Watch in Nature)

Author Name : David George Haskell

Published By : Penguin

Reviewed by: Gunjan Joshi

Genre: Non-fiction (Science)

Discovering Zen in the Patch of a Forest

Mandalas, as I can understand from the book are fragile sand structures, used as an aide by Buddhist monks to meditate. These act as vessels in which these monks pour their cleansed focus. The fact that great insights can be extracted from painstakingly minute observations is not new to botanists, zoologists, ecologists, particle physicists, artists, and poets. Hence, before David George Haskell, a lot of authors have tried to journal their observations and discoveries about just a brook, a patch of mountainous land, or a pond. Few such books namely, ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’, ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ based on nature watch were a huge success.

In this book, Dr. David George Haskell, an ecologist at the University of South, observes a one-square-meter patch of forest in Sewanee, Tennessee. He observes this forest, the Mandala, as he calls it many times, for a year and records his observations in the book. He wades through the leaf litter, sifts through the loam, probes edges of rocks and heads of crustaceans through a hand lens, and thus comes up with theories behind each of his observations.

The entire prose of book brings out Haskell’s unassuming wisdom of ecology, his love for aesthetics, and his Zen-like outlook for every natural phenomenon in the Mandala. As he observes interdependencies in natural partnerships of lichen, fungus, and bacteria; functioning of xylem and phloem; life cycle of spring ephemerals, mosquito and salamanders; and dispersal of seeds, he also brings up the little-known work of Johannes Kepler about the size of snowflakes and how plants were named according to their utility in ‘Doctrine of Signatures’.  

 “In the morning, the chickadee population in the forest will be better matched to winter’s demand. This is natural selection’s paradox: from death comes life’s increasing perfection”, Haskell says while commenting on the avian way of adapting to cold as compared to humans. 

Plot of the book

Unlike a biologist, Haskell’s adroit distillation of observations is not a result of a systematic scientific research. He doesn’t conduct any scientific experiment while he observes the Mandala twice or thrice in a month. He just sits meditatively on a rock and observes movements of a flower or a creature mindfully like a Tibetan monk. His book is deeply inspired by works of William Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist, and his wife Sarah Vance. While the former have inspired authors of renowned books, ‘The Selfish Genes’ and ‘Sociobiology’, the latter is an eminent naturalist who has emphatic eyes for nature.

The book begins with a frosty and moist day of January at the Mandala. To me, this was the best chapter, as Haskell skilfully explains nature of the union of a fungus and an alga or a bacterium to form lichen. Further, he explains the reason behind the longevity of lichens. It is due to this successful union of an algal and a fungal partner where algal partner loses it cell-wall, merges its cell-organelles with fungi, and gives up sexual activities for a faster self-cloning. The complexity of this relationship further increases as it is hard to draw a line between oppressor and oppressed.

This chapter is replete with instances of strange interdependencies which led to the evolution of prokaryotic bacteria into a specialised and significant cell organelle. Here, I discovered that chloroplasts and mitochondria still have their own genetic material because these were descendants of some bacteria half billion years ago. These bacterial tenants traded their cell-wall, sexual activities and freedom for this evolutionally beneficial relationship. 

The author has done a comprehensive literature research for this book as he has done in the Mandala since the bibliography of this book is a lengthy chapter-wise series of several renowned publications in the field of ecology, botany, zoology, taxonomy, eugenics, and economic botany. But, the lyricism of the prose while he explains the equation of conflict and cooperation intricately in above-mentioned relationships will make every reader wish that they were students of his class at the University of South.

“Although our genes function as one unit, they come with two or more subtly different writing styles, vestiges of the different species that united billions of years ago. The ‘tree’ of life is a poor metaphor. The deepest parts of our genealogies resemble networks or deltas, with much interweaving and cross-flow”, resolves Haskell.    

As you flip through the pages of this book further, seasons transition from frosty winters to fecund spring. The author too progresses through the seamless explanation of the adaptation plants towards winter chill, dispersal of seeds by herbivorous mammals, the complexity of rumen ecosystem, and the reason behind profuse and ageless flowering of spring ephemerals. Then, he harnesses principles of evolution to explain the passage of these angiosperms through the wrath of the ice-age. While deer helped them to disperse their seeds at long distances, ants helped them to flourish rapidly by planting seeds nearby. “Evolution commands not just multiply, but go forth and multiply”, writes the author.   

While the early summer succeeds spring, the pace of life quickens among the plants in the Mandala. The author then explains eloquently the functioning of xylem which is the vital connection between the soil’s water, trunk, and sunlight. As the water evaporates constantly from the stomata, the tiny breathing pores of the leaves, it increases the surface tension of remaining water particularly in the narrow gaps between the cells. This pull is further transferred to veins of the leaves, then to water-conducting cells in the tree trunk, and finally to roots. This description of transpiration, the efficient system of moving gallons of water silently and effortlessly through the tree trunk is another favourite part of the book for me.   

In the chapter Herbivory, Haskell’s acuity of observation is apparent where he explains how herbivorous insects and caterpillars tap the phloem sap rich in sugars and proliferate. While the Mandala contains insects to steal every part of a plant such as leaves, pollen, flowers etc, the population of plants is least affected by the enormity in the number of herbivores because of their toxic biochemistry. “The biochemical swordplay between plants and their herbivores has created a tense stalemate in the Mandala. Neither side has yet routed the other”, he writes.

Through the erudite prose, the author elaborates the interrelatedness of each organism of the Mandala such as the female Culex which when feeds on his blood gets a proteinaceous boost. His blood further will end up in the eggs of the mosquito and then to the body of aquatic larvae. Similarly, a snail’s shell when swallowed by a bird dissolves in the bloodstream of the bird and makes the shell of the bird’s egg. He thereafter utilizes history and biology to observe the reproductive activities of wasps. When they lay their eggs in caterpillars, the larvae eat their hosts from inside out after hatching. This appeared to Darwin as the ‘problem of evil’ and led him to skeptical agnosticism. 

Towards the end of the book, the author appears more like a Zen monk then a hypothesis-driven scientist. He feels tranquilized while he observes four gray squirrels playing. He discovers in this moment the true joy that he rarely found in academic papers about animals and ecology. He then argues that science can deepen our intimacy with the world only when it is done properly. He says, “But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s working becomes clever graphs.” 

As Haskell leaves the Mandala, he develops the heightened awareness about his ignorance. He also felt overjoyed by the interdependence of several lives in the forest. The book not only describes the enormity of parallel worlds running with us but also teaches us about the insignificance of our species in the world. According to him, human beings have the least role to play if the world was a Mandala. Like a Zen monk, he further adds, “Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.” 

Candid Moments