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  • The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell
  • David M. Cochran Jr.
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
David George Haskell. Penguin, New York. 2012. xiv–270 pp. Index. $16.00 paperback. (ISBN 978-0-14-312294-4).

The mandala, a Sanskrit word for which one translation is community, is a sacred Buddhist symbol of the universe. Tibetan Buddhist monks use different colored sands to create ephemeral representations of mandalas, about one meter in size, only to sweep their work away upon completion. In The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David Haskell uses the mandala as a metaphor to document his observations while visiting a one-meter patch of old-growth forest in the Cumberland Plateau of southeastern Tennessee. Organized chronologically in 43 narrative essays that bear their calendrical dates as titles, The Forest Unseen takes the reader through a year in the life of the forest mandala. A single photograph adorns the front cover of the book, showing Haskell lying in the underbrush, magnifying glass in hand. No other figures are present, but Haskell’s narratives are rich with imagery and beautifully written, and they collectively paint a nuanced portrait of the tiny patch of forest that forms the center of this book.

One of the most important themes in The Forest Unseen is change. Many of Haskell’s essays read as moments in time in which he reveals myriad transformations occurring in the mandala. From its tiniest, most fleeting organisms to the massive sandstone boulders that surround it, the mandala is indeed undergoing constant change. The most notable of changes, at least in terms of human perception, are those that accompany the progression of seasons over the year. Taken as a whole, this collection of essays tells the story of life awakening at the beginning of the year, building to a crescendo over the growing season, and then falling back into dormancy at the end of the year. The passing of the seasons gives rise to many events that are themselves symbols of cyclical time. In his descriptions of the seasonal migrations of birds or the monsoonal tropical systems that come from the Gulf of Mexico in summer, Haskell helps the reader understand the broader significance of these phenomena while also pointing out their connectedness to the forest mandala.

Haskell also documents changes that occur over much longer spans of time. His discovery of the hoof print of a deer one spring morning leads him to consider the role of herbivores in mid-latitude forests. Deer and other herbivores can digest plant cellulose because of the microorganisms [End Page 134] that live in their digestive tract. These microbes, which are descendants of the first organisms that evolved on Earth, have coexisted with herbivores for hundreds of millions of years to the mutual benefit of both guest and host. In a similar way, forests and herbivores have coexisted over long spans of time. However beneficial, such relationships are not stable. The hoof prints of a deer remind us that this common inhabitant of North American forests is an important agent of change in its own right.

Another pervasive theme in The Forest Unseen is complexity. Many of Haskell’s essays begin with a description of a single observation: brilliant green lichen amidst the dead or dormant vegetation in winter; the incongruous sound of a chainsaw felling a tree not far from the mandala; weeks of relentless rain in high summer; or the appearance of a sharp-shinned hawk flying silently overhead. Haskell builds upon these and many other observations in his essays and uses them as platforms to rhapsodize on a multitude of topics that touch upon the natural sciences and humanities. One memorable example includes an explanation of how some plants survive winter frosts by allowing their surfaces to freeze, thereby benefiting from the latent heat of ice, while saturating their interior tissues with sugars to lower their freezing point. Another example is a poignant account of the challenges faced by chickadees living year-round in the mandala. Given their tiny size and high metabolism, chickadees are at a great disadvantage during winter, but their...


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