When the world was too much with them, the Romantic poets turned to nature. Same with me. While House Republicans were shutting down the government and threatening, two weeks from now, to default on the country’s debts, I was hosting Sewanee biologist David Haskell. David was at St. Mary’s to read from The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, and as we walked around the St. Mary’s campus, he helped me see it through a biologist’s eyes.
On the back of the hardcover edition, Harvard’s famous etymologist E. O. Wilson writes that “Haskell leads the reader into a new genre of nature writing, located between science and poetry.” The poetry of David’s book is what I most appreciate about it.
His project was to observe, for a year, a square meter of old growth forest floor on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. As he writes in his book, David wanted to observe his “mandala” without preconceptions, at least to the extent that it was possible to do so:
This year I have tried to put down scientific tools and to listen: to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, without a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes.
Note, incidentally, how David’s declaration of intent echoes Thoreau:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
David’s talk was part of our creative writing series, and my poet colleague Karen Anderson, who organizes the readings, thanked him profusely afterwards for inspiring her creative writing students to do the same. Whether one looks at a tree with the eyes of a scientist, a poet, or a poet-scientist, new insights emerge.
This confirmed for me that the work of poets and scientists overlaps more than we might think. In addition to his many poetic allusions, which I have shared in two previous posts on Forest Unseen (here and here), David also emphasizes how important stories are to scientists, and how important empathy is as well. In his book he recounts one observation that led him to challenge certain stereotypes about science. The observation arose from watching a group of squirrels loafing in the upper branches of a nearby shagbark hickory:
I watch them for an hour, and mostly they loll in the sun, limbs sprawled. They seem companionable, sporadically nibbling the fur on one another’s hind legs or tails. Occasionally one will break from sunbathing and chew the fungus-encrusted dead branches, then return to sit silently with the other squirrels.
David goes on to observe:
Wild animals enjoying one another and taking pleasure in their world is so immediate and so real, yet this reality is utterly absent from textbooks and academic papers about animals and ecology.
This in turn leads to an insight that most poets would agree with:
This insight is not that science is wrong or bad. On the contrary, science, done well, deepens our intimacy with the world. 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 workings become clever graphs. Today’s conviviality of squirrels seems a refutation of such narrowness. Nature is not a machine. These animals feel. They are alive; they are our cousins, with the shared experience that kinship implies.
David’s book continually surprises. For instance, while he of course is worried about the adverse impact that humans have on the environment, he warns against the anti-human bias that some environmentalists have. I noted this in my introduction to David’s reading, citing a passage from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” before turning to a contrasting quotation from The Forest Unseen.
First, here’s Byron preferring nature to humans:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more…
David, by contrast, rejects such valuations in a chapter written on finding a golf ball in his mandala. He chooses to leave it there to remind himself how humans are continually interacting with nature and then writes the following:
But, to love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole. To truly love the world is also to love human ingenuity and playfulness. Nature does not need to be cleansed of human artifacts to be beautiful or coherent. Yes, we should be less greedy, untidy, wasteful, and shortsighted. But let us not turn responsibility into self-hatred. Our biggest failing is, after all, lack of compassion for the world. Including ourselves.
His book and his talk were filled with just this combination of playfulness and earnestness. My students were enchanted.