David George Haskell, the author of The Forest Unseen, is a professor of biology at University of the South in southeastern Tennessee. (1) He chose a circle of old-growth forest near his home, about a meter in diameter, to observe for a year. He chose that spot at random because there was a suitable rock close by on which he could sit to smell, listen, and watch the forest. He called this spot his forest mandala.
“Mandala” means “circle” in Sanskrit. It is a spiritual and ritual symbol representing the universe. It is often used as a method of meditation by Buddhist monks who sit for many hours creating a painting of a mandala, using colored chalk that is destroyed upon completion. The mandala is therefore also a symbol of the ephemeral quality of life and an apt metaphor for the ever-changing forest that is teeming with life.
In 43 short chapters, Haskell shares his observations with us. Sometimes he sits back and observes the big picture: the sound of the birds, the rustle of the wind, and the smell of blooming or decomposing vegetation. Sometimes he lays on his belly with magnifying lens in hand and observes the activities of the smallest insects. He seeks the answer to this question, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” This reader believes Haskell has succeeded in finding the universal truths of the forest in the microcosm of his forest mandala.
There is a multitude of fascinating biological, evolutionary, and ecological stories in Haskell’s book that defy summary, so I have selected one episode that seems most fitting to the mission of Million Trees. Also, we must let Haskell speak for himself because his writing is more eloquent than ours.
“To love nature and to hate humanity is illogical”
One hot day in August, Haskell is startled by the bright white of a golf ball in his forest mandala. His mandala is located below a bluff on which there is a golf course, so golf balls are not surprising here. Still they are unsettling and they present a dilemma:
“…should I remove the balls or leave them nestled in place? Removing them would break my rule about not meddling in the mandala. But taking them away would restore the mandala to a more natural state and might make room for another wildflower or fern. Discarded golf balls have nothing to contribute to the mandala. They don’t decompose and release their nutrients. They don’t become another species’ habitat. The grand cycle of energy and matter seems to halt when it reaches a dumped golf ball.
“My first impulse, therefore, is to restore the mandala to ‘purity’ by removing the plastic balls. But this impulse is problematic for two reasons. First, removing the balls will not cleanse the mandala of industrial detritus. Acidity, sulfur, mercury, and organic pollutants rain in continually. Every creature in the mandala carries in its body a sprinkling of alien molecular golf balls. My own presence here has undoubtedly added strands of worn clothing fiber, alien bacteria, and exhaled foreign molecules. Even the genetic code of the mandala’s inhabitants is stamped by industry. Flying insects, in particular those whose ancestors have come near humans, carry resistance genes for many pesticides. Removing golf balls would merely tidy up the most visually obvious of these human artifacts, preserving an illusion of the forest’s ‘pristine’ separation from humanity.
“The impulse to purify might fail on a second, deeper level. Human artifacts are not stains imposed on nature. Such a view drives a wedge between humanity and the rest of the community of life. A golf ball is the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate. This primate loves to invent games to test its physical and mental skill. Generally, these games are played on carefully reconstructed replicas of the savanna from which the ape came and for which its subconscious still hankers. The clever primate belongs in this world. Maybe the primate’s productions do also.
“As these able apes get better at controlling their world, they produce some unintended side effects, including strange new chemicals, some of which are poisonous to the rest of life. Most apes have little idea of these ill effects. However, the better-informed ones don’t like to be reminded of their species’ impact on the rest of the world, especially in places that don’t yet seem to be overly damaged. I am such an ape. Therefore, when a golf ball in the woods strikes my eyes, my mind condemns the ball, the golf course, the golfers, and the culture that spawned them all.
“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.
“Therefore, I resolve to leave the golf balls in the mandala. I’ll continue removing strange plastic objects from the rest of the forest, but not from here. There is value in keeping a patina of ‘naturalness’ along hiking trails and in gardens. Our harried eyes need a visual break from the productions of industry. Keeping the woods trash-free is a symbol of our desire to be more careful members of life’s community. But there is also value in the discipline of participating in a world as it is, discarded golf balls and all.”
A new “restoration” ethic
We hope this episode in The Forest Unseen resonates with you as it did with us. There is a generosity of spirit in it that we believe should inspire ecological restorations. It is an ethic that is inclusive and respects the role of humans in nature. We believe that ecological restorations based on this viewpoint would be less destructive and more constructive. We would feel more welcome in restorations that reflect this viewpoint than the projects in which we only feel a sense of loss.
(1) David George Haskell, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, Penguin Books, 2012
6 thoughts on ““The Forest Unseen””
I don’t usually read nonfiction, but this article has convinced me that I must read this book.
You won’t be disappointed.
For me “…participating in a world as it is…” really hits the nail on the head. Why on earth would we do otherwise? Great insight into the human/nature split that drives nativist ideology.
This is a nuanced and insightful viewpoint that expands and challenges my knee jerk reaction that it’s always best to clear out the “trash.” Not always, as he says, and it depends what we lose by superimposing pristinity as the template.
I do take the golf balls and other trash out of my forest but only because they are the calling cards of trespassers who in the recent past have cut almost 3/4’s of an acre of my trees.
Seems appropriate to me.