Interviewer: David Haskell lives in Suwanee, he's a contemplative scientist. He's just written a beautiful book of essays called The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature.
David Haskell: I chose the square meter by walking through the woods until I found a rock on which I thought I could sit comfortably for a year, and the area in front of that rock became the focal area for the observation. It was a place I'd never seen before. I had no idea of its potential as a place for salamanders or wildflowers or anything else.
Interviewer: This one square meter of force you call it a Mandala, why?
David: A mandala in Tibetan Buddhism is a representation of the entire universe. Usually, this is made by monks from colored sand. I took that as the guiding metaphor for this book and regarded my one square meter as a forest mandala. One of the purposes of them both is to focus the attention through repeated acts of the well-returning attention to one small area and thereby see the whole world.
January 17th, ankle-deep snow has smoothed the forest into a gentle swell and trough. I brushed the snow from my rock. The sun emerges and snow transforms from a soft layer of white into thousands of sharp bright points of light. I hook a fingertip of this glittering jumble. Seen closely, the snow is a tangle of mirrored stars. Each flake revealing perfectly symmetrical arms, needles, and hexagons. Hundreds of these exquisite ice flakes crowd onto one fingertip. How is such beauty born?
Interviewer: Tell me about that day when you found the spot. You found a rock you could sit on comfortably, more or less for a year. You saw in front of you a square meter of forest floor. What was there? What did you see that day?
David: The square meter is ringed by a series of tumbled sandstone boulders that have rolled down from the cliff that sits at the top of the mountain slope. Those boulders are covered with dozens of species of lichens and mosses. Then within that circle of rocks is a fairly deep layer of leaf litter with, depending on the season, various creatures scurrying around. I began this observation in the middle of winter, but even then there were quite extraordinary creatures. There was a nematomorph which is also known as a Gordian worm, which is a little parasitic worm lying right at the center of the one square meter. Turns out this worm had escaped from the body of a cricket weeks before and was looking for a mate. On a fairly dull day in January, just by focusing my visual senses on the forest, many different creatures popped into my consciousness.
Interviewer: I'm curious about the acoustic. Obviously, I work in radio, so I care about sounds, but what sounds did you hear, do you hear, in that spot, in your square meter of the world?
David: Expansion of my acoustic sense was one of the more unexpected outcomes of this year's watching in the forest. My PhD thesis was on bioacoustics. I made sound recordings of birds out in the woods and so I'm quite well attuned to soundscapes. Yet, I had not realized until I'd really paid attention, the extent to which all the animals in the forest are listening to one another and are tied together in an acoustic network. It's sort of like Facebook, except run through the animals' ears, and they're always on Facebook.
That realization came to me when I startled a deer. I was sitting so still that the deer walked right up to me and almost collided with me before it ran away, making an alarm, a snorting sound. As it left, I heard the Chipmunks pick up the alarm, and then the squirrels in the trees, and then down the slope, a wood thrush started alarm calling. A wave of alarm spread out through the forest, and it took an hour for that wave to die down.
Interviewer: The other thing about what you just said is how still you managed to be in the neighborhood of your little piece of land because there's another section talking about a moth landing on your arm, I think.
David: Yes. Being quiet is a key that will unlock a lot of the observations out in nature. It's not just naturalist, it's not just me who found this out. Hunters know this. People who've gone out over hundreds of years, thousands of years to try and experience nature have found that just shutting up for a little while is a good thing. Part of our inheritance as primates is that we're very loud and noisy. If you've been around wild monkeys in tropical areas, they're always chattering to one another and squabbling. I don't think it's just a product of modernity, I think this is who we are as a species and it does take a deliberate act of the will to quiet that down. Stop jiggling around, stop talking, and just listen for a while. If we do that we can sync into some of these quieter networks and see how the creatures are connected one to another.
April 14th, a moth shuffles its 20 feet over my skin, tasting me with thousands of chemical detectors. Six tongues, every step is a burst of sensation. Walking across a hand or a leaf must be like swimming in wine, mouth open. My vintage meets the moth’s approval so his proboscis unfurls. I feel cool wetness as the moth slaps the tip around. Seeming to search something out, I lean towards my finger, squinting through a handle-lens in time to see the tip worm itself into the groove between two ridges of my fingerprint.
Interviewer: Yes, Wilson says of your book, that it's an example of a new kind of nature writing located between science and poetry. What does it mean to try to bring those two modes of perception together?
David: I was honored that he said such kind things about my work. For me, science and poetry are not different things. Science is an application of the poet's desire to see the world and to revel in that world. I do think that there is a very strong parallel between the written word and how forest ecosystems work. Ecosystems are all built on relationships. For me, the miracle of the written word is that it connects our consciousness’s up. When you read something I've written and when I read something someone else has written, the deepest part of ourselves, the center of our consciousness is connected to another person's consciousness, and thereby we grow and change. To me, that's a very ecological process. Walking into a bookstore is like walking into a forest. You can hear all these voices coming from different sides, all interacting in complicated and unpredictable ways.
Interviewer: I can see how a scientist reading poetry might change the way you do your science, I guess. It's as though if you can see poetic connections, it might lead you to scientific connections.
David: Absolutely. I think all the best scientists have realized that and whether they regard themselves as poets or read much poetry is beside the point. The key is to see beyond the surface and that's what poetry does, and that's what science does, is push us beyond just the superficial appearance of things. Dive down into the meaning underneath patents that we see either in the world or in language.
Interviewer: You did things in the course of this year of watching this square meter of land that I suspect are not taught in science classes, and I'm not sure it's poetic either. There was a day when you saw a bird. It was 20 below zero and the bird was shivering and I got the impression you decided that you would see what that felt like so you pulled off all your clothes, 20 below zero. That's a crazy thing to do.
David: Well, you could look at that as an artistic installation in the woods, it was a very short-lived one. Yes, my desire was to experience the world as these animals experienced it unmediated by clothes or other technological aids in the forest. It was, it was the coldest day of the year, it was a very cold wind chill coming through. I just stripped off in the woods and lasted about a minute. Then I was shivering so bad. In fact, it wasn't just a physiological reaction, it was a psychological reaction. I was deeply alarmed by what was happening to my body. I tried to dress as quickly as I could, my hands are so numb, I could barely hold the clothes or hold the zippers.
Then, to look at the little chickadee that was dancing in the trees above me with new eyes. That is just amazing that this little bird that weighs just as much as three pennies can live through this cold day after day after day with no supermarket, no furnace in the home, and so on, and I can last a minute. How do they do that?
Interviewer: It really brought to life for me, the energy involved in what the chickadee needs in order to survive. Something, what did you say 65,000 joules to last--?
David: They need a phenomenal amount of energy intake each day. Each little insect or spider egg that they can find is just a tiny fraction of that. That's why when you walk in the woods, the little chickadees are always active, they are on the edge of survival. In fact, many of them, up to half of them, don't make it through the winter because they haven't managed to find enough insects. That's also why they like bird feeders because a big fat oily sunflower seed is just an amazing gift. We bribe them in, we bribe these little gray flames into our lives with our bird feeders.
Interviewer: This whole year of observation must have been a humbling experience like that, in some ways wasn't it? Your one square meter of forest had so many things you didn't know you must have thought you did when you went in.
David: Like all humbling experiences, yes, you wind up knowing the extent of your limitations. One of the limitations was the extent of my knowledge. I had a strong sense at the end of this year that I had just scratched the surface. There were thousands of creatures here that I would never be able to know or name because nobody has ever studied them and let alone know or name them, but understand how they all interact in the great drama of life. That was part of the limitation, was the limitation of knowledge.
The other was a limitation of my being able to even imagine how these other lives were playing out, for example, for birds. Birds see an extra color that we don't have. We have four primary colors. Excuse me, we have three, they have four, so they have colors that aren't even in the possibility of us being able to place in our minds.
Here I am living in basically a different world, a different sensory world than these creatures. Yet, somehow we're all tied in this physical universe together. That's an interesting tension to me is the separation and the unity that we see in nature, that when I look at a tree or a snail, that's my cousin, literally. We trace our ancestry back and we come to the same family, the same little cell that split into two lineages many billions of years ago. One lineage led to me and one led to that oak tree. To me, that's a remarkable thing. It expands my mind out and realizes that this is one big family.
April 16, Sunrise Birds. A peach stain soaks into the darkness on the eastern horizon, then the whole dome of the sky lightens, leading from darkness to pale luminosity. Two repeated notes ring through the air. The first is clear and high. The second is lower and emphatic. These tufted titmice keep up their rapid two-part rhythm as a Carolina chickadee starts a whistled melody, four notes that fall and rise like a nodding head. The peach spreads up from the horizon and a phoebe calls with a whiskey-and-cigarette-roughened voice rasping out its name, "Phwe-beer." Like a broken bluesman.
Music Lyrics: Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take my sunken eyes and learn to see. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Interviewer: David Haskell is an award-winning Professor of Biology at the University of the South. He lives in Suwanee, Tennessee, where he and his wife also run a homestead, raising goats and selling milk. He's the author of The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch
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