“The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” by D G Haskell – new environmental classic?

Is there a name for the genre of books based on deciding to do something every day for a year? Like Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell… Could we call this the “journal format”? Sometimes it’s clever, but sometimes I think the author didn’t want to make the effort of choosing a structure. I’ll give Haskell the benefit of the doubt, and say it makes sense to organize a nature book by the cycle of seasons.

Haskell decided to visit a very small, defined forest site regularly for a year. He frames this as a form of meditation and begins with a discussion of the mandala, a Hindu/Buddhist symbol representing the universe. A mandala is highly geometric and regular. Sometimes it is intentionally destroyed after a period of contemplation.

Haskell’s little patch of woods was anything but geometrical. He had access to a bit of publicly owned, old growth forest in Tennessee. Few readers would be able to find such a place. Haskell writes about what he sees and how he feels. In an extreme attempt at “participatory observation”, he sheds his clothing to experience the extreme cold of winter. I think he was surprised at how fast hypothermia set in.

So what do we learn from Haskell? He wrote three or four entries per month, discussing the plants and animals and their relationships to the larger world. It’s entertaining, but, finally, faced with a November chapter entitled “Twigs”, I gave up. I skipped to the epilogue, where he expresses his opinion that ours is a good time for naturalists, supported as they are by technology and (sometimes) public interest.

Is this book a classic? Probably not. I liked Crow Planet (L L Haupt, see my entry dated June 7, 2013) better. The city dwelling Haupt decided to take binoculars with her everywhere, in order not to miss the wildlife that is, in fact, all over the cityscape. Many of us could emulate this! I would recommend it more strongly than Haskell’s approach.

Haskell is a good read for a temperate zone nature lover who wants to brush up on forest ecology. His bibliography would support anyone who wishes to study more deeply. 

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