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The Forest Unseen is, at first glance, a painstaking scientific exploration into the lives of organisms inhabiting a one-meter circle of rocky, old-growth forest floor – but that is just the beginning. David George Haskell’s lyrical prose brings his tiny subjects to life, and the deceptively spare starting point diverges into wide-ranging reflections that embrace the complexity and connectedness of all life. Along the way he weaves rich tapestries of associations that span history, philosophy, science, and folklore. The book informs, entertains, and sets the mind spinning.
Haskell has a gift for translating the complexity of biological systems into language that eschews mind numbing scientific jargon. Instead, he paints colorful pictures, encapsulating concepts in a way that is memorable and compelling. For instance, in what could be a rather technical passage on how the cells of trees survive winter freezes by amassing sugar, he vividly describes how, “When temperatures are very low, cells pucker into balls of syrup, unfrozen repositories of life, surrounded by shards of ice.”
Haskell’s observations of the miniscule are the jumping off points for stories that meander in surprising directions. For instance, a moth lapping the author’s skin with its proboscis opens the door to revelations on salt in forest ecosystems and how human sweat is made. Sometimes these explorations serve as a mirror that illuminates the idea that, fundamentally, we humans are not that different than, say, a patch of lichen living on a rock.
At other times, Haskell’s forest observations lead a reader to probe their assumptions. He evokes a time when large herbivores roamed every corner of North America, then challenges the idea that deer – the only large herbivore we have left – are over-abundant today. Likewise, our belief that “primitive” or lesser creatures lack any capacity for complex behavior or awareness is scrutinized. His description of moss alone turns the notion of higher and lower plants on its head.
Occasionally, somber issues emerge, such as humanity’s relationship to forests and the greater environment, as illuminated by the clear-cuts and herbicides used to convert biodiverse forests into tree plantations near Haskell’s Tennessee home.
Some of Haskell’s musings are subtly provocative, such as his seemingly innocent postscript to a passage on the violent, subterranean life of shrews. He remarks that the common ancestor to all mammals was shrew-like and slyly plants the idea that we’re not so far removed from these “shrill and vicious ancestors” and their “caffeinated lives” as we might like to think. It is these small yet potent revelations that make the reader race to the next page.
It would be contrary to the essence of this book to derive any unified hypothesis of life, or grand conclusion, from Haskell’s contemplations. He realizes that even understanding the “millions of parallel worlds” that exist in one small circle of forest surpasses human ability. The ultimate insight from this book (a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Price in general nonfiction, and winner of many other prestigious literary awards) may be that by observing the world with an attentive and open mind we might more clearly see ourselves, and our place in the ecological and evolutionary scheme of things.