David George Haskell: The Forest Unseen

February 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Forest Unseen Cover9780143122944 – Penguin – paperback – $16.00 (ebook versions available, hardcover also)

Most of us are not very good at seeing the details in the world that surrounds us.  We’re in a hurry, we’re overloaded with information, and we don’t really have the patience for the kind of looking that it takes to absorb and think about that kind of information.

The brilliant geographer, Carl Ortwin Sauer observed this about naturalists:
“Much of what [they] identify and compare lies outside of quantitative analysis. Species are not recognized by measurements but by the judgment of those well experienced in their significant differences. An innate aptitude to register on differences and similarities is joined to a ready curiosity and reflection on the meaning of likeness and unlikeness. There is, I am confident, such a thing as the “morphologic eye,” a spontaneous and critical attention to form and pattern. Every good naturalist has it…”

This is a fairly apt description of the work that naturalist David George Haskell undertook before writing The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  And what a beautiful book it is!

Haskell is a biologist at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  He located a small piece of old growth forest nearby (old growth forest typically still exists in relatively tiny pockets in places where the terrain was too difficult for loggers to get into).  With a certain nod to Buddhism, Haskell found a one meter by one meter square piece of forest he termed his mandala, and committed to spending a full year in close observation of this tiny sampling of an original and relatively undisturbed ecosystem.

Over the course of that year, he intrepidly sat and watched, and sometimes closely examined with a magnifying glass, what happened in his square meter of land.  Each time he visited what ultimately became his meditation place, he recorded what he saw, and then researched and wrote about what had happened during that day.  Of course this sounds mundane and almost plodding.  And in lesser hands, this would just be a perhaps valiant exercise in close observation,.  But it’s in the writing and the meditative exploration that Haskell was able to transform his seen experience into magical prose explorations of nature and what it means to us.

Finding a tick on him leads to a discourse on the life cycle of the tick that is worth re-reading several times.  Hearing a chickadee in winter leads him to write about the amazing ways that these little birds survive the winter.  Finding a golf ball in his sacred space (this may be a piece of wilderness but it’s boundaries by a nearby golf course) provides Haskell with the opportunity to explore the meaning of what is the definition of “natural” and the relationship of humans to nature.

David Haskell writes beautifully about nature, but as well, writes brilliantly about the ideas that closely examining the natural world inspire in an intelligent and perceptive human being.  You can read this beautiful book simply to learn a great deal about a wide range of creatures and plants that we often take for granted, how an ecosystem works across time and changing seasons, and how in fact any of us could learn more by close observation.  You can also read this book simply for the sheer beauty of the writing, and the brilliance of its descriptive passages.  Haskell has extended beyond scientific or nature writing with a poetic and spiritual grace and the power of contemplative thought to create something very special and uniquely his own.

This is a book I have been buying frequently to give to friends and family (I am related to two active biologists), and recommend to everyone as one of my favorites.  It was a great pleasure to talk to David Haskell about his work.  I’ve been enjoying reading his blog, called Ramble, now on a regular basis, it’s a wonderful journey for anyone interested in the natural world and how to see it clearly.

Haskell holds degrees from the University of Oxford  (B.A. in Zoology) and from Cornell University (Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). He is Professor of Biology at the University of the South, where he has served both as Chair of Biology and as an Environmental Fellow with the Associated Colleges of the South. He is a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and was granted Elective Membership in the American Ornithologists’ Union in recognition of “significant contributions to ornithology.” He served on the board of the South Cumberland Regional Land Trust, where he initiated and led the campaign to purchase and protect a portion of Shakerag Hollow, where the The Forest Unseen is set, a forest that E. O. Wilson has called a “cathedral of nature.”  David Haskell lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he and his wife, Sarah Vance, run a micro-farm (with goat milk soaps available for purchase at Cudzoo Farm’s pretty cool website).DavidGeorgeHaskell

Note to listeners – I read this book in its lovely Viking hardcover edition, this interview is being posted in February, 2012; as of the end of March 2012, the paperback edition will be available.  The cover here is of the hardcover edition.

David M. Carroll: Following the Water

February 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

followingthewater1978-0547069647 – Hardcover – Harcourt Houghton Mifflin – $24.00

David M. Carroll has been “following the water” for almost his entire life.  He grew up in Connecticut, then lived in Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire to find places less disturbed by humans, where he could study turtles and their woodland, waterine habitats.  Which he has done now for many years.  Following the Water is subtitled “A Hydromancer’s Notebook; a hydromancer would be one who divines by the motions or appearance of water, which is certainly descriptive of what David Carroll does in his life and in this book, a poetic journal of a year of divining the natural world by close observation of it.

Most of us spend far too little time in nature, and many of those who do “use” the natural world for entertainment or work in a way that would be difficult to distinguish from how they treat the non-natural world.  What is so beautiful about Carroll’s work and his writing about it, is the depth of his observation, and his literal being in place.  Reading his elegiac descriptions of the watery environments of New England transported me to an almost metaphysical trance-like state of mind where I could imagine myself inhabiting the outside space in which he spends so much of his time.

Of course there is a terrible sadness in this book, as Carroll experiences the changes in the places he has known so well and so long, always brought on by the effects of constantly encroaching human development.  He knows the turtles and their environments will soon be threatened and knows there is almost nothing that can be done to protect them.  This is a feeling that many who work in and strive to protect our remaining wild places share, an ever present sense of desperation, as we near the tipping point of urban and suburbanization.

Carroll writes beautifully, and his drawings are exquisite.  Reading this book made me wonder how I had managed to miss reading his earlier books, and has spurred me to go out and get them all.  Here’s a perfect example of the quiet power of his prose:

“As daylight diminishes, the peep-frog chorus intensifies in the backwaters of a fen a quarter mile away. With raucous clamor and a rushing wind of wings beats a flurry of grackles lifts off from the topmost canopy of the red maple swamp. In the quieting that follows, I hear again the drift of evensong from their red-winged cousins on the far side of the wetland mosaic. The season, like the water glimmering all around, extends before me.”

David Carroll is as enjoyable to hear talking as his writing is to read.  Interviewing him was a pleasure, tinged with a shared sense of dismay about what has happened to our shared New England natural environment.  Both this book and this talk are among my favorites, and I hope listeners will agree.

Galen Rowell and Peter Beren: California the Beautiful

October 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

9781599620749978-1599620749 – Hardcover – Welcome Books – $19.95

Galen Rowell was an incredible photographer, documenting and interpreting nature all over the world.  He was an accomplished mountain climber, so he was able to reach places that most other photographers could never go.  He died tragically and far too early in an airplane crash in 2002.  I’ve been familiar with his work through many books, calendars and exhibitions, but really did not know a great deal about him.  Peter Beren, who I have known through the book business, has authored and edited numerous books, including The Writer’s Companion, Vintage San Francisco, and Hidden Napa Valley. He was the publisher of Sierra Club Books and founding publisher of VIA Books, and now lives and works independently in San Francisco.

California the Beautiful is both a photography book and a literary meditation on California as a place of transcendent beauty.  The geography of California has engendered some of the great nature writing of our time, and much of that work is featured here.  Peter talked at length about the genesis of this project, his work with Galen Rowell, the way Rowell worked and Peter also read some of the wonderful selections of writings that are included in this book.

California the Beautiful is both a portrait of the state’s diverse natural beauty and, through the incredible voices of its writers, a testament to the ever-renewing spirit that it has come to embody. Aldous Huxley, British author turned Hollywood resident, described the California dream as “this great crystal of light, whose base is as large as Europe and whose height for all practical purposes, is infinite.”

Among the other authors offering praise are Maya Angelou, Mary Austin, Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, Gretel Ehrlich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, M.F.K Fisher, Robertson Jeffers, Jack Kerouac, Clarence King, Jack London, Henry Miller, John Muir, William Saroyan, April Smith, John Steinbeck, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Nathanael West, and Walt Whitman.

This is a beautiful book that inspires an almost altered state in the reader, as the saturated colors move from eye to brain.  But the photos and the writing made me want to get in my car and drive straight west to see some of the places there that absolutely must be experience first hand by every American.

An excerpt of California the Beautiful is available at www.chptr1.com.