The Forest Unseen

I just finished reading David George Haskell's The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature, which provides many fascinating insights on natural history in carefully crafted prose. Here are a few tidbits:

[Lichens] cover nearly ten percent of the land's surface, especially in the treeless far north, where winter reigns for most of the year.

When laughing children chase after fireflies, they are not pursuing beetles but catching wonder.

Eft is the Old English name for newt, and this archaic label is retained to distinguish the immature terrestrial life stage from the sexually mature aquatic stage. Egg, larva, eft, adult; a succession that sends us to the basement of our language to rummage for words.

Organic chemists confirm the experience of our taste buds. The world is a bitter place, full of deterrents, digestive disrupters, and poisons. Hawks know this also, using fresh greenery to line their nests and drive out fleas and lice. Consider also the New York Times. Insects grown in containers lined with old copies of the paper fail to reach maturity. The quality of the insects' reading material is not the culprit, although insects raised on the London Times mature into adults. The New York Times is printed on paper containing the pulped wood of balsam fir. The fir tree produces a chemical that mimics the hormones of its insect herbivores, thus protecting itself by stunting and neutering its enemies. The London Times is made from trees that lack hormonal defenses, making the pulped flattened remnants of their bodies safe to use as bedding for laboratory insects.

I thought this passage, from the epilogue, was particularly relevant to the iNaturalist project:

It is commonplace for contemporary naturalists to deplore our culture’s increasing disconnection from the natural world. I can sympathize with this complaint, at least in part. When asked to identify twenty corporate logos and twenty common species from our region, my first-year students can consistently name most of the corporate symbols and almost none of the species. The same would be true for most people in our culture.


But ours is not a new lament. Carl Linnaeus, one of the founders of modern ecology and taxonomy, wrote of the botanical abilities of his eighteenth-century compatriots, “few eyes see, and few minds understand. Through this want of observation and knowledge the world suffers immense loss.” Much later, Aldo Leopold, reflecting on the state of the world in the 1940s, wrote, “Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it... Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic area,’ he is bored stiff.” It seems that skilled naturalists have always felt that their culture was perilously close to losing its last scrap of connection to the land.


Both men’s words resonate with me, but I also feel that in some ways we now live in a better time for naturalists. Interest in the community of life is more widespread and vigorous than it has been for decades, perhaps centuries. Concern for the fate of ecosystems is part of our national and international political discourse. In less than a human lifetime, the fields of environmental activism, education, and science have grown from insignificance to prominence, and the question of how to heal our disconnection from nature has become a popular topic for educational reformers. All this interest is, perhaps, something new and encouraging. In Linnaeus’s and Leopold’s days, neither the popular imagination nor the government was much concerned with the ecology of other species. Of course, our modern interest is necessitated, in part, by the ecological mess that our forebears’ insouciance bequeathed us, but I think it is also motivated by genuine interest in other forms of life and concern for their well-being.


Our modern world offers the naturalist many distractions and barriers, but it also provides a spectacular range of helpful tools. If Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century author of the classic Natural History of Selborne, had owned a library of accurate field guides, a computer with access to flower photographs and frog songs, and a database of the latest scientific papers, his close observations of nature could have been enriched, lessening his intellectual loneliness and giving him deeper ecological understanding. He could also, of course, have squandered his curiosity in synthetic worlds online, but the point here is that for those with an interest in natural history, we now have vastly more help available to us than at any other time.

Visiting the library recently to borrow a copy of Haskell's book on the recommendation of several friends but with an imprecise recollection the title, I returned home instead with John R. Luoma's The Hidden Forest: The Biography of an Ecosystem, and was halfway through it before I realized my mistake. I was not disappointed though--a little extra knowledge never hurt, and Luoma's portrait of old-growth ecosystems on the west coast was a perfect complement to Haskell's portrait of an old-growth remnant in Tennessee.

Posted by eraskin eraskin, July 13, 2014 13:35

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Sorry that some of the block quote text is so small. Not sure what's up with that, or how to make it bigger (and consistent).

Posted by eraskin over 7 years ago (Flag)

K, I think I fixed the formatting. And great post! I also kind of wonder sometimes about the assumption that we've somehow lost our ecoliteracy as a society. Smacks of kneejerk ecopessimism if you ask me, and I'm an arch-pessimist.

Posted by kueda over 7 years ago (Flag)

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