In his Becoming Wild, Carl Safina remarked, “How long and rich a morning can be if you bring yourself fully to it. Come to a decent place. Bring nothing to tempt your attention away. Immerse in the timelessness of reality. Attention paid is repaid with interest.” The Forest Unseen proves how accurate Safina truly was. It’s the diary of a biologist who chose a square meter of wilderness in the Tennessee hills, and sat for an hour or more each day, over the course of a year — and reflecting on what this square meter had to teach. Each day’s meditation brings to the reader fresh and varied explorations into the goings-on of the natural world: a consideration of the symbiotic relationship expressed by lichen, for instance, themselves a joint creation between bacteria & fungi, the study of flower reproduction or an examination of ant politics. The story delivered is one of gradual progress and constant change, as Haskell watches the ground dance with the seasons. Although the bulk of the work is solidly in the area of biology or ecology, the writing is more florid than technical, and contains many beautiful passages. This title should be of great interest to anyone who enjoys nature writing.
“To love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole. To truly love the world is also to love human ingenuity and playfulness. Nature does not need to be cleansed of human artifacts to be beautiful or coherent. Yes, we should be less greedy, untidy, wasteful, and shortsighted. But let us not turn responsibility into self-hatred. Our biggest failing is, after all, the lack of compassion for the world. Including ourselves.”
“The unique flashing sequence of each [firefly] species usually keeps males and females of different species apart. Just as we have no interest in the sexual signals of gorillas, fireflies ignore flashes from species other than their own. But Photuris females mimic the answering signals of other species, drawing in hopeful but hapless females, and then seizing and devouring them.”
“At least half a tree’s contribution to the fabric of life comes after its death, so one measure of the vitality of a forest ecosystem is the density of tree carcasses. You’re in a great forest if you cannot pick out a straight-line path through fallen limbs and trunks. A bare forest floor is a sign of ill health.”
“The earth’s slow movements seem to exist in another realm, separated from life by a wide chasms of time and physical scale. This is challenge enough for our minds. But the most unfathomable truth about the chasm is that there is a thread across, a thin connection from life’s moment-by-moment to the next impossible longevity of stone. This thread is woven by life’s persistent fecundity. Tiny strands of heredity join mother to child and combine to stretch back billions of years. The strands spool year by year, sometimes branching into new lines, sometimes ending forever. So far, diversification within the thread has kept pace with extinction, and the mortal biological fleas on the immortal stony gods have brought a contingent immortality of their own. But every strand in the rope is a race between procreation and death. Life’s generative force has been strong enough to win this race year by year for millennia, but final victory is never guaranteed.”